Attending Church for the First Time (for Dummies)

Church

I remember the first time I stepped into a church.  I was in elementary school and there was one in my neighborhood.  When I stepped inside, I had this tremendous sense of awe.   I was seven years old, I probably didn’t even know what the word “awe” meant, but I felt it.  The wood pews, the huge white cross at the front, the deep purple curtains.  I felt like God was in that place and I also felt very very small, but not in a bad way.  It was something.

When I returned to church as an adult (with many years of sinnin’ behind me) my first reaction was certainly not awe, it was stress.

Admittedly, the style of church I visited did not look like what one would expect with a steeple, wood pews, and stained glass.  Classic?  Nope.  The church I attended was, essentially, a warehouse.  So it goes to show you, don’t judge a church by its exterior.  Those nerves were raw for me.  Let’s get this straight, when I attended church on this day, I wanted to be there.  I wasn’t dragged, guilted, hiding from a demon, or there on a bet.  But I was scared, nonetheless.  I saw people standing around chatting and laughing and I wondered if they knew what I’d done in my life.  I worried that I should have gotten my crap together better before attending so I’d be more ‘worthy’ to attend a “house of worship”.  Frankly, I freaked out a little that someone might point me out in the crowd and make me speak publicly, and I was especially concerned that they were judging me in some way.   I highly doubt my active imagination was accurate in what was going on in those peoples’ minds.  In fact, it’s entirely possible that, regardless of my obvious distress, they remember me at all.  (Especially as I was really good at hiding in plain sight.)

People have a lot of reasons for attending church, some are valid and some are not, but they are what they are.  Some attend church because they are Bible-believing Christians who want to know God better and spend time  (aka “fellowship”) with fellow believers.  Some people attend church because they figure if they go, they’re a “good” person and will go to heaven.  Others go because they’re brought by their parents so there’s not much choice in the matter.   Frankly, they’d rather be playing Xbox.   Believe it or not, some attend church because it makes them look trustworthy in the business arena.   Some haven’t really committed to anything, but they’re looking for meaning in life and they’ve tried some other things, but this God thing kind of nags at the back of their mind and so they’re here to do a bit of “personal research.”    They’re not committing their lives or anything, just seeking information.  And, finally, some people attend church because their lives are so  broken, so out of control, and so painful that all of the usual remedies haven’t worked and so, on a last ditch, they’re looking for God to maybe help them with the pain they are desperately trying to escape.

A few of these examples were valid.  See if you can figure out which ones.

Let’s get a few things straight.  I am a non-denominational Christian.   I could also be considered Protestant.  Sometimes, if people are being snarky, “fundamentalist”.   (Actually, I don’t take offense to that because I think of it as “getting back to the fundamentals” of the Bible.  So, bring it!)

Not All Churches Are Created Equal

There are good churches and there are bad churches.  It’s true.  Some are fantastic, some are terrible.  Just think of it like college: good instructors, bad instructors.  After all, churches are comprised of humans and we’re all different so it stands to reason that some will disappoint.  I consider a church “bad” if it:

  • strays from the Bible
  • doesn’t even mention the gospel (sin, repentance, Jesus, cross, Heaven, Hell)
  • doesn’t produce spiritual fruit in its members
  • preaches worldly treasures and focuses on emotion rather than truth

ProTip:  You don’t have to stay at the first church you attend. There are plenty of churches out there.  Plenty of them!  Some people pick a church based on location.  If you can find one that’s close, spirit-filled, biblically authentic and just plain fun with cool people, you hit pay dirt.  Sometimes, location isn’t the best reason to attend.  I actually drive 30 minutes to attend my church because it’s a great church.  I have heard stories of people who drive 3 hours to attend a church.

ProTip:  Find out if the church has a website.

You can read up on what they believe and, if you’re lucky, they may have a video or audio session of a previous sermon online that you can watch or listen to.  This is really helpful because it gives you a chance to “attend from a safe place”, as in, at home.   This also gives you a chance to find out what the pastor has to say, how he says it, and if he engages you in a meaningful way.  If you’re not “gelling” with the pastor or if he’s preaching in a way that makes no sense to you, then (barring the fact that you’re just not listening) showing up in person probably won’t be much better.

