Being a Respectful Stranger
December 12, 2016 8:11 PM   Subscribe

I want to attend as many different religious services in my city as possible over the next year as part of a project I'm working on. My goals are to be as respectful as possible, to gain as much insight as possible and to commit as few dorky faux pas as possible. So tell me how a visitor to your place of worship should go about attending her first service. How to dress, how to act, what to do. What should I pay attention to?

Bonus points: is there something besides the main service that is equally important? Feeding the community, Wednesday Bible study, a deli spread, coffee n donuts, weekly fasting day, etc?

Is it cool to just show up to your mosque/church/temple, or should I call ahead?

I have lots of friends lined up to take me to services. This question is for those places where I don't have an in.
posted by sleepy psychonaut to Religion & Philosophy (38 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Anyone in Austin, Dallas or Houston who would like to show me your place of worship, please pm me!
posted by sleepy psychonaut at 8:12 PM on December 12, 2016

There is a book for this! How to Be a Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook.
posted by Orlop at 8:19 PM on December 12, 2016 [20 favorites]

I'd say the main thing is to never underdress. No points off for over-dressing (obviously nothing showy or sexy, of course). And resist the impulse to sit at a distance. I'd sit on the periphery, but not with buffer.

For the Jewish thing (anything more strict than Reformed), you want to get invited to Sabbath dinner, minimum, and Passover Seder, if possible, timing-wise. Big difference, fwiw, between reformed Judaism and conservative/orthodox. And the Hassids are yet another thing.

I would, if I were you, do a Sunday at Jester King Brewery outside Austin. Beer Geekdom is akin to a religion at this point. Partaketh of the sacred waters....
posted by Quisp Lover at 8:24 PM on December 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

You might read through some of the Texas church reviews written by Bill Martin for Texas Monthly, most recently from 2006-2008 (so you'll have to scroll down a bit) though I imagine many/most of these churches are still around. It might also give you some ideas for etiquette in churches of similar creed/faith.
posted by unknowncommand at 8:26 PM on December 12, 2016

I taught world religions and required my students to attend two services from religions not their birth religion. In general, if you're attending a minority religious service and you don't have an "in" with a friend, it's nice to call ahead. Typically they are happy to have you whether you show up unannounced or call ahead, but calling ahead to a (non-Christian) service is nice and they will often tell you anything you need to be aware of (head coverings, no shoes) and sometimes have a member of the community meet and conduct you, which often leads to awesome tours of the place of worship. Generally they're delighted that people in the community want to learn about them.

The two places I would for sure call ahead to (in the US) are Islamic Mosques and Hindu Temples, just because they don't have a lot of visitors outside their communities and, current politics being what they are, strangers might seem a little threatening. Call ahead and you'll get the red-carpet treatment and probably a bunch of food. :)

In general, wear pants or skirts past the knee, socks without holes (in case you have to take off your shoes), and a top that goes past your elbows (a cardigan sweater is fine). If you're a woman, keep a scarf in your glove box or purse in case you have to cover your head. "No shorts," "no bare shoulders," "no shoes," and "cover your heads" are like 90% of religious clothing restrictions for basically all world religions. (Men's head coverings are usually offered at the service location, but women often have to bring their own.) In Europe some cathedrals require collared shirts for men, which is less common in the US, but it's not a bad idea to wear a collared shirt just in case if you're a man. If students wanted an all-purpose outfit, I told men to wear slacks and a collared, long-sleeved shirt with good socks, and women to wear an ankle-length skirt, long-sleeve blouse, and carry or wear a scarf that could be used as a head covering (and good socks or hose). That works just about everywhere.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:28 PM on December 12, 2016 [22 favorites]

I came here to recommend the book How to be a Perfect Stranger, but somebody beat me to it. All the research has already been done for you, just buy the book.
posted by hworth at 8:37 PM on December 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Probably the biggest error to avoid in Christian churches is taking Communion if you are not baptized. Different denominations have varying degrees of strictness about this (i.e., in a Catholic church, a mere Protestant baptism does not entitle you to take it, while most Protestants welcome anyone who is baptized), but safest not to do it. Most likely no one will notice and the odds of your being turned away from the altar are miniscule; still, it's a serious matter and if you're serious about respecting customs, you shouldn't do it.

