A Visitor's Crash Course in Unspoken Church Rules
Image: Duncan Harris / Flickr

Pssst. Pssst. Hey. New here? I’m guessing you are, since you’ve been pretending to read the bulletin for the past four minutes. And you’re more dressed up than our pastor. I know you came here on the recommendation of a friend, but look, things aren’t as straightforward as they appear. Let me give you some advice, from someone who’s been where you are.

So, first things first: you’ll need to know what to do with your hands. This is the 11 a.m. service, so you should feel free to raise an arm during the chorus of faster-paced songs, or during slower songs when imagery like “cross” or “blood” is evoked. (Side note: the word “victory” always gets two hands. Always.) You can also join in on the occasional clapping. If you’re uncoordinated, don’t worry—most of us don’t know how to clap on the off-beats, either.

Yeah, I know that’s all weirdly specific; if it’s too much to remember, you may want to check out the early-bird service next time. They seem to be a little sleepy and sparse with their mid-song motions: light taps on the pew in front of them, subtle head nods, those sorts of things. You may fit right in.

Also, if you get to talking with folks after a while, there’s this—hmm, how can I put this delicately? Let’s just say you should be prepared to field questions about your “spousal situation.” If you’re single, don’t be alarmed when couples attempt to conceal a grimace; they’ll soon undertake the role of cloying matchmaker. It’s a tired ordeal, but I promise they generally mean well.

If you’re married, though, expect a lot more invitations to more couples-y events than you could possibly entertain. Say “yes” to all of them—trust me, most won’t materialize. And, if you have kids, be able to articulate your opinion on public versus private versus home school education. Your views on the matter are of huge impor—

You know what, scratch that. Better to play your cards close to your chest on that one. Those debates can get vicious.

Another tip: Brace yourself for a lot of people referencing and recommending books. Lots and lots of books. Libraries full. In the narthex, you’ll notice a little bookstore. In the sermon, you’ll get bombarded by block quotes from books. Folks here are hungry for the opportunity: “New here? Interested in joining a small group? Vaguely human? Here’s a book you have to read.” Just go ahead and load your Amazon shopping cart with C. S. Lewis books; our pastor quotes C. S. Lewis more than C. S. Lewis quoted C. S. Lewis.

Finally—and this is where a lot of newbies hit a snag—try to figure out the guy-girl hugging policy. This is where things get confusing. Obviously, there’s no hugging on the initial meeting—unless, of course, you’re trying to establish yourself as a safe, “huggy” person, but understand that’s a gambit very few have been able to pull off. After that, there’s a lot of variance, even in this congregation. The safest play is to just go ahead and embrace being the person who always waves to the opposite sex. If you forego the wave route, though, you’ll need to know when and how to side-hug. Don’t ask me, though—I’ve been a member here for six years, and I still approach side-hugging with the grace and tact of a tipsy giraffe.

Okay. . . I know that’s a lot to take in with your Biscoff cookie and weak coffee. And trust me, there are still tons more rules to unearth and terms to decrypt in the days ahead. Really, though—we’re glad you’re here. But I’m going to have to pause there. The music’s starting, and I need to secure that sweet, sweet aisle seat in row three.

November
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Christianity Today
A Visitor's Crash Course in Unspoken Church Rules