I can’t believe that it is Palm Sunday already, and Easter is next weekend! At this time of year, many people visit a church that they don’t attend regularly. They may be staying with friends or family, and going with them to their church, or they may be attending church on their own because Easter is such a major Christian holiday.
As comfortable as I am with my faith, I am always uncomfortable visiting a church. While almost every church has a sign that says “Visitors Welcome” or “Join Us,” I always wonder if I will be welcome, or if I will commit some faux pas that will have the regular members hoping that I don’t darken their door again. I thought I would put together a guide to visiting a church with a few things I do to put myself at ease.
The first step is finding a church. If I am out of town, I will keep an eye out for churches as we explore the town, use Google to look up an Episcopalian church, or see if the hotel has a list of churches nearby. I pretty much go through the same steps if I am looking for a different church closer to home (for a different service time, or to attend on a workday), although a friend’s recommendation may replace the hotel directory.
I always feel better when I can find a church website with up-to-date information–especially current service times. (Note: if there is an announcement of the Christmas pageant schedule, it may not be current for Easter services!) Some sites have a “welcome” page or a “visitors” page that provides more information on the church. I particularly want to know how formal it is (what should I wear?), and what type of music they have (choir, praise band, or something in between). When my kids were younger, figuring out if children were welcome at the service, if Sunday School was held at the same time, or if there was a nursery was critical. The more I could find out about what my children could expect, the better–both so I could make sure we wanted to visit that church and so I could prepare them for what to expect.
Despite all my preparations, I still am nervous about actually attending a service. I try to leave myself plenty of time to arrive 5-10 minutes early. If the church has a large building or complex with many entrances, I may sit in my car for a minute and watch to see where others go in, or try to (discretely) follow someone. I must sound so paranoid, but I don’t want to accidentally walk into the choir room or get lost in the Sunday School area.
Once I’ve gotten into the church, I need to decide where to sit. I like to be somewhere in the middle so I am close enough to see and hear well, but still have people in front of me to watch for cues. Since I’ve (hopefully) arrived a few minutes early, I am a bit concerned that I might be taking someone’s usual seat, but unless an usher redirects me, I assume that I’m in an acceptable spot. (And yes, I have sat in the wrong section of a large church and had to be redirected to the pews that were in use for that service!)
In an Episcopalian service, there’s also the question of whether the congregation stands or kneels at the parts of the service where the prayer book says “The people stand or kneel,” but that is easy enough to figure out. (The decision really is up to the individual, but if people are kneeling, I usually like to kneel.)
Then there’s Holy Communion. Do people line up by rows or just go up when they are ready? Do people stand or kneel at the altar rail? Do people take the chalice in their own hands? Dip the bread or wafer in the cup of wine? Do people go back to their pews one-by-one or as a group?
At least I can count on the service itself being familiar. Although there may be some variations in the liturgy, the basic format of an Episcopalian Holy Communion service is pretty much the same: opening prayers, readings, sermon, Apostle’s Creed/Nicene Creed, Prayers of the People, Confession, Peace, Communion. There may be more or fewer hymns, more or fewer readings, and different prayer formats, but I can count on hearing a Gospel reading, saying the Lord’s Prayer, and partaking in “the body and blood of Christ.”
Despite all my worries, I always enjoy visiting a church–at least in retrospect! I think I pay more attention, with new voices doing the readings and a new priest giving the sermon. I notice the finer points of the service, and appreciate the differences between my “home” church rituals and those of the church I am visiting. Above all, it’s encouraging to meet new people who share my faith–or at least my desire to attend a worship service.
Have you been a visitor at a church recently?
Were you less neurotic than I am?
What can church members do to put you at ease?