An idiosyncratic custom you should be prepared for in many Christian denominations is an offertory--a passing of the hat. It usually takes place near the middle of the service. Often ushers will pass up and down the aisles with a plate, but there are other methods. Any contribution is voluntary and no one will judge you for not contributing, but $5 as a gesture of respect is a good idea.

One more custom to be prepared for is a Peace, a moment shortly before Communion where the congregation turn to one another and offer each other greetings. This will vary by church but, e.g, you might take your neighbor's hand and say "Peace" or "The peace of the Lord." You should definitely participate if you can figure out what people are doing.

If you are going to a Catholic or very fussy Episcopalian church you should genuflect when entering and leaving your pew and bow your head if you happen to pass in front of the cross at the altar. If the clergy process at the start and end of the service, you should bow your head as the cross passes your pew. You should cross yourself at the multiple times the formula "the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost" is uttered. (Failing to do these things will probably not scandalize anyone, but will help you fit in.) The specifics of when to sit, stand, and kneel during the service will usually be indicated in the service pamphlet; there's a fair amount of moving around. (There will usually be little cushions of some kind to kneel on.) In an Episcopal church there will be three volumes in front of you at the pew: a Bible; the Book of Common Prayer or one of its more recent equivalents, which gives the order of events in the service and also contains the psalms; and a hymnal, from which you will sing during the service. The organ will play the tune first in case you can't read music.
posted by praemunire at 8:51 PM on December 12, 2016

"If you are going to a Catholic or very fussy Episcopalian church you should genuflect when entering and leaving your pew and bow your head if you happen to pass in front of the cross at the altar. If the clergy process at the start and end of the service, you should bow your head as the cross passes your pew. You should cross yourself at the multiple times the formula "the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost" is uttered."

Don't do this if you're not Christian (and/or not the sort of Christian who genuflects and crosses). You should generally stand when others stand, but don't kneel if you're not a believer. Plenty of people sit during the kneeling, either from lack of faith or from bad knees. (If it's a kneeling church, it's polite to scoot forward on the pew so that the people behind you who are kneeling don't bump your back with their elbows on your pew/chair, but it's not necessary and nobody will think anything of it if you don't, they're used to scooting their kneeling praying around people with bad knees or who aren't members.) SUPER COMMON in high-church Christian churches (Catholic, Anglican, some Lutheran) for family members, friends, etc., to attend who are NOT members of the denomination, who don't kneel and don't go to communion. Not weird at all. It's okay to kneel if you want to -- it's not rude to do so -- but visitors aren't expected to and it's a sign of worship so if you're not worshipping, don't feel obligated. (It's totally cool to be a viewer! That's fine and normal!)

Do not take communion if you don't know the rules for that denomination. (If you want to memail me I can tell you the rules at extensive length for just about any denomination in the US.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:16 PM on December 12, 2016 [31 favorites]

I'm just gonna be straight with you and say that if you showed up at services at my (conservative) synagogue I would feel weird about it, no matter how respectful you were. I mean, let me be clear, I probably wouldn't notice you, I certainly don't know every congregant by sight. But if I knew you were there, I would feel strange about it; why is someone watching me while I pray?

If you wanted to learn something about the Jewish community and how it functions, I would rather you come to a more secular event like a lecture, or sign up for a class, or talk to people in the community individually. If for some reason you absolutely have to go to a prayer service, I guess I would try showing up on a Saturday morning when there's a bar or bat mitzvah (at a big metropolitan shul this will be more or less every Saturday morning) -- there'll be lots of non-Jewish friends of the kid of the day and it'll be understood that people are there "just visiting."
posted by escabeche at 9:27 PM on December 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Eyebrows McGee, I almost memailed you to avoid threadsitting, but your answer might be helpful for others.

I would never try to wrongly take communion in the Catholic Church, but what about the Protestants? What is the etiquette there? Do you have to be in a state of grace?
posted by sleepy psychonaut at 9:32 PM on December 12, 2016

All this is good advice but you could always call and ask, as well as say you are not a believer but are respectfully interested and make sure you are still welcome at the service or other events. In my limited California experience pretty much one hundred percent would encourage you to come.

