Josh Davis said he and his wife wanted to find a church home but may have found a way for Chattanooga-area churches to look inside themselves in order to act outside themselves.
Married for a little more than six years, the couple have moved nine times. Their most recent move brought them to Chattanooga in October 2010.
"Every time we moved," Davis said, "we were interested in getting involved in a local church, but it was never an easy process. ... We were never successful in getting hooked into a church."
So, as a lark and in order to expedite their search, they decided to visit 50 churches during 2011. Davis has started a blog to document the journey.
"I'm not doing this to further my career aspirations," Davis said. "I just thought it was a cool idea and something to do. My main focus is to glorify God through this whole process."
The result is ChurchSurfer.org, which includes photos and descriptions of his visits.
Along the way, Davis said, the purpose of his project has changed somewhat.
"It's almost morphed into, I think, a way for people to look within local churches and hopefully remove some of the stereotypes or barriers that might have existed there," he said.
"So I think that's become part of my project now - talking about people that I meet within each church," Davis said, "so that Joe Smith out here can say, 'Oh, you know what? Those people aren't so much different than me. They're not very different than the people in my church.'"
Q: What does your ideal church look like?
A: I was looking for a church where I could build real relationships with other people rather than just casual relationships and, hopefully, replace some relationships I had with people who weren't active Christians with people within the church who would build up my life. [I also wanted] to get plugged into community service and church service opportunities. I think the one thing that most churches have a pretty good grip on is teaching the Bible, and you don't want to give that up. I was looking for a church that basically does all of those so that I [would grow] in a good environment.
Q: What are churches missing today?
A: One thing I wanted to make sure I wasn't doing with the blog was being like a restaurant critic where I'm going into a church and writing some critique of how well they do things. That was never my intention, and it never will be. ... One of the main things I think a lot of churches miss is just looking outward. A lot of churches are so focused about what's going on inside their four walls, providing all these great programs and building big buildings and having all this great sound equipment and tweaking their worship music a certain way that they lose focus on looking outward. And maybe when a visitor walks in their door, that person doesn't even get treated like a special guest.
* Age: 34.
* Family: Wife, Laura; daughter, Abigail.
* Education: Bachelor's degree, Middle Tennessee State University.
* Occupation: Project manager, sales and marketing, SRC Technology Solutions.
* Hobbies: Arts and cultural events, movies.
* Church attended the longest: First Baptist Church, Damascus, Va.
* Favorite book: Currently reading "Mere Christianity" by C.S. Lewis.
Q: What are some high points in your search?
A: One of them is New Covenant Fellowship Church [on North Moore Road]. It's a mostly black congregation. They promote the church as multicultural. It turns out it was probably a 90 [percent] to 95 percent black congregation. My wife and I went in, and we were obviously a very small minority in there. But the amount of love and welcome we were shown? We got hugged so many times just from the front door walking into the sanctuary it was ridiculous. ... When we were in the sanctuary, people from the opposite side of the sanctuary would see us and walk all the way across the room to welcome us, give us a hug. They were definitely a hugging bunch. They were all about hugs rather than handshakes, and it was just an awesome experience because I really felt like there wasn't color inside that room. It was just they recognized we were visitors - new people - and they just wanted to make sure we got loved on.
And the other [church] would be Bethel Temple Assemblies of God on Hixson Pike. I went there, and it was just like a family reunion and I was a cousin they hadn't seen in 20 years. Everybody walked up to me and wanted to know who I was, where do I work, where do I live. They wanted to know about me, not just "hey-how-ya-doing-thanks-for-coming-to-church-today." I'd say I spoke to at least 75 percent of their congregation. There are some churches that I [went] to that I either didn't get spoken to at all or maybe a couple of random people said hi to me in passing. And so to go to a church like those two ... that just kind of blew me away.
Q: Can you draw any conclusions from your search so far?
A: There's really nothing that ties all the different [Christian] denominations together within one city. ... So one of the things I've noticed is it's amazing how so many churches are on the same page without even realizing it. There was one point where I went for four consecutive weeks, [and] I heard the same sermon preached by four different pastors that had no connection to each other whatsoever. Different parts of the city, completely different denominations, yet they preached on the exact same Bible Scripture and [had a] very similar message four weeks in a row. That just kind of showed me that God is at work in all of these separate congregations, keeping them on the same page without them even realizing it. I thought that was amazing. ...
One of the other conclusions that I've [learned] is the way ... [some] people just come to church to consume. They consume the message, they have child care, they get coffee and refreshments. I think the churches that allow that to happen are not as welcoming, and they're there to consume all this stuff, but they don't really ... give back. ... But the ones where the people are actually serving the church and are active in giving back - those are the ones where the congregation is emotionally invested into the church because they give part of their life to it.