William Reilly was in church quite a bit in the months before finishing seminary and becoming a Baptist pastor earlier this year.
Normally, that wouldn’t be news. But in Reilly’s case it is because he worshiped at up to 30 different churches September to March. And many of them weren’t Baptist churches.
The multi-denominational worship experience resulted as Reilly, 29, neared his May 2019 graduation from Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. Seeing his calendar largely free of Sunday morning obligations for a time, he had an idea.
“I was about to become a pastor and I knew this was an opportunity I am not going to have for a very long time,” he said.
Even a single free Sunday morning is unusual for Reilly, who was raised an avid church-going Baptist in West Texas.
So, he made the most of his time by attending a spectrum of denominations and types of congregations – from tiny to huge, from liturgical to charismatic, among others.
“My mentality on it was I’m in Atlanta, Georgia, which has such a great diversity of churches,” he said.
Reilly is now the pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Georgetown, Kentucky. He spoke with Baptist News Global about the experience and its influence on his ministry. His comments are included here, edited for clarity.
What is the geographical range of the churches you visited?
It was all within metro Atlanta. I visited First Baptist Atlanta, Northpoint (Community Church) in Alpharetta, some churches in Buckhead, First Baptist in Decatur – a lot of churches in the suburbs.
What about the denominational range?
I went to a Catholic church. I went to a lot of different flavors of the Protestant church. I went to a UU (Unitarian Universalist) church and to a whole bunch of ecumenical and non-denominational churches. The PCUSA (Presbyterian Church USA) and Methodist churches. And to a variety of Baptist churches.
Did you ever come away feeling theologically or liturgically envious?
From every single one of them I walked away impressed by something. There was at least one thing each church did very well, and that’s a cool thing. There was a tiny little Presbyterian church plant, with maybe 40 people, that did a sermon followed by a small group element. It was the first time I had ever seen that done well in worship. If I ever try something like that, I am going to remember that model. Some had very impressive hospitality ministries. One church had a very beautifully crafted service – everything flowed together. It was a like a dance you were taking part in. I really appreciated the churches where they put a lot of thought into the visitor experience.
Did you discern an essential Christian unity from your visits?
I did gain a sense that we are all on the same team and that every church does something well. In every church, at some point, I could feel the presence of God. It was just this powerful thing and it didn’t matter how liturgical or how charismatic a church was. I could feel God there and see these people yearning for God.
Did you see churches struggling to attract young adults?
The church where my wife worked had about 85 people and 35 of them were young adults. Young adults tend to stay where they see themselves. This church did not treat them like a commodity. They were on committees and active in worship. No special emphasis was placed on young adults. They just included young adults in every way.
But I saw in a lot of traditional churches that they didn’t have a lot of young adults and there was a big conversation about it. I felt wanted – like I was a prize. It felt like “there he is, he’s young, in his 20s – we need him.” You could feel churches trying too hard.
You mentioned hospitality. What different approaches did you encounter?
I went to 25 to 30 different churches and there were maybe four that did it well. But with the ones that did it well, it was all the simple stuff. Making clear where to park – that’s a big issue in Atlanta. Also making directions clear on their web sites – how do I even get to you? Then, after being able to park, how do I get to the church? Some clear signage is key to good hospitality.
Was there one church that did it best?
The church that did it the best had maybe 150 in worship. They had people at the edge of the parking lot. When I pulled in, they waved so I knew to go that way. One of them asked me if it was my first time and when I said yes, he led me to the door of the church. He handed me off to another person who said “hey, I don’t think I have seen you before,” and they hand me a bulletin and tell me to sit wherever I want. Then another person in the pews said “hey, we haven’t seen you before.” And we chatted. By the time the service started there were like four or five people who had spoken with me.
How did it feel to be a stranger every Sunday?
It was crazy. It was weird. I’m super extraverted, but there was something about walking into a new church that just felt hard and weird. Because churches are families, you just know you are an outsider. That’s why good hospitality matters so much.
Has the experience influenced you as a pastor?
When I started here, and being a new pastor, one of my first questions was: what do other people experience when they are new here? So, during Sunday morning announcements I share where the bathrooms are, where the daycare is and things like that. One of the first things we did was put up interior and exterior signage so people know where to go. Those little intentional things make it more visitor friendly.
Would you recommend others try what you did?
I would be hesitant to do that because the biggest thing I learned was that I ended up hating it. That’s why I stopped in about March or so. It was exciting and fun at first but then I noticed I wasn’t experiencing that intangible sense of the spirit that happens in worship. I was getting that less and less. It wasn’t resonating with me spiritually, as much. The problem wasn’t the churches themselves. It was because I was not worshiping with a sense of community – I wasn’t worshiping with my people. I think there is something powerful about that. Worship had become something I consumed and not something I was filled by. I learned how important it is to worship at the same place.
But I also want to add that it was interesting and I think it can help break you out of your bubble to go to another church once in a while, maybe once a quarter. That’s especially true if you are working in ministry. It can get us to see the body of Christ as a whole, to talk to each other more and to realize we have something in common.