What To Expect When Attending Church for the First Time
Church is a cross-cultural experience.
You walk into a Christian church service for the first time in years, maybe the first time ever. Perhaps you are attending because it's a holiday, in order to humor your boyfriend/girlfriend/parents, or because you are curious.
Whatever your reasons, when you walk in that door, you are walking into a full-on cross-cultural experience.
Culture crossing can be very rewarding, but it is also demanding, uncomfortable, and exhausting. It's likely that some things about your first church visit may seem strange, negative, or just throw you for a loop. This Hub is meant to help you prepare yourself for those things (or to help you interpret them after the fact).
It is impossible to write a single Hub detailing the culture and worship norms of every church out there. I am not Roman Catholic nor Eastern Orthodox, so I can do nothing to prepare you for services coming out of those traditions. I don't even know the vocabulary.
I grew up in a Protestant, Evangelical environment. I have been to quite a few churches, from very casual "community" ones to more sober, Mennonite versions. Even so, I have not seen all the variety that is out there. Still, there are certain things that will be common to your experience in most Protestant, Evangelical churches, and this Hub will try to walk you through those.
Before you go: What is the dress code in church?
Most churches do not have a dress code in the sense of asking you to leave if you are not wearing a tie. They want people to be comfortable to come in and worship, whatever they are wearing.
That said, churches do vary in how the preponderance of people dress on a Sunday morning. You can still find churches where people will dress as formally as they can, as if they were going to the office or even to a wedding. Dressing up for church can be fun! For some people, it is their best opportunity all week to dress really nicely.
In other churches, there is an emphasis on casual clothing, with most of the people (sometimes even the pastor) in blue jeans. This is usually done to create a welcoming atmosphere.
In many churches, there is some variety. Some people wear jeans or chinos and polo shirts, others dress up. Some women may wear hats, though I have never been to a church in the United States where every woman did.
Perhaps you want to know the dress code so that you can blend in with the people around you, or to show respect for the other people there or for God. If you are going with someone, ask that person how people usually dress during the worship service. Many churches also have a web site, where you may be able to find pictures of the worship service so as to observe what people are wearing.
Regardless of what you wear, the people at the church will probably be happy to see you.
Expect to feel uncomfortable.
It doesn't matter if you go to ...
- a formal, ritualized, "smells and bells" service held in a drafty cathedral ...
- an informal "house church" meeting consisting of a guitar, praise choruses and a dozen worshipers ...
- an old-style Gospel service with an amazing choir and an altar call ...
- or to a modern, "seeker-friendly" service that meets in a hotel ballroom and resembles a rock concert.
Whatever the service is like, if you have never been to a service of that type before, you are going to feel uncomfortable.
You won't know what to expect. You won't know exactly how to behave. Even if you copy your neighbor, you'll feel a beat behind everyone else, and doing a new thing every five minutes or so is going to drain your energy. You also won't know the significance of the things that are happening. What is behind someone's friendly handshake and greeting ... the long prayer with everyone standing ... the strange words of the creed? These things may seem baffling or even sinister, because they are unfamiliar.
All of this is normal. Discomfort is the norm for a nonreligious person attending church, just as (believe it or not), it is also normal for churchgoers who attend a service that's very different from their own tradition. This does not mean anything is wrong with the person experiencing the discomfort - or necessarily with the strange new environment. It's just a fact about people. Human beings are creatures of habit. We like to know what to expect. New situations drain our energy.
Expect to feel like an outsider.
Because you are in a new environment with a new set of social cues, you will probably feel isolated. Everyone else seems to "get it," and you don't. You feel uncomfortable, and you wonder if it's written all over your face. You may have heard that churches are judgmental, and so you wonder if everyone is judging you.
It is true that some churches are more friendly and others are more cool. Perhaps no one will greet you, which would be too bad. (It is their responsibility to try to make you feel welcome.) But even if people do greet you, this may not reduce your feelings of isolation. They may lack the social skills to make easy conversation with a stranger, or your discomfort may cause you mistrust them a bit. Even in the best case, where you hit it off with one or more people, they are still people you have just met, not old friends.
Most people take a while to warm up in a new social situation, and in this respect church is a social situation just like any other. So if you leave church feeling slighted, "different" or ignored, don't immediately conclude that the people are judgmental, unfriendly, or cold. It might just be a natural feature of a new social situation ... an awkwardness too great for anyone's kindness to overcome on the first visit.
Being a Christian confers many wonderful benefits on a person, but superhuman social skills are not one of them.
Expect a learning curve for the music.
This is one of the hardest things for many people when they attend a new church. It can even be an issue for people who have been attending church for many years. Music is very personal. Each of us has music styles, and individual songs, that we have come to know and love. And I don't know what's harder, being asked to sing a bunch of new songs, or having our old favorites spun in ways we don't expect.