Going to bible study or after church coffee hour will lead to questions (not interrogation, just chatting) so depending on the nature of the "project" it could be a bit more delicate. If it's basically a study, even an informal one, I assume the key way to be respectful is to be up front about it to people you chat with.

[Protestant views on communion varies by denomination; many are quite inclusive.]
posted by mark k at 9:38 PM on December 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I visited a bunch of churches etc when I was in my early twenties with the notion of writing about the experience. My advice is to be respectful and friendly but don't give your contact info to the Mormons/Jehovah's Witnesses/aggressively evangelizing Evangelicals unless you want them to call because they will follow up.
posted by thivaia at 9:51 PM on December 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

I would never try to wrongly take communion in the Catholic Church, but what about the Protestants? What is the etiquette there? Do you have to be in a state of grace?

In my (admittedly limited) experience it varies wildly by denomination and even sometimes individual church (for example, ELCA and Missouri Synod Lutherans will allow anyone to take communion but will not take communion in one anothers' respective churches); I'd suggest just asking the pastor beforehand if you can.
posted by Itaxpica at 9:56 PM on December 12, 2016

(Sorry, I mis-worded that: the ELCA will allow anyone to take communion, but the Missouri Synod will generally not allow people baptized in certain other Christian denominations, including the ELCA (despite the fact that both are Lutheran), to take communion in their services, and if they happen to be attending services in those denominations they will not take communion there.

This was a source of some family awkwardness for my ex-girlfriend, whose immediate family was ELCA but whose grandfather was Missouri Synod)
posted by Itaxpica at 10:01 PM on December 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

How to be a Perfect Stranger, yes! I referenced that a few months ago when Kid Ruki and I took a tour of the LDS Hartford Temple while it was open to the public. It was a lovely tour, and there was no proseltyzing, which surprised me, TBH. Episcopalians and Community of Christ churches will accept you no questions asked, from my experience as a comparative theology loving Jew.
posted by Ruki at 10:18 PM on December 12, 2016

it's a sign of worship so if you're not worshipping, don't feel obligated

I wouldn't suggest anyone do anything that does violence to their own personal beliefs, of course, but if the goal is just to fit in quietly, it's easier to make the gestures. If a person finds it objectionable to perform acts that carry the implication of belief or worship, that person's going to struggle with most of the Catholic or Episcopalian service, since that's the majority of what is done, except for the readings from the pulpit (and even then you're supposed to praise God for the Gospel after that reading) and the sermon. You pray, you sing hymns of praise, you recite a formal statement of belief, you repent your sins's all active worship. The best choice for minimal individual participation amongst the Episcopalians is a choral evensong, where most of the prayers are sung by the choir, but even then you don't escape worship-acts fully.

Protestants don't believe in a formal "state of grace." It is not recommended to take Communion if you are violently out of fellowship with another church member, but that's a matter of personal discretion.
posted by praemunire at 10:20 PM on December 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Unlike escabeche, if you showed up in my conservative synagogue, you would be very welcomed. People would notice you but certainly anyone active in the community (ushers, board members and certainly the rabbi) would go out of their way to make you feel welcome.

A phone call ahead of time would let you know if there any special holidays or other things planned. The secretary might also clue you on what is else is happening that day. For us, Friday night services are small unless there is a special event. Saturday morning services are the main weekly service, followed by a community brunch and often followed by a lecture or other learning program with people coming and going throughout.

Eyebrows McGee's advice on dressing would certain work for us. In our community, head coverings are mandatory for men, optional women and there is a supply by the entrance to the sanctuary. (Ask the usher - they are friendly and helpful) Don't wear a prayer shawl unless you are Jewish. Stand when people stand, sit when they sit but you don't need to do anything else. When the torah scroll is carried around the room, it is customary to turn your body to face towards it as it moves. No one expects you to know the prayers and it isn't appropriate to say a prayer that you don't believe. if you get bored, feel free to look through other sections of the prayer book. It is OK to ask your neighbor if you lose track of which page we are (easy to do when thing are moving quickly through the Hebrew.)