Okay, so you’ve checked out the website and you’ve given your friend/co-worker/family member the nod that you’ll attend with them.  Now it’s time to actually go.

Dress Code

This is an interesting topic because some churches still favor the “Sunday best” philosophy while others think it’s perfectly okay to show up in jeans and a t-shirt.  Usually, you can get a sense of what kind of church you’re attending by visiting the website.  If it seems edgy and casual, jeans are probably fine. Here’s a little insight behind the various dress codes:

Dressing Up

Some believe that in order to respect God, it makes sense to dress up.  This way, you show God that you mean business and you respect the institution of worship.  Some people like to dress up because, hey, it’s nice to dress up.  And other were simply raised this way.  They’re old school.

Dressing Comfortable

Some believe that God doesn’t care what you wear, as long as you show up because He’s more interested in your heart than the clothes on your back or how you fixed your hair.  They also want to make attending church “less painless” for people.  After all, nothing screams stress for the un-churched like having to throw on a 3-piece suit to sit on a bench and be told you’re going to hell for an hour.  This tactic is more of about approachability and comfort.  Ultimately, you’ll probably have a mix of both because church is full of people and people come in all shapes and sizes, backgrounds, clothing preferences, traditions, and preferences.

Bottom line:  God is glad that you’re there.

ProTip:  Ask your friends if there’s a dress code.

Honestly, if you don’t want to feel like you dressed wrong and will stick out like a sore thumb, just ask.   If you were invited by a friend, they’ll be more than glad to advise you.  In fact, you’ll probably wow them with your proactive approach to attending with them.  Dress code crisis averted and friend impressed.  Either way, it’s a win-win.

ProTip:  Bring a pen.

Most of the time, if there is writing to be done, churches will provide pens.  I happen to like bringing my own because I like how it writes.  Plus, I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked for a pen because someone nearby forgot to grab one from the lobby. But here’s why you might want to have one with you. Some services have fill-in-the-blanks, some offer paper to write notes on, some ask for you to fill out a “first time attender” card so that they can get in touch with you again and follow up.  (Some even send cookies for first-timers!)  You’ll probably want that pen for filling out any kind of form or taking notes.   If you forgot your cell phone, it’s also a good way to take down names, email address or phone numbers of people you may have met and want to reconnect with. If you’re the studious type like I am, you might even want to bring a notepad.  (Okay, I’m a bit of a goody two-shoes in that regard.)

The Arrival

If you drive with your friends, then you have the whole “showing up” thing covered.

I’ve been a Christian for over ten years and the first time I attended a new church (knowing at least three people already attending), I was still nervous!   If you’re lucky, your friends may provide some insight on what to expect as you pull up.   They might also completely overlook something like that because church, for them, is already comfortable.  They may not be thinking that you’re nervous or uncomfortable because they’re not.  No surprises for them.  So if you’re lucky enough to have a friend who gives you the play-by-play, enjoy it.  It sometimes helps.  Like at the doctor’s office.

Like I said, not all churches are created equal and some services vary on how they handle parking, seating, singing, service, giving, etc. If you’re attending a larger church, there may be people helping direct traffic.  Trust me, attending church service – at least in larger churches – can be like attending a sporting event.  People leave all at once after one service and then arrive all at once for the next one.  It’s usually pretty polite chaos.  (No one wants to come off as a jerk at church!)  The person directing traffic is most likely a volunteer who has offered their time so that you can get where you need to be. There may be some additional volunteers standing at the entrance of the church greeting people or providing directions.  When I first attended church I wanted to be utterly invisible so I steered clear of these particularly friendly people.  If you’re bold, unlike me, you could always ask them any questions you might have and they would be more than happy to answer.

ProTip:  If they have an Information Area, check it out.

