I can’t hide the fact that I love visiting different churches. While I sometimes get frustrated by the fragmented nature of Christianity post-1000-ish AD, I’ve also found that the diversity allows for what may be lightly called “Church Tourism”. While I believe that when you’re home, you should have a home church where you live out your calling and pour everything into, when I’m traveling, I take the opportunity to check out the landscape.
I’ll end this article by giving a few accounts of churches I’ve visited lately and how the experience went (including my personal reactions). But first, I’ll drop a few thoughts on the “HOW TO” of respectfully visiting churches. Yes, there is an etiquette to this. It may help you especially if you are seeking a church home and don’t want to burn bridges prior to deciding where God is bring you.
Some Principles for Visiting Churches:
(1) Don’t judge anything. When going to a new church, it is easy to criticize and in your mind say a lot of “Well, at our church we do this..” etc, etc. Don’t fall into this trap. Every church is different and has a slightly different expression of culture and worship which can be offered to God. Go thinking “I’m going to become part of this place and worship amongst this people”. You can give yourself to it and have a great time.
(2) Don’t be uncomfortable. I think that many people who say a church just wasn’t welcoming were likely giving off “uncomfortable” signals. If someone comes into your home and they’re frowning, acting like they don’t want to talk, and just keeps to themselves, its going to be an awkward visit and those folks might not really want you there after a while. In a church, I think at least on the sociological level, its the same way. Go in with a smile and shake some hands. People will likely be friendly and want to talk. If you’re intentionally friendly and no one returns the favor, then you know somethings up, but I don’t think that’s the case most of the time. Someone wants to say hello to new people in just about every church.
(3) Compliment and thank the pastor. Pastors get a lot of flak and critique. In smaller churches, visitors are big deals, and when a visitor says something nice it eases relationship building and allows everyone to get to know each other. Focus on the positive and smile. Pastors are sometimes introverts so they may not naturally come and say hello, but most want to meet you. Don’t guage the pastor by posture, but keep an open stance and let happen what needs to happen.
(4) Spend some time in worship. All the evaluation stuff can keep you from remembering that ultimately you are looking for a place of worship – not just a place to find a best friend. Focus on the Big Guy, pray some, close your eyes and seek Wisdom. Picture Jesus and spend time in His company. I think most folks would enjoy a church more if they realized and practiced actual worship in the church rather than thought about whether they’re going to be accepted or not. If you want to find God, He’s there. Spend time with Him and let the church be who they are – also – let them worship too.
Lastly (5), go with the flow. All churches have quirks. Learn em, and learn to love them. All the grumbling I see in churches tends to be in bad spirit. Rather than grumble, learn the history of the church. Learn why there are so many sections. Experience and understand that generations have come and gone in most churches and there is an abiding love for the spaces created for learning, fellowship, worship and partaking in the sacraments.
I think if you follow some of these guidelines you’ll have a great time on vacation going from church to church. Try it out and see. Its actually quite refreshing. And if you don’t have a church home yet, I hope you find one too!
(1) First United Methodist Church, Waynesville, NC (Late August 2013)
My wife and I had been given the opportunity by some amazing good people in our church to use their cabin in Lake Junaleska, a United Methodist gathering area, for a personal holiday/vacation. As we enjoyed long walks around the lake, talked about possibly seeing elk, and enjoying small town coffee shops, and visiting Ashville, the conversation came about which church to attend. I checked some websites and First UMC Waynesville (where a nice coffee shop and some local shopping were located) came up quickly. We’d see the church on our journeys so we decided to attend.