Hope this helps.
posted by metahawk at 10:38 PM on December 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

I went to a Black church growing up. If a non-Black person had come to observe, a lot of people would not have liked it. It's a private space for that community to share. It's not a zoo.

And colonialism is a thing so, to put it bluntly- if you are a white person wanting to go into PoC or Aboriginal spiritual spaces that have not officially invited you in.... you simply should not. Don't take up that space.

There are some churches that market themselves as tourist attractions (for instance the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem NYC)- stick to those ones, and you can basically do whatever you want- dress up modestly, keep your body language and voice respectful (in other words you should never be the loudest nor move the most vigorously), follow other people's lead, smile at everyone, and follow whatever other rules they communicate.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 11:20 PM on December 12, 2016 [11 favorites]

I grew up Baha'i. I'm not familiar with the book cited above, and it says it covers Baha'i services, but what it may not tell you is how to go about finding them and which you would actually find most interesting/useful.

Basically, Baha'is have administrative districts. How large a district is depends on the density of the Baha'i population in the area. Each area's Baha'is meet every nineteen days (at the start of each Baha'i month) to have what is known as a Feast-- prayer session, potluck, social night, and local administrative business.

However, what the Feast is like depends entirely on the size of the area. A small area, too small to have nine adult Baha'is (which is basically quorum), may not even meet every month, will definitely be rotating between members' houses, and, to put it bluntly, will be utterly delighted to have an outsider but will assume you are interested in converting because why else would you be there? A medium-sized or larger area will be far more used to having guests, and large areas will have a dedicated building (not a church, Baha'is don't have those) that they use for Feasts, holidays, weddings, funerals, etc.

The thing is, since these areas are administrative units designed for things like making sure nobody living in them has to travel very far to a Feast and for making national-level administrative elections work out reasonably, it can be... counterintuitive where the large ones and the small ones are. I grew up in a bustling suburb which never mustered nine adults, commuting to the city where the Baha'i Center was for holidays and occasions, and every so often for administrative reasons driving to the tiny town in the middle of nowhere where the largest district in the state was. And when people came looking for the local Baha'is, in our suburb, they'd often find our total lack of organization and meeting in somebody's basement, when if they'd gone a few miles there'd have been a larger group with an actual building.

Tl;dr: the words you're looking for on Google are "Baha'i Center", and if there isn't one your next phrase is "Local Spiritual Assembly", and find the largest you can easily drive to. You absolutely should, very nice people, very interesting religion, I left because the only thing they're completely backwards on is LGBT issues, but definitely worth a look and culturally very different than most anything else you'll encounter.
posted by Rush-That-Speaks at 1:00 AM on December 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

In my Anglican Christian church, you can dress however you want, but some (not all) would prefer it if you didn't sing or take communion. I would prefer it, as I do these things sincerely and it feels that you are making something of a mockery of that to do fit in? That is not the point, and we wouldn't expect you to, so don't.

I am also fairly uncomfortable with the premise, tbh, again along the lines of we're not a zoo/please don't presume to 'study' our practices as some kind of objective outsider. But I wouldn't know the difference if you just showed up, so you could do that.
posted by jojobobo at 3:18 AM on December 13, 2016

A friend here in Rhode Island is married to the local imam, and they are inviting over everyone they can think of to tour the mosque and break through the mystique of unfamiliarity. If you are worried about how to dress or behave, know that they have, like, Scout troops coming through -- so relax, you can't do worse than two dozen squirming boys. :7)

(But yes do call ahead and ask, no matter where you go.)
posted by wenestvedt at 3:19 AM on December 13, 2016

I think showing up to bible study or a fast is also more questionable and potentially disrespectful, btw, if you have not got a genuine spiritual interest in what occurs.
posted by jojobobo at 3:21 AM on December 13, 2016

Check to see if the place of worship you want to visit has a website. Many websites will contain specific information for visitors including such things as how to dress and what to expect.

Be sure to look at the Events or Calendar section of the website if there is one to avoid showing up on a less than ideal day for visitors (like during the stewardship campaign or "Commitment Sunday" where the focus is on getting members to pledge their giving for the year.)

Communion varies by church. In Catholic and Episcopal churches there is communion at every service, whereas many Protestant churches only serve communion monthly or quarterly.