There is usually a lot of information about the church, in the form of pamphlets or flyers, at information booths or on bulletin boards.  Many churches have plenty of different programs and one of them might apply to your situation.  Are you a single mom?  Are you looking for a men’s group?  Do you have children in preschool?  Do you have a blended family?   Want to join a Women’s group?  Poke around.  The whole reason these information areas exist is so that you, the first-timer, can get the information you need to connect with people or programs that can help you. It’s also a good way to pretend that you’re busy so you don’t have to talk to people.  (Yes, I really did have this kind of anxiety when I first attended church.)

Time to Take Your Seat

Usually, as you enter the sanctuary (fancy way of saying “auditorium”), there may be a greeter at the door offering programs.  Smile, take the paper, say hello, and you’re on your way.

If your first inclination is to sit at the back and hide, that’s okay.   No one is going to fault you for wanting to be alone, or wanting to be at the back.  Usually, people with small children or who may have to get up and leave during the service, tend to sit in the back. Once you’ve sat down, you’re free to read over the program and get the lay of the land.  Look around a bit.  Big auditorium?  Small?  Some offer free snacks and refreshments at the side of the room.  Check out the staging area.  Some churches have a stage where the band or choir works, others have a pulpit (fancy way of saying where the pastor stands when he speaks).  You can also take the time to look around at the people also attending the service with you.  Notice they come in all types.  No one is better or worse than anyone else, no matter how well they’ve packaged themselves.  We’re all on a spiritual walk, some may be a few laps ahead, some behind, but we’re all on the same course.

Worship

First off, what is worship?   This is our way of expressing to God and letting him know that we love him and thank him for all that we have.

Some churches have a song or three or five before service.  They can vary greatly from hymns that come from the 1800s to modern-day Christian rock.  There could be a woman at a piano, a choir, or a full band with drum kit and electric guitar.  It really depends on the church you’re attending.  Usually, they’ll have the words to the songs on a monitor.  Some churches still use hymnals and they’ll have the page or the number of the hymn displayed for you.  Just follow along.  If you want to sing, sing.  If you don’t, don’t.

Again, there is no right way to do this.

When I first attended church service as a seeker, it felt like every single song was directed right at me and my situation.  It was like they were written just for me.  I’m not a particularly emotional person, but I found myself near to tears, with a huge lump in my throat, at times during these songs.  As emotional as I was, however, I felt so relieved to know that I wasn’t alone!

Some churches have you stand for the singing, some don’t, some have a mix of some standing and some sitting.   How you worship is up to you.  Everyone is different.   When I first attended church, I was so busy trying to hide that I was crying because the songs were so beautiful that I didn’t notice people around me might have one hand raised, or two, or have their heads bowed with their eyes closed.  Some people danced at the faster tunes and others just sat on their chairs and watched the whole thing.

Pro-Tip:  Do what is comfortable to you during worship.

After a few songs, there may be a quick prayer and you’re instructed to go ahead and sit down.  Usually, they throw in the “greet a neighbor” curve-ball, so you may have someone spontaneously lean over and introduce themselves.  Just go with it, you’re not rude, after all.  If you don’t feel comfortable speaking to anyone, then just focus on that wonderful program, it’s the universal language of, “please leave me alone”.

The Service

Again, not all services are created equal.  Sometimes, pastors will start off by giving some church news like events that are coming up or anything else that is particularly important to pass on to everyone at the same time.  Some of this may be valuable to you.  Usually, all of this information is also in the program you’ve got in your hand so if you’re worried about forgetting everything, it’s probably there (and they’ll probably mention that).  If it’s not in that paper, it’s a safe bet it’s on the website.  (Aren’t you glad you went there?)

Most pastors start with a quick prayer before launching in to a sermon (a fancy way of saying “what the service is about”).

There are two types of sermons:  topical and expository.  Most sermon series last a few weeks, some can last years.

A topical sermon is topic oriented.  It has a theme and the pastor will give anecdotes and stories accompanied by some Bible verses to tie it all together.

