Help! I'm new to church, what should I know?

If you're going to a church for the first time, or the first time in a long time it can be very daunting. I know of a number of people who have decided (or been invited) to go to a church and have had to really pluck up the courage to go. Some have got there and not been brave enough to go in. If you recognise this, then this page should help you.

The first thing to remember is that the church really want you to go. All churches are trying very hard to attract new people

The next thing people are concerned about is getting things wrong (standing up when everyone else sits down, not knowing what to say or do, etc)

Here's some tips:
Never judge a book by its cover but... use it to get some clues. You can get some idea from the outside of the building. Look at the notice board to find the times of the services, and you can usually find out something about the congregation. Does the noticeboard say 'Mass'? if so it is likely to be a church that uses liturgy and vestments. You can learn a lot from the noticeboard. Find out from this website what sort of church you might like to try, and look for keywords that will help you decide. If you know you don't want 'high' church with liturgy and vestments don't go for 'catholic' or similar churches. If you are concerned about being made to expose your own beliefs, you might be better going to a 'high' church rather than an evangelical  chapel.
Next look on the noticeboard for other things. You can usually tell if there are other activities, which say more about a church than most realise. Is there a young persons club? Are there sales, sports activities, lunch clubs etc? You can get a feel for the church before you go. If you have young children look for keywords like 'family friendly service' or 'all age worship'.
Try and get other clues. Is the building large and grand or is it small and simple? Is it in good repair or a little shabby?
Once you have got some clues, remind yourself that you must not judge a book by its cover. The small shabby chapel may hold high church principles, and you might or might  not be comfortable in worship there. Even so, it is worth trying to assess what you can before you go for the first time. If nothing else, you can ensure that you arrive on time, and not draw attention to yourself by arriving after the service has started.

Don't judge a book by the cover, and don't judge a congregation from the outside of the building. These pictures are of St Andrews (Church of England) in Kinson, Bournemouth UK. The building is 900 or so years old, steeped in history. Inside there is meaningful worship, just as there has been for centuries, but now there are computers, overhead projectors, electric guitars, microphones etc. It is a real 'happening' and growing church, as you can see from the picture of the inside.

Do some research
Find out what you can about the church you think you will try. Find out what denomination it is and look up that denomination on this website. Visit the churches own website and look through it. You will help yourself to understand if you will feel comfortble or not trying it out. Remember, though, that you can't know whether you will be happy in the pews of a particular church just from one visit, or two.

Going for the first time
If you are a church regular and are visiting another church (perhaps you are on holiday or similar) you will already have an idea of what to expect. Sure, all churches are unique and have a different 'feel' but you will know the basic outline. Even so, following these basic steps might help you to feel comfortable visiting a denomination that you otherwise might not. To share and celebrate another 'flavour' of Christian worship, like travel, expands the mind.

If you have never been to a church before, or maybe not since you were a child, it can be frightening. If this is you, you are not alone!

Aim to arrive at the church door 10 minutes before the advertised start time for the service. Do not arrive very early. Don't turn up late either: the church won't mind, but you may feel self conscious at a time when you would rather not! When you arrive you will be greeted by a steward, someone who will give you the books, and usually show you where to sit. I suggest you say you are a visitor. If there is a service sheet, it will explain what the order of the service will be. If there is'nt ask the steward what page the service is on. Then you can read through while you wait for the service to start.

Don't sit at the front, but, for the same reason, don't sit right at the very back either. If you sit near the back of the church, and the congregation sits in the front ten or so rows, you could be a long way out of it! Ask the steward for a seat near to the back of the area where the congregation will be. Don't be afraid to move if you are in the wrong place!

Plan ahead. Don't do anything that will cause you discomfort or embarassment: The church want you to feel welcome. Turn off your mobile phone, for example. Don't take photographs with a flash (or loud camera) unless you have express permission. If you know the hymns, join in. If you don't: don't. Don't mouth the actions to make it look like you are singing. Just be you. If you're not singing, don't pretend you are. (I remember a service at a large Methodist church - the one I was married in as it happens- and it was a parade service with the scouts and other uniformed sections taking part. I found it really funny when the scouts stood up to sing the hymn they had chosen. The remainder of the congregation stayed seated for this: the scouts were to sing their hymn. About forty of them stood and faced the main congregation. The organ played away. Their jaws went up and down. There was no sound - only the organ!) Don't fake it. If you can't or don't want to sing, stand while the congregation stand to sing their hymn (not a good idea to stand if they are singing seated) and you can just enjoy the moment, imagine they are singing to you; in fact the words of the hymn might just say something to you.

Many newcomers are worried about the service order. They worry about standing at the wrong time, or not knowing when to sit down. If you are, I can say this to you: in many services, the leader will tell you when to stand or sit. Sometimes directly ("Let us stand and sing....." or "please be seated") sometimes less directly. This is why you're sitting near the back, but not right at the back. You can see when the others stand or sit. Easy!!

Another source of worry is at communion/eucharist/mass. Many newcomers do not go forward at communion time. If you feel happier, remain in your seat and just enjoy the atmosphere. No one will criticise you for doing this. However, do not be put off going forward if that is what you want to do. The whole reason the church exists is because Jesus commanded "go and make disciples of all people" He also said " Let them come to me" (he was talking about children, and we are all His children). No church worth it's name will sneer or criticise you if you go forward. In fact, in many churches the leader will say something like "we welcome ALL who want to find Jesus to come forward and share in this sacrament, but those who don't wish to may either remain seated, but we would prefer if you came forward for a blessing if you don't want to receive communion". Some High churches will not administer communion to those who are not actually within their membership. If this is so, go forward anyway. They will bless you as a visitor, which is not an inoble thing anyway! You will have said you are a visitor at the entrance. I've visited loads of churches. You won't have a problem. You just need to know what to expect.

Money at collection time is a source of worry or embarassment. Many churches no longer hold collections for this very reason. If this is so, there will be a collection box or bag near the door. If you wish to give do so. Do not give much: if you feel you have to be seen to be generous you will feel uncomfortable and the church will too. If the church does hold a 'collection' have a few coins ready in an easy to access pocket if you want to give, otherwise, just pass the tray or bag along. Give as you are minded. None will do too if that is what you feel. Don't be embarassed by giving nothing, as long as that is your choice. It is not compulsory, It is not like a train fare. The church really just wants you to be comfortable visiting and being in a place of worship.

Sometimes people are concerned about other people at the church judging them or looking down upon the visitor. The church is not like that. ALL people are completely equal before God, from the Pope, right across to the down and out who sleeps on the park bench. You will however, occasionally find some who do this: they like to feel big and important. All I can do is apologise for them now, before you go to the church. Please don't let them put you off visiting. There are very few of them, but they have been stereotyped as  a 'church-goer', in many television programs. Funny enough they do fit one of two stereotypes: posh suits, immaculately dressed, shining car outside the church, usually with a 'fish' symbol on the back bumper: "successful people". The other group dress down: woolly jumpers, informal wear; like to be seen to be animal lovers and re-cyclers. They are often vegetarian. They regularly remind you that they are "Christian". You will come across these I am afraid, but there are'nt that many of them. Most normal people who go to church (actually, I have yet to meet even one 'normal' person at church!). They are all just like you, and me. Ordinary people, frightened sometimes, happy on occasions, less so at others, varied, unique, and made in God's image. When  you meet a "church-goer" or a "Christian" it will say more about them, than it does about you. Visit the church. Go anyway. Enjoy going - you'll be welcome.