Below are suggestions for visiting an Episcopal church:

Some Episcopal churches practice "open communion" or "open table" where anyone is permitted to partake; others limit communion to only baptized Christians (usually they are not picky about what Christian denomination you were baptized into.) At the start of the communion part of the service the priest may mention that "all are welcome" or "all baptized Christians are welcome" to take communion. It may also say in your service bulletin if there is one.

Many Episcopal churches use a service bulletin or worship bulletin, which contains everything you need to follow along with the service. The one at my church will even suggest whether you should sit, stand or kneel at given points. In general, nobody cares which you do as long as you are quiet and respectful. I often sit during standing times because of issues with my feet. Many older folks do not kneel because of bad knees.

If you are not familiar with gestures such as genuflecting, bowing or crossing yourself, it is probably better not to do them. You will not stand out or look foolish by not doing them. However, if for some reason you feel you will want to make these gestures, there are videos on Youtube that will teach you how to do them properly.

It is ok to sing and do the responsive readings. The one exception where you might not want to participate is in the reciting of the "creed" (usually the Nicene or Apostle's Creed) since these are statements of belief. You don't have to make a big show of not participating in the creeds, just sit or stand quietly until the reading is finished.

As mentioned above, prior to communion there will be "sharing the Peace." In Episcopal churches the priest will say to the congregation "the Peace of the Lord be always with you" and the congregation responds "and also with you." Then you turn to the people around you, offer a handshake and say "Peace" or "Peace of the Lord" or "Peace be with you". In some places people only share peace with those in their immediate vicinity, in other churches (especially small ones) people walk around and peace everyone. It is ok to stand in your spot and share peace with whoever approaches you.

Episcopal churches often use incense prior to communion. They will swing an incense burner called a thurible around the altar space, and an altar server may also swing the burner out towards the pews as well. If you have allergies or asthma, you may want to sit towards the back to avoid the smoke.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:27 AM on December 13, 2016

Protestants don't believe in a formal "state of grace." It is not recommended to take Communion if you are violently out of fellowship with another church member, but that's a matter of personal discretion.

I just want to mention that most Evangelical Protestant churches don't really hold with the concept "state of grace", but the majority of them consider non-believers taking communion to be offensively inappropriate. Most churches in this category that I know don't require baptism, church membership, or anything formal/procedural, but they expect that people who do not consider themselves to be believing Christians will abstain.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 6:56 AM on December 13, 2016

It is OK to ask your neighbor if you lose track of which page we are (easy to do when thing are moving quickly through the Hebrew.)

Also, most Reform synagogues will have transliterations (Hebrew written using Roman characters) of the prayers they do in Hebrew right in the prayerbook (Siddur). The Siddur used by most Conservative synagogues has limited transliteration--there for most of the major prayers, but not for all. However, the last two Conservative congregations I've been in have had supplementary prayer books with complete transliterations/explanations of what's going on. The ushers will probably give you one if you say you're a visitor.

Another thing to do if you get bored: leaf through the Chumash (5 Books of Moses, divided into the weekly readings, with the associated Haftarah reading alongside). If you're in a Conservative synagogue, they'll probably have Etz Chayim which has a bunch of supplementary material (maps, commentary, etc.) in the back of the book and throughout.

Note in Conservative (and Orthodox) synagogue on Shabbat, no-no's include writing and use of electricity. So don't take notes/electronically record things. Reform Synagogue will be OK.
posted by damayanti at 7:05 AM on December 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

At an Americanized Buddhist temple, service will almost always include a period of sitting meditation and a lecture or "dharma talk" from a Buddhist teacher. It may also include some chanting, bowing, or walking meditation. Many Buddhist temples try to minimize the amount of talking during the non-dharma-talk part of the service, which can make the services intimidating for new folks — everyone just seems to know what happens next without asking or being told! — and during meditation you are expected to be as close as possible to absolute stillness and silence. So a lot of places now will have beginners' classes that teach you a basic meditation practice and also tell you how to behave during services, when to stand, when to sit, when to bow, etc. Your best bet as a visitor would be to attend the beginner's class once, and then go to a weekend service.