Examples:

  • strengthening your marriage
  • the attributes of God
  • making a fresh start
  • getting over loss

An expository sermon teaches the Bible through history, stories, geography, culture, and data.  This kind of teaching takes a book of the Bible and digs into the intricacies of what happened at the time of the author’s writing while, simultaneously, tying it to today’s world.  This does two things:  it provides insight into what things were like “back then” and how today we still do the same crap.  But it also provides insight into the human condition, shows us that we all make mistakes, and gives a way to make our lives better.   If you’re a history buff, and your pastor is thorough, this is like winning the jackpot.

Examples:

  • Romans
  • Genesis
  • 1 Corinthians
  • Isaiah

When I was still figuring out if this whole “church thing” was for me, I really enjoyed the topical sermons because they were light, tended to be spiritually bite-sized (read:  not overwhelming), and usually were accompanied by fill-in-the-blanks.  Not all churches do this, but some do.  I would write in the margins any thoughts or phrases or Bible verses that the pastor mentioned that spoke to me.

If you have a funny pastor (say what?  laugh at church?  no way!), this makes learning all this stuff even more fun and less stressy. Years later, as I matured in my faith, I found topical teaching to be too light.  I wanted to dig deeper into the Bible to find out more about God, the key players like Abraham or David and Jesus, and I especially wanted to know how things that happened thousands of years ago, could possibly help me in my life today.  A great pastor can tie it all together and not only make it fascinating, but relevant and actionable.

Honestly, it’s a journey that you take.  Some people may be satisfied with topical teaching and others may want to dive in to the expository teaching.  Both are valid and both are interesting.

Stuff They (Might) Do During the Service

ProTip:  If they do an “offering plate”, do not feel pressured to give.

Some churches will pass an offering basket.  If you are a first-time attender, do not feel pressured to give!!

Any pastor worth his salt will tell you that this is for regular attenders or members.  You are a guest.  You are not in any way obligated to give any money.  If you want to, you are welcome to, but please don’t feel like you have to.

Nothing turns off a newcomer faster than feeling like they’re being milked for money.

This is a touchy subject because what with the church’s history with the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakkers and Oral Roberts, we have a naturally healthy skepticism when it comes to church and money.  So when the issue of giving comes up, the gut thinks, “Here we go.  This is how they get you.”

The fact is, there are many decent churches out there that get short-shifted because people incorrectly assume that all churches are money-grubbing fakes who don’t care about you, they just want your cash for their fancy cars and jet planes. I’m not going to lie, some might.  If you discover that to be the case, run.

The reality is that churches rely on tithes (1/10th of a member’s income) or offerings (a gift of money, any amount) to survive.  This is how they pay the rent on the building, pay for utilities, provide free programs, those tasty snacks and refreshments, and how they sponsor events or missions.   Not all churches want to steal from you.  But, like I said, if you’re uncomfortable (even if you think the church is legit), then don’t participate.

ProTip:  Your donation is tax deductible.

If you give, say, a dollar, don’t expect a receipt. However, if you decide to become a member of that church and opt to give regularly, at the end of the year, the church is required to send you a tax donation receipt stating how much you donated for the year.  And, yes, you can use this for your taxes.

Communion

Most people think Communion is a Roman Catholic thing.  It’s not.

In the Christian faith, Communion is performed as a token of remembrance.   Jesus, at the last supper, gave his twelve disciples bread and wine to eat and drink “in remembrance” of him.   He knew that he was going to the cross, even though they didn’t, and he wanted them to understand the significance of this eternity-changing sacrifice.

Some churches use wafers, others use crackers.  Some use wine, others use Kool-Aid.   Usually, the pastor will give a quick how-to on what communion is while volunteers pass around crackers and a cup to each person.  Sometimes they hand you a tray and you take one and pass it down.  There is traditionally a quick prayer and then you eat and drink. Some churches have communion once a month, once every few months, once every few weeks, or every week.   The key to remember is that if you’re uncomfortable or don’t understand the purpose of Communion, you don’t have to participate.

The Tithing Sermon

This used to happen at my previous church.  My husband and I would invite a friend to church and that was the day the pastor decided to give “the tithing sermon” where he explained why everyone should tithe and biblical verses to back it up.

Some Christians believe that tithing was an Old Testament ritual that is no longer in effect.  Others believe that it is valid today and give their 10% consistently each week. Again, this is something that is for members of a church, not for visitors.  As I said, not even all members agree on the theology or necessity.