Finding parking was easy. They had a visitors parking lot and that made it easy. Not so easy for a visitor, however, was finding the sanctuary. We ended up in the Youth Center (we could tell because it was the oldest part of the building and there were pool tables). I knew that if we kept walking something would lead us there, so we went up some stairs and ended up in a large gym, where perhaps an contemporary service had just ended. There were a few families lingering, so I walked up to someone who looked friendly and she introduced herself. She brought us through a few corridors and we went up some stairs through some welcome areas (it was quite a complex due to local hills/geography) and we came out into an airy wide open completely new sanctuary. Lots of bright colored woods, non corroded metals aluminum in color, and banners hanging all around with a well dressed choir. The families sat up in the balcony (where we sat), people helped us get up there and smiled a lot, and older people sat together down below. It seems that every UMC with a balcony does this. Young people and families up top, older folks below. Seems strange to me. The service started, and it flowed much like our home church (which is also UMC), and we sang hymns, listened to an awesome choir, a children’s sermon went probably a few minutes too long and the kids wiggled, robed ministers administrated the service, and there was a well done sermon. We left, not really knowing anyone, which makes sense for a first visit, and we went back to vacation. I got a good picture which I’ve added. Beautiful and well done church/service at FUMC Waynesville.
(2) Trinity Assembly of God, Derry, NH (Just before Christmas 2013)
My brother was getting married in Ipswich, NH and so we were near where I grew up and also near the church in MA where I worked in High School ministry (Grace Chapel). I wrestled a bit, but we were going to visit my parents in Derry, (my hometown) so I ultimately decided to attend my first church – the Pentecostal Trinity Assembly of God near Pinkerton Academy where I attended High School. I was wondering who would still be there, and how the church was faring, so we went. We parked, and then entered the same warehouse like church structure that had been built while I was a child. We were welcomed by a good friend of my family and former Royal Rangers (sort of like scouts) leader, who warmly greeted us and made us feel at home. The pastor wasn’t there so the worship leader (who I’d never met) led worship and I looked around and saw a few familiar faces. A sprinkling of families I know, and many new people. It was near Christmas, and apparently the youth and the children had charge of parts of the service, and they announced that young people would be playing instruments. One young man, who had only played 30 days on the clarinet, was introduced. I was about to cringe – 30 days?! But it was fantastic. I think Pentecostals have music in their blood. Its born in them. I don’t really understand it – it just happens. Pretty amazing. Granddaugthers of the man who was preaching this particular week also played piano and it was great. Then a whole children’s pageant happened. It was hilarious, but accurate Biblically, and got the Christmas juices flowing. Then a great sermon on living out life seeking Christ like the wise men happened. I remember this guy who preached from childhood, and he was again amazing. Lots of passion and a great backstory to share. We ended up staying after service (and after my wife experienced a whole church alter call), and met up with Jenny, who is now the Youth Director there (we were in Youth Group there together). She brought me to the old sanctuary, which had been converted into a Youth Center, and she was doing an amazing job! It was encouraging so see so much. Loved visiting – and hope to return.
(3) Bethel Baptist Church, Bethel, NC (Just after Christmas 2013)
Amanda and I are visiting her parents for Christmas and New Year’s and her sister is moving into town. Her sister’s family will be looking for a church, and we all decided to check out the Baptist church within walking distance. It was raining, but we drove around the corner. We went in the wrong door, but a kind man shook my hand, greeted us and brought us into the sanctuary from the back door. We walked in and sat near the front (in this church most people sit in the back – interesting), and we looked around. Children were in one choir area by the piano. Some men in the opposite side. The pastor sat in a chair and ordered the service. Worship started and the Pastor (who we found out was interim until a pastor was called) gave announcements and called the worship to order. We sang a few hymns with a Christmas theme, the children sang Christmas songs, there was a Children’s Talk calling them to be Transparent and show Christ in the new year, and a mens group sang O Holy Night, which was actually pretty good. I was worried. The pastor then got up and spoke a well thought out sermon on the Magi and gave lots of background of what may have actually happened between the wise men and young Jesus and them worshipping him. He talked about why Gold, Incense, and Myrrh – which I thought was great. We then sang a few more hymns and we were done. We hung out a while, and many people (and children) greeted us. There were a lot of families. And afterwards we headed home after a pleasant experience.