Music is a big part of most church services. Usually there is at least fifteen minutes of singing early in the service, before the prayers and sermon, with additional songs interspersed throughout. In some churches, this singing time is much longer.
If you don't know a single word of a single song, that is a lot of music to fake your way through. Even if it's very well done (which in many churches it is), you may not enjoy the music on your first visit ... unless it happens to be in the exact style that you already love.
All that to say, the music will be a learning curve. I have switched churches a number of times throughout my adult life, and I have experienced this curve, and it's not fun. If you intend to keep attending the same church regularly, rest assured you will learn the songs eventually. You can even purchase some albums with the same songs on them in order to familiarize yourself with the music more quickly. There are many excellent Christian worship albums out there.
If you are only attending for one Sunday, I'm sorry, but there isn't much to be done. Just please don't judge the music just because you are unfamiliar with it.
About the quality of the singing, that also varies greatly. In one of my beloved home churches, the music was often pretty bad. But I have also been to churches where there was a professional hired to run the music, and where it was very good. But do remember, music in church is not primarily a performance by professionals. It is meant to be congregational singing, where everyone participates. A good worship leader can make this happen.
Expect to hear at least one thing that offends you.
Imagine that you have to give a twenty-minute speech about the most important, deeply felt, and controversial topics in the world, to a group of, say, one hundred people - without offending any of them.
Think you could do it?
Neither could I.
This is the problem that pastors face. Only they have to do this every week.
Granted, they are often speaking to a rather friendly audience ... but, on the other hand, they are working from a text that most people are naturally disposed to misunderstand and resist. The Bible itself says there's something irreducibly offensive about its central message ... but that's a topic for another post.
Suffice to say, you will probably be offended at some point or disagree with something. The call you will have to make is whether it's worth it to you to tolerate hearing this unwelcome thing, whatever it is, for long enough to find out more.
Can I bring my kids to church? Will they sit still?
This is a call you will have to make. You know your kids better than anyone does. Most sermons are fifteen to thirty minutes long, plus there are announcements and prayers beforehand. Can your kids sit reasonably still and mostly quiet for what amounts to an hour (not counting standing up to sing)?
If not, you have several options.
You can leave them at home or elsewhere with a trusted friend or relative.
You can bring along things to occupy them, such as drawing pads, small toys, and discreet snacks. (My mom used to pack Cheerios and small candies in a tiny plastic "trash can." I could take a long time picking them out one by one!)
You can put them in the nursery or cry room. Many churches have a nursery for preschoolers where staffers or volunteers (usually other parents) will care for your children during the service. Other churches have a "cry room" where parents can bring their noisy children. Sometimes these cry rooms even have the service piped in, so you can still listen to it in between tantrums.
Churches also vary in how long the service is, how lively the service is, and how much background "kid noise" they can tolerate during the service. If you are going to the service with someone, ask them about these things.
Some churches have quite a number of young families, and there might even be some kids your children's age. If you children do act up in church, don't be overly embarrassed. Families who go to church regularly often have the same struggle to keep their children quiet. Believe me, we do!
Give it some time, and you will feel more comfortable.
As someone who grew up in the church, for most of my life I had no clue about how awkward and uncomfortable it could feel to be new to the church scene.
Then I moved overseas.
After learning the language in the country where I was living, I began attending a local Christian church. Many things were the same. There was the same basic pattern to the service, the creed was the same, the prayers were similar, so were the sermons. Same Bible the world over. Even many of the hymns were the same as the ones I grew up with, just translated into a different language and sung at a very slow pace, accompanied by an obnoxious loud electronic keyboard.
Even with all these similarities, it was a year (a year!) before it started to feel like church to me.
After a year of attending pretty faithfully, I started to have occasional moments during the service when I felt the tiniest sense of peace and a faint stirring of the sense of worship that I remembered enjoying in my home churches so far away.
There was nothing wrong with the church in my adopted country. But it was juuust different enough from what I was used to, to make going to church hard, uncomfortable work.
From this experience, I finally gained some sympathy for those who come to church not knowing what to expect. It's just hard! There's no sugarcoating it. If you are serious about wanting to go to church long-term, I would counsel you to hang in there for a year. Your discomfort will diminish, but it might take some time. It's similar to learning a major new skill, like learning to ice skate, sew, or speak a second language.
Of course, if there are major interpersonal problems in the church - serious gossip, infighting, and the like - I am not asking you to keep coming for a year. Sometimes it takes a lot less than that to identify a toxic social situation. And sadly, those do exist in some churches.
But if your main problem with the church is a general sense of discomfort, or that many things just don't seem to make sense, hang in there. A natural process should occur whereby you get to know people, learn the music and doctrine, and slowly become more comfortable.
Welcome to church.
We are glad you are here. Really, we are. You may not be feeling it, either because everything is so new, or because some of us are a bit shy. But we hope you will stay. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.