The bottom line, however, is this:  God does not want gifts given grudgingly.

If your heart is not into giving and you feel pressured or stressed out or angry that you “have” to do it, don’t.  God only wants gifts from a willing and cheerful giver, no matter what the pastor says.  Again, this is not for a guest, but it sucks that you have to sit through it because – for some people – this feels like a sales pitch. Don’t feel guilty.  Odds are, the next service will be about something more interesting.

Altar Call

Some churches have what is called an “altar call”.  This is for people who want to come down to the front of the church and be prayed for (by prayer volunteers) or get on their knees and commit their life to Christ.

This is probably the single-most scariest aspect of church:  getting up in front of strangers when you are at your most vulnerable!

When the pastor says, “If anyone would like to come down and…” there are usually two reactions:   “Heck no!” and “I do, but I’m scared.” If you are of the ‘heck no’ variety, stay seated.  Just watch others go up front and see what happens.  If it’s not for you, it’s not for you.

If I haven’t repeated it enough, there is no one-size-fits-all church experience. If, however, you feel this urge to go forward, but you are absolutely terrified that people are staring at you and judging you, ignore everyone and go.  Trust me, if you don’t, it will bug you.  Like a nagging toothache.  If your conscience is propelling you forward, bottle up that courage and go.  What is the worst thing that can happen to you?  You burst into flames?  Someone sees you?   You feel embarrassed?  That passes.  The best thing to happen is that you decide make a change in your heart and your mind and nothing is ever the same.

Church Etiquette

Nothing ruins a service faster than distractions.  It’s essentially movie-theatre etiquette so none of this should come as a surprise.

  • Don’t talk or whisper
  • Turn off your cell phone so it doesn’t ring during service
  • Take fussy babies outside
  • Tablets can be distracting (even if you’re using YouVersion of the Bible app) and even more-so if you switch from scripture to the Stock Exchange
  • Move all the way down the row (yes, you have a better view where you are, but it forces people to hike over you to get to the end and that’s embarrassing if service has already started)
  • If you decide to give, have the correct amount on hand.  Getting “change” just looks weird.

After the Service

Hey, you survived!  Woo!  Great job!

There may be singing at the end before everyone packs up, there may be a quick prayer, and you’re done.  It depends on the church. Many people tend to conglomerate in the halls or some central location at the end of service.  This is usually where they are hanging out, chatting, planning get-togethers, or making lunch plans to go to a nearby restaurant.  You can either join in the fun or slip out invisibly.

If you just want to go home and process everything that just happened, don’t feel obligated to be social.  Church is kind of a big deal.  It’s okay to feel overwhelmed.  Maybe the pastor said a few things and, again, you thought, “Did someone send this guy my diary??”  That happens.  It’s happened a lot, in fact, to church newcomers.  And it’s not by coincidence.

You may find that after service, you’re thinking about what you heard.  You may find that you see “signs” here and there pointing back to church or what the pastor said.  Maybe a radio spot, or something on TV, or a billboard.  That happened to me.  It was like everywhere I turned, I was getting these signs that would answer questions I’d been asking.  And that got me thinking about God.  And that got me thinking about church.  And that got me wanting to attend the next week.

However, if you attended and it just didn’t happen for you.  You heard the words and everyone seemed happy and into it, but it just wasn’t for you, then it just wasn’t for you.

You can examine what your objections are: was something the pastor saying in direct contradiction to a belief or world view that you hold?  Chances are, he did.  God’s perspective and the world’s perspective are often at odds.

Did you not like the service because you felt guilty about something in particular?  Something maybe you didn’t feel guilty about before?  There’s a term for that, it’s called “conviction” and it’s uncomfortable and unpleasant.  But it’s also a really good thing.  Your conscience is being pricked, we believe, by the Holy Spirit, so you can choose to ignore it, or follow up on it.  Maybe you can ask one of your friends. If you’re not at all interested in airing your dirty laundry to friends, then pray.  One of the very first things I prayed for was to not be afraid to find out who God truly is.  You’d think that would be something not even worth praying for, but how many times have we said,

“Oh, well God wouldn’t do that.”

