Teach me how to be a better Christian!
December 8, 2012 7:24 PM   Subscribe

I want to go to church. ALL the churches. Teach me the standard procedures for church attendance? Expanded overthinking inside.

I grew up very much a cultural Roman Catholic--I was baptized and First Communion'd, but not confirmed (my own decision). I rarely went to mass growing up except for a few times after my first communion and for baptisms/other first communions/etc. Now I've independently become really interested in going to mass, especially Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian services. After going to Greek Orthodox Sunday services a couple of times, however, it's obvious that I have no idea what I'm doing and that I don't actually know what to do, especially when I first come in and when the service is wrapping up. Christians of Metafilter, what do I expect at services? For example, the church I've gone to recently has icons at the front and everyone lines up to kiss them before picking up a candle and lighting it in front of another icon before they walk through one of the side doors into the sanctuary--is this standard or up to each church? And are there differences between a Latin Catholic mass and masses held in the local language (there's a Latin mass near me but I'm afraid to attend in case it's a super-conservative or scary Traditionalist church)?
Also, if anyone has specific tips for Middle Eastern or Latin American chuches, that would be super helpful (especially the former--I'm going back to an Arab country soon and want to attend Christmas and other services, but don't want to look dumb or upset anyone with my subpar pseudo-Catholic attempts at Christianity).
(apologies if this looks repeated to anyone--the other questions I saw on church etiquette were related to funerals/weddings/baptisms, not standard weekly mass services)
posted by Papagayo to Religion & Philosophy (13 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
If it were me I'd pick out somebody that looks friendly and just tell them I'm making a project of visiting a bunch a different religious services and thus I'm new and could use some help in what to do here. I doubt there is a church in the world that won't be thrilled to help an interested potential convert.
posted by COD at 7:40 PM on December 8, 2012

Best answer: You'll want to read How to Be a Perfect Stranger. (There might be a volume 2, can't remember.)

For detailed reviews are what specific churches are like, check out The Mystery Worshipper.
posted by Melismata at 7:44 PM on December 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

You might consider contacting Brian Burghart, editor of the alternative weekly Reno newspaper, Reno News and Review (RN&R). He did this for several years and wrote about it each week in the RN&R. He seems like a pretty laid back guy.

posted by michellenoel at 7:47 PM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Former Roman Catholic, now Orthodox Christian here - you're definitely over-thinking. The only thing you really NEED to know is that you shouldn't approach for communion in an Orthodox church. Everything else is really about your comfort level.

Orthodox churches in the US are really pretty good about posting information on proper etiquette - this link answers some of the main questions. Some are less obvious, like times when you shouldn't walk in or out of the sanctuary. (It also never occurred to me that I shouldn't cross my legs in church, its my natural sitting position but I make an effort to correct myself now.)

You can venerate (kiss) icons and light candles, but no one will think it is weird if you don't. You can line up after liturgy to receive a blessing, either kiss the priest's cross or his hand, (watch what everyone else does) then take the bread (its not sacramental, but it is blessed so you need to be careful not to drop it and watch the crumbs). You don't have to ever kiss a priest's hand if it makes you uncomfortable, but it is the norm.

If you're in a parish without pews, it's easy to find yourself wandering a bit during the service, try not to do that (though lots of people do it). Also, in this instance, if you do get one of the few chairs available, remember to be on the look out for elderly/disabled people as that is for whom the chairs are intended.

For Latin masses in the Catholic Church, the key is going to be determining if it is a Tridentine mass or Novus Ordo. Tridentine is Old Rite, so you will likely see women wearing veils and for the most part everyone will be dressed up more. Pretend you are going to mass in the 1940s. Novus Ordo is just a regular mass that happens to be in Latin so it's more relaxed (though perhaps slightly "above" a mass in English in terms of formality). I'd avoid jeans.

For services in Arab countries, expect it to be really traditional. If you are a woman, have a scarf handy to use as a headcovering if every other woman is wearing one. Also, wear a long skirt/dress with a modest neckline and covered arms. If you are a man, dress nicely but don't wear a tie.

For specific queries, feel free to MeMail me.
posted by cessair at 7:48 PM on December 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

If you're not afraid to call ahead, most churches (synagogues/temples/mosques/whatever) will have a community member stick with you through the service and explain things and guide you along. I require students in my world religions class to attend services for religions foreign to them, and this strategy works really well for them. A lot of them also use the "ask an usher what's up when you get there" strategy, which works too. Generally I tell students not to participate in rituals they don't understand unless invited to do so, just to observe respectfully; it rarely offends.

Also in the US and Europe, so many marriages are "mixed" that honestly nobody thinks anything of non-participators who are politely observing unless it's a really, really small church where everybody knows everybody. You don't look dumb ... you look like someone's visiting relative who's attending services to be polite, if anyone even bothers to notice.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:56 PM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

What Melismata said (I was coming in here to recommend that exact book.)

For the middle east, and other traditional kinds of Jewish/Christian environments, always dress at least as conservatively (in terms of skin coverage) as you'd expect someone to dress for Sunday dinner in 1920-1950. Always be ready to cover your hair, and stick with the people of your same sex if there's even a hint of separation going on (that includes chatting and sometimes even eye contact.)

Oh - and there are always visitors in all but the smallest of churches, in my experience. Just hang back and observe what other people do, and you're pretty much good. Don't arrive too early.

If you actually meant "all the churches," and thus you want to know about attending a Mormon church service, there's a website for that. Meanwhile, don't dress up for a random Unitarian Universalist service, because nine out of ten times, you'll be the only one dressed up.
posted by SMPA at 7:57 PM on December 8, 2012

Best answer: Papagayo: "And are there differences between a Latin Catholic mass and masses held in the local language (there's a Latin mass near me but I'm afraid to attend in case it's a super-conservative or scary Traditionalist church)? "

cessair hit this one on the head, but I wanted to elaborate a little more. Don't think about this as the difference between Latin and non-Latin, the difference is between Tridentine and Novus Ordo.

