Editor’s note: As an etiquette guide, this article is based on opinion. It’s goal is to create a standard.
With all the talk you hear these days about banning prayer it becomes clear that the same people that preach religious tolerance don’t know how to live it. The only way anyone can consider the presence of Christian prayer to be forcing Christianity on them is if they don’t know the etiquette of being a non-christian witness to Christian practice. I’m going to share with you the things you need to know to respectfully attend a church service in a denomination you don’t agree with.
Participation Is Not Conversion
Christianity is primarily internal. The external behaviours are meaningless without the internal belief. So, when you participate without believing you’re literally just going through the motions. Having attended a Christian church service doesn’t make you Christian.
Participation Is Optional
There is no Christian ritual (for lack of a better term) that’s mandatory for all members of the congregation at every service. If something’s happening that you’re really not comfortable participating in, don’t.
Don’t Draw Attention to Yourself as an Outsider
Modern Christian churches are generally very welcoming but you’re still the outsider. When you draw attention to yourself you just disrupt the service and are essentially insulting everything the people around you stand for. After the service you’ll be welcomed with open arms because you’re an outsider, unless you’re at a mega church then nobody will even realise that you aren’t there every week.
Keep an Open Mind
There’s a good chance that you’ve been indoctrinated against the people in that congregation but it’s probably all lies. Nobody will expect you to automatically agree with them but they will expect you to extend them the same courtesy. In that vein, a church service isn’t the place to argue for your beliefs or against theirs, but it is an excellent place to learn. Even outside theology, many churches have rich and fascinating histories and traditions, especially the liturgical denominations like Lutherans and Catholics. Just don’t expect anyone to give you much of an answer to big theological questions off the top of their heads.
Don’t Take Communion
There are many different beliefs about communion. Some Christians may be deeply offended by outsiders taking communion. For that reason, if you aren’t sure if you should be taking communion in their church or don’t think they should in yours, then don’t. If you don’t know what I mean by “taking communion” then you also shouldn’t.
Keep Quiet or Follow Along
The best thing to do is to participate in the service by following along with what everyone else is doing and otherwise you should only be heard by those sitting next to you. If you choose not to pray with everyone else then keep silent during the prayers. It doesn’t matter if you simply wait for the prayers to end, or meditate or pray based on your own convictions, so long as nobody else can tell.
A church service is a social gathering and thus has a dress code. Churchgoers are usually more tolerant of sartorial differences but it’s still best to dress for the occasion. It used to be that everyone wore informal attire to church for a typical service. Unfortunately, that expectation has slackened to the point that now people often dress down for church. There are very few churches where a suit would be inappropriate, and is arguably the most appropriate but many churches now are excessively casual. No matter what kind of church you’re going to you should never fall below a smart casual outfit, with a collared shirt and a nice sweater or blazer, for a Sunday morning service. If you don’t know how formal a church is then ask the pastor or your host in advance.
This was just a general etiquette guide. It would be adequate in any church but more specific guidance may be helpful. In the future I’ll write about the etiquette for visiting a Lutheran church but if you want to write an article for visitors to other churches, contact me and I may just publish it.