As if we know the mind of God: the creator of the universe.

We like to fit God in a box to make Him more palatable.  We like to pretend we know what He thinks, but we don’t.  Well, there is a lot about Him in the Bible. Sometimes, we create an image of God that lets us do what we want, even though the Bible says it’s not okay.  We do that because we want to do what we’re doing and we don’t want to feel bad about it.  So rather than not do that thing anymore, we justify it.  At some point, we have to take a long hard look at what “that thing” is and decide if we’re going to go our way or God’s way. And, frankly, that is where most people say “no” to church.  They are not willing to walk away from (here’s a neat word for you “repent” – that means turn away from) things like sleeping with their girlfriend before marriage, or not lying, or not lusting after women, or not stealing things from work or downloading software without paying for it, etc.

ProTip:  Before you say ‘no’ to church, ask yourself why and be truly honest in your answer.

If at First You Don’t Succeed…

Some people like church from the first service.  They felt compelled to attend and everything felt like it was just for them.  That was my situation, once I felt compelled to find out more about God.  In fact, the service was so emotional for me, I was grateful that I sat in back because many times during the service I was worried I was going to lose it.  My heart ached.  Tears streamed down my cheeks.  And I had a sense of “my gosh, someone gets it”.

Before I had that calling, church was – frankly – boring.  It was over my head, I thought it was tedious, and none of it really mattered to me.  So, consider that.

If you are just there because you couldn’t get out of a bet or you were pressured, odds are, you didn’t have an open mind and decided before you walked in the door it wasn’t for you.  Okay, but consider the opportunity.   We like to say things like this are not a coincidence.  So consider that for a second.  Is this God’s way of getting your attention?  See if you’d be interested in coming back again.  Maybe there was something you missed.  If not, then maybe now is not the right time for you.  Listen to your heart and if it starts nagging you to go, then go.  There’s a reason for it.

Final Thoughts

ProTip:  Not all churches are created equal.

Like I said, who you are and where you are in your walk will have an impact on the kind of church that appeals to you. If you attend a church and it just doesn’t work for you, but you think it’s the church, not the message, then find another one.  Do some research online and see if there is another church in your area.  Maybe the church for you is in another city.  Never know.  Keep looking.  Again, check out the website and see if you can watch a sermon online.

ProTip:  Don’t judge God by broken humans attending church.

Many times, I have heard people say that the pastor was a hypocrite and so they never attended church again.  In fact, they gave up on religion altogether, surmising it as a scam.  Humans are imperfect.  God isn’t.  Don’t judge Jesus or God by the “Christian” who was rude to you in the coffee line, or the pastor who confessed he committed adultery and was leaving his wife.

We humans are not perfect, even if we’re dressed nice.

As I said in the beginning, many people attend church and some are true believers, some are mature believers, some are new to the faith, some are completely broken, some are just starting to get their lives sorted out, some aren’t believers at all, they just figure that they will go to heaven because they warm a pew each week.

In fact, “church” isn’t a building at all, it’s a group of believers who are gathered together.  A building is just a building.  It’s not magical.  Yes, there can be an energy about a really awesome house of worship where all the believers are on fire for God. Again, don’t take your disappointment out on God because humans let you down.  God will never let you down.  Find another church.

ProTip:  Sometimes, people get it wrong.

Even pastors. Don’t blindly trust a pastor you’ve just met.  They are not all created equal.  Verify what he says against what the Bible says.  Between the Bible and a human being, the Bible wins.  Human beings, with the best of intentions, tend to have human agendas and perspectives, even on scripture.  Sorry, but it’s true.  Any good pastor worth his salt will also tell you to verify and research what he has taught.  That is a biblical teaching.  If you believe that the Bible is the inerrant, inspired word of God (as in, yes, it was written by man, but man is only the instrument, as God is the writer and man is the pen), then the Bible wins out.

There are plenty of Christian resources out there to help you answer questions.  I hope this helps you!

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