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This past year my wife and I conducted an experiment. We decided to go through the Yellow Pages under "Churches" and visit each one listed in our local phone book. Although we live in a small town, we found representatives of most denominations, as well as several unaffiliated churches—a total of 24 congregations if you leave out fringe groups like Jehovah's Witnesses.

I learned that churches offer wide variety these days. A few still have organs and choirs, whereas most feature worship bands with electric guitars and drum sets. Oddly, a Church of Christ that forbids musical instruments because they are not mentioned in the New Testament sees no contradiction in projecting hymns on PowerPoint slides. At some churches attendees dress up; at others they wear blue jeans and cowboy boots (I live in Colorado, after all). Churches meet at 7, 9:30, 10:30, and 11 A.M. on Sunday morning, a few meet on Saturday night, and one Lutheran church even meets on Thursday night. Some follow a prescribed liturgy; others apparently make up the order of service on the fly.

With an intuition difficult to explain, I could usually sense the "aliveness" of a congregation within five minutes. Were people conversing in the foyer? Did I hear the sound of laughter? What activities and issues did the bulletin board highlight?

To my surprise, the aliveness factor had little to do with theology. In two of the most conservative churches, members slumped in their seats and glumly went through the motions, even as the pastoral staff conveyed the distinct impression that their primary goal was to get to the benediction. Meanwhile, a liberal church (it had rewritten familiar hymns and even the Lord's Prayer to make them politically correct) showed the most ...

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In the Magazine

November 2008

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