Wear comfortable, plain, dark-colored clothing that isn't especially tight or revealing: dark jeans or yoga pants and a black T-shirt or sweater would fit in almost anywhere. You will probably be expected to take your shoes off before you enter the meditation hall, and there will probably be a rack for you to put them on.

If there is bowing and chanting, it is okay to bow and chant along even if you are not a Buddhist yourself or a member of the congregation, but nobody will be shocked if you abstain as long as you stay out of the way. There is usually no collection basket; donations are done some other way. Some places have tea and snacks after the dharma talk. Expect people to assume that you are interested in Buddhism, but don't expect any pressure to attend more or convert.

Less-Americanized Buddhist temples, especially ones associated with a specific immigrant community, often operate differently than this and may be less open to visitors — though some will still be welcoming. Ask ahead.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:10 AM on December 13, 2016

At an unprogrammed Quaker meeting, services are usually an hour of silent worship followed by announcements. Walk in, take a seat, and sit quietly. Occasionally someone may stand up and share a message that they feel moved to share. If you are not a Quaker, and you are not at an event that you have a personal connection to (like a Quaker wedding or funeral for someone you know), it would be a bit odd for you to share a message — better to just sit and listen.

Unlike Buddhists, Quakers don't aspire to absolute silence. Sighing, yawning, stretching, shifting around, etc are all fine, though whispered side conversations and checking your phone would be rude.

Dress however you want: there will probably be some people in jeans and T-shirts and others dressed as if for a Protestant church service.

At the end of silent worship, you will see people shaking hands, and it is polite to shake hands with everyone around you. During announcements, they may ask if there are any visitors. Feel free to stand up and introduce yourself in a sentence or two — people will say "Welcome!" and one or two may approach you afterwards to say hi or ask if you have questions. There is no collection basket; there will probably be a box you can drop a donation in if you want. After announcements there is usually coffee and conversation. Expect people to be curious about what brought you there, especially if it's a small congregation, but don't expect any pressure to attend again or to convert.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:13 AM on December 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

Also maybe consider going to the Southwest Texas Sacred Harp Convention, which gathers twice a year (in or near Austin, not actually in the SW part of the state) to sing Christian music in a very interesting old-fashioned style of a-capella harmony. Many of the regular singers are Christians, including a sizable contingent of Primitive Baptists who favor Sacred Harp music because they do not permit instruments in church, but many are atheists or members of other religions. There will be opening and closing prayers and a prayer before lunch, but outside of that talking about religion and politics is generally taboo, and you absolutely won't get asked about your beliefs or witnessed to in any way, though people may talk about what the music and the singing community means to them. There will be a really good potluck lunch (bring a dish to share) and lots of friendly non-political conversation. Feel free to arrive and leave at any point during the day. Dress like you would for a somewhat conservative Protestant church service: the usual is slacks and a dress shirt or a suit if you're a man, a long dress if you're a woman.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:25 AM on December 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

I just want to mention that most Evangelical Protestant churches don't really hold with the concept "state of grace", but the majority of them consider non-believers taking communion to be offensively inappropriate.

I think you'd have to get over to the U-U end of the spectrum for this not to be true. So my advice was just not even to consider doing it unless already baptized, regardless of church. But, obviously, being baptized and being in a "state of grace" are two separate concepts.
posted by praemunire at 8:17 AM on December 13, 2016

I just wanted to chime on not taking communion. I have not taken communion at Catholic, Lutheran (ELCA), and Presbyterian (PCUSA) services many times over the years and it isn't a big deal (my wife is a protestant Christian and I attend church with her and the Catholic services were at weddings). I just get up when my aisle of people gets up (so they don't have to squeeze past me), wait at the end of pew for people to pass, and sit back down. I think I technically might be allowed to take communion at the Presbyterian and Lutheran services (the minister at the Presbyterian service always says, "all are welcome at the table" or something like that), but I don't do it because I'm not a believer and I feel like it is something special to believers and I shouldn't participate just out of curiosity or because I don't want to stand out.
posted by Alluring Mouthbreather at 8:19 AM on December 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