* The Tridentine Mass is the version of the liturgy used by all Catholics prior to the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, though some elements had been discarded prior to then. This is what most people think of the Latin Mass; one of its most notable characteristics is that it can only be said in Latin. There are, however, a number of other liturgical differences I suspect you might associate with "scary Traditionalism": the priest faces towards the East and away from the people during the consecration of the Eucharist, Eucharist is received by kneeling behind a rail, the liturgical responses are less, and the population of churchgoers tends by their nature to be more conservative, leading to more conservative homiletics and the like. Still, it's unlikely anyone there's going to bite your head off, so the choice to go is really about if you're willing to hear a homily you'd disagree with.

* The Novus Ordo mass is the one used by most all Roman Catholics now since Vatican II. It can be said in any language, and is most often said in the population's native language. That being said, it's becoming regular practice for churches in more diverse communities to offer masses in different or multiple languages: many (most?) American Roman Catholic churches now have at least one Spanish mass, and particular ethnic neighborhoods will have similar services, or services exclusively in that culture's native language. It's also not unusual to have a Novus Ordo Mass in Latin, especially in and around Rome or when higher up members of the hierarchy are involved. Latin is still the language of business, diplomacy and theology in the Roman Catholic Church. Novus Ordo is often associated with some more modern liturgical practices as well: there's more frequent call and response, the priest most often faces the people during the consecration, etc. Keep in mind, particularly since Benedict XVI was elected, there's been a slight push back to the conservative in some places, so not all Roman Catholic churches will maintain a Novus Ordo mass with the same degree of modern practice.

In both instances, you will likely be formally discouraged from receiving communion, which is typically reserved for churchgoers who consider themselves active Catholics or members of a handful of related denominations: past the age of confirmation, confirmation can be a rubric of that. A church bulletin or other document will likely offer you an alternative if you would like to enter the communion line and receive a blessing from the priest / eucharistic minister without receiving communion. Like some other elements of courtesy or practice, this one may vary from country to country.

Dress is also likely to vary from country to country. Here in the US (I see you're form Sarasota), Novus Ordo masses tend to be business casual affairs, while Tridentine masses tend towards the formal business attire. If you're a woman, you may be implicitly expected to wear a mantia (the veil/headcovering more frequently worn by women prior to Vatican II) to a Tridentine service, but you shouldn't consider it an absolute requirement. In other countries, cultural mores will suggest different attitudes towards dress. In Latin America especially, my impression is more formal dress at church services of all stripes is expected. YMMV.
posted by Apropos of Something at 8:24 PM on December 8, 2012

Best answer: I'm a former Roman Catholic, now Greek Orthodox in roughly your geographic area. This essay may be of help. I also recommend the forum at orthodoxchristianity.net, where I post under a different name.

The short answer is, with the exception of taking communion, just do what everyone else does. Stand when they stand, sit when they sit, and so on. Also, there should be books in the pews (if there are pews) with side-by-side English and liturgical language versions of the liturgy so you can fall along. This is pretty universal in my experience - when I go to church in Japan, the book is in Japanese and Church Slavonic. Despite the language differences, the liturgy is the same worldwide, so when you are in the Arab country, you should have a good idea of what is going on if you remember the sequence of the liturgy. You also may wish to read the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in your own time.

Please feel free to MeMail if you would like to discuss further.
posted by Tanizaki at 9:27 PM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

"...you may be implicitly expected to wear a mantia (sic) (the veil/headcovering more frequently worn by women prior to Vatican II)"
Maybe in Europe women were expected to wear a mantilla, or maybe when visiting the Vatican. In the USA, women simply wore hats.
posted by Cranberry at 11:19 PM on December 8, 2012

Totally just call them and tell them that you'd like to come to a service, but you don't know what to expect. You can probably meet with a leader to discuss in person and yes, if you're very unsure they can probably just find someone to go with you. Churches tend to be pretty into getting people in them, and if they're not receptive to newcomers you'll probably pick up on that pretty early.

When I was looking for a church, I found it way easier to contact them first and I felt a lot less awkward going once i'd gotten in touch.

Also, if you're looking at other kinds of services and you're ever in Toronto, memail me and i'd be happy to introduce you to mine!
posted by windykites at 5:36 AM on December 9, 2012

Best answer: My background story with this sort of thing is that I frequently either travel abroad and visit the local religious communities or will check out some local religious festival in my own area. I've never gone wrong with following these general rules:

o Start time will be unique to the individual church itself
o Sit in the back
o Stand/sit when everyone else does
o Don't take Communion

For the most part, it really is that simple.
posted by deanc at 6:21 AM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you're going to any Anglican or Protestant churches, be prepared to be chatted with after. I go to Baptist services on holidays (as a non-religious person, generally) and I'm always shocked how friendly and interested in me everyone is after the service. If you sense someone's trying to convert you, you may be noncommittal but don't be rude! And bring a fiver to stick in the collection envelope. Just because you're not a member of the congregation doesn't mean you should get free entertainment.
posted by custard heart at 1:23 PM on December 9, 2012

Response by poster: All fantastic answers! Good information on the Latin mass--looking through my local Latin mass-holding church's website, it's apparently a Tridentine Mass. I still want to check it out, but am definitely glad to have that additional information! Looks like I'll be buying a few precautionary headscarves when I'm back in the Middle East--thanks, all!
posted by Papagayo at 5:45 PM on December 9, 2012

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