As some of you know, I’ve recently found myself engaged in the project of visiting as many churches and other religious groups in my local community as I can. I have a spreadsheet which currently has 143 entries; thus far, I’ve visited 41 of them. (My hope is to see another 60 or so in the coming year, but I’ll have to see how long my energy holds up.) I’ve seen Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Church of Christ, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Lutherans, Jews, Seventh-Day Adventists, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Eastern Orthodox, Muslims, Christian Scientists, Unitarians, Pagans, Buddhists, and lots of nondenominational Protestants. These are some random observations arising from my experiences thus far.
1) A clear, informative website is hugely helpful for visitors. At the very least, it’s nice to have worship times clearly stated on the front page. (One memorable website I consulted was so focused on sharing its biblical values that you had to seriously hunt to find out when the church met.) A bonus is a section for new people sharing what to expect in the service, and what to wear. It’s also nice if you can post worship times at your physical building. I’ve had a few experiences now of being misled by an out-of-date website and showing up for a service that wasn’t taking place, but at least the church displayed information about its schedule, which I was able to note for future reference.
2) Communion is done in all kinds of ways: passed out to the congregation, people going up and kneeling at an altar rail, people going up to a table and taking it. The kinds of bread vary (actual bread which people rip pieces from, wafers, etc.), as does whether grape juice or wine is used. (I don’t think I’ve seen water yet outside of an LDS context.) Some have a common cup, but more common is to have lots of little plastic cups. With the latter, some include logistics which allow for holding the bread and wine/grape juice for a few minutes and reflecting, but some require you to drink it right away so you can properly dispose of the cup.
As far as rules about who can take it—these vary from the completely open policy of the Disciples of Christ (Communion is for everyone in attendance, full stop), to the more common open to baptized Christians rule found among groups like Episcopalians and Methodists (though that of course raises the question of who counts as a baptized Christian, which can be particularly tricky for a Mormon), to the narrower rule of limiting it to people in your denomination (Catholics, Orthodox, Missouri Synod Lutherans), to the narrowest of all of giving it to only some members of your denomination (JWs). Or there’s the approach taken by Mormons as well as some other groups in which there is no clear rule and you have to kind of play it by ear.
3) At least where I live, Sunday at 10:00 am is by far the most popular time to meet, followed by Sunday at 10:30 am. This situation poses some challenges for the person who is trying to visit lots of churches. Some groups, especially Baptists, Pentecostals, and Churches of Christ, also have a Sunday evening service. Wednesday is the favorite night of the week for more religious services and activities. And while some groups have relatively early services (at 8:00 or even 7:00), it’s the rare church that will have anything late in the evening (though the local Newman Center, which a Catholic center for university students, does have a 9:00 pm Mass during the school year).
4) Hymnbooks are perhaps the most ecumenical part of contemporary Christian worship, with familiar hymns being sung in a wide variety of denominations. The Catholics sing Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” The Baptists have “Come Come Ye Saints” in their hymnbook. I’ve found it’s the rare church I’ve attended which doesn’t have any hymns in their hymnal that are familiar to me (though there are a few, like the JWs, that seem to have only hymns exclusive to their tradition).
5) You might accuse me of being an obsessive feminist, but I definitely notice how different congregational responsibilities are gendered. It sends a pretty strong message when literally every part of the service (preaching, collecting the offertory, reading scriptures, prayers) is performed only by males. I’m also struck by just how common it is to have all the church leadership roles be filled by men—and then have women serving in secretarial roles. Evidently for many traditions, it’s okay for women to contribute to ecclesiastical life just so long as they don’t have any actual authority? Also, while I heard all my life that it didn’t really matter who was running things at church because it was really God running them (and, somewhat confusingly, since it didn’t matter it was important to only have men doing it), I’ve found that it’s actually a delightful experience to see women running meetings and celebrating the sacraments. My first time getting a blessing from a female priest was one of the most significant moments in my early visits to the Episcopal church.
6) I particularly appreciate churches that do things like hand out bulletins with clear outlines of what will happen during the service, including notes about when to stand and sit and what to say. Clear guidelines about who is allowed to take Communion are also helpful. The local ECLA church had a handy laminated bookmark stuck in their hymnal which explained that it was open Communion, and the specific details of how it would be distributed: you went up when the usher indicated and stood in a circle and the pastor brought it around, and you could opt for a common cup or a little cup, and for wine or grape juice. Complicated enough that I thought it was a good idea to spell it out for newcomers.
7) Traditional forms of music don’t have a monopoly on being legitimate and meaningful forms of worship that can enhance spiritual experience. I admit that I went into this with a strong bias: I like high church services, with their elaborate liturgy and traditional (and beautiful) music. I was wary of rock bands. But this experience has pushed me to examine my prejudices, and I’ve come to question the idea that an organ, say, is inherently worshipful in a way that an electric guitar can never be. I still love traditional worship services, but I’ve seen some really good rock bands and even been moved by them as well.
8) Churches don’t always have the best sense of what makes them unique. I’ve seen churches claim to be unique because they believe that Jesus is really present in the elements of Communion, or because they do Communion weekly, or because they think the Bible is inerrant—three characteristics that are definitely not shared by everyone, but are also not particularly unusual. I realize it can be a challenge to get a handle on this, though; even after years of religious study, I’m still figuring out where Mormons are different and not different from other churches. Growing up, I thought that Mormons were unique because of our belief in being guided by the Spirit, but I have yet to see a Christian church that doesn’t think they’re being guided by the Spirit. I also was under the impression that the term “testimony” in a religious context to describe your spiritual convictions was an LDS peculiarity, but I’ve found that plenty of churches have people sharing “testimonies.” So what’s actually relatively unique about LDS services? Right now I would say that possibilities include using water in the sacrament rather than grape juice or wine, not having music during the sacrament, the three-hour block, and having someone stand up front waving their hand to lead the music when the congregation sings (I’ve so far only seen one other church, the Reformed Presbyterians, do that last one).
9) It’s very off-putting to spend a lot of time talking about either how much better your church is than other churches, or how evil and awful “the world” is (in implicit comparison to the righteous/enlightened members of your group). I’ve been to a lot of churches that are much, much more conservative than I am, and I’ve heard stuff about gender roles and gay people that I very much disagreed with. But I kind of expected that. The most negative experiences I’ve had, though, didn