At all the Methodist churches I've been to (in the west), the pastor will say that all are welcome to take communion if they wish. I take it (I've been baptized and confirmed), and I have no problem if atheists or agnostics or people of other faiths take communion. I am very happy when everyone joins in to sing, or passes the peace (handshakes or hugs to your neighbors), or just want to hang out in the back and observe. Not because I am secretly hoping they'll convert, but because I feel like church is supposed to be a welcoming, communal place for everyone to find joy and peace. Casual dress is fine, the service will usually follow the order printed in the bulletin, there will be a lot of standing and singing, standing for the doxology after the offering (feel free to throw in a few dollars or just pass the bowl or basket along), and then probably refreshments after, which you can skip of course if you're churched out. And everyone is welcome, no need to call ahead.
posted by umwhat at 8:39 AM on December 13, 2016

If you haven't seen Zach Anner's series Have a Little Faith, you might enjoy it as a preview to your research. It may not answer all your questions, but I found it to be informative, funny and sweet.
posted by Orange Dinosaur Slide at 8:43 AM on December 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

You can also check with interfaith centers at your local colleges & universities. These communities can be a good introduction to different religious services and are often (though not always; call/email ahead & check) open to the wider community.
posted by carrioncomfort at 8:53 AM on December 13, 2016

Great advice above. I'd also suggest checking out websites of the churches before you visit to see if there are special events coming up (dinners, musical programs, etc.). You can usually see bulletins and hear sermons there, too. Sometimes you can see pics of previous events. That would help to gauge the formality of the church and the diversity of the crowd. Most churches welcome visitors and don't judge on their clothes, but yeah, wear a nice professional-type outfit, or at least business casual, and bring a few dollars in case you're hit up for an offering. Just to be nice.
posted by jhope71 at 8:53 AM on December 13, 2016

I'd recommend trying a Church of Christ (not Universal Church of Christ or Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints - just Church of Christ). It's the denomination I grew up in and is welcoming to all visitors.

It is sort of like a more conservative version of the Baptist church. The CofC doesn't even use instruments in worship, but the acapella singing sounds amazing. At most of the churches I attended you might even have someone offer to take you out to lunch after. They are very friendly.

And communion is supposedly only for baptized believers, but it is just passed around on "plates" so you can take it or leave it.
posted by tacodave at 2:09 PM on December 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

I grew up in the Church of Christ as well, and visitors were always welcome. The description from tacodave is accurate and mirrors my experiences. The acapella singing... its one of the things I miss the most. If the congregation is of any sort of decent size, you'll have a lot of people that take it pretty seriously and it can be flat amazing. A CoC will typically be less organized than some of the other denominations. They'll be led by a minister, and may have a co-minister or two, but there's no real church hierarchy, especially any sort of structure that encompasses multiple congregations. CoC congregations tend to be on the smallish side, with membership in the hundreds for a decent sized city congregation (this can be larger in some big cities, but they tend to be smaller than other churches.) This is all from my own experiences, but I've seen that CoCs can also vary quite a bit due to the decentralized structure.
posted by azpenguin at 9:12 PM on December 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Just one note about Episcopal churches. You will find wide variation in whether non-baptized, non-believers are welcome to take communion. Just listen carefully -- if the priest says "all are welcome" he/she means it. Trust me, this is something they have thought through. If you hear this, you can take communion. If he/she says "all baptized Christians" or says nothing specific at all, don't partake unless you are baptized.

Even if you are not baptized, you can go up and get a blessing from the priest if you want. Just go up to where everyone is taking communion, kneel or stand (whichever everyone else is doing) and do this. The priest will make the sign of the cross on your forehead (which means he/she will touch your forehead with their hand and draw a cross on you) and say something like "in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, I offer my blessings upon you" (this may or may not be audible to you).

If you do take communion and want to take the bread only and not the wine (which is super common), just take the bread, then make that same gesture and don't drink the wine. Both of these things are totally normal and would not give anyone pause. I am a dedicated, faithful Episcopalian and a visible and recognized church leader, and I never, ever take the wine, because a) it's icky, and b) my mom is an alcoholic, and I think it is important for parishioners who may have issues with alcohol to see church leaders not taking the wine so that not taking it is normalized.
posted by OrangeDisk at 9:16 PM on December 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

These are all great. Thanks and love.
posted by sleepy psychonaut at 8:45 PM on December 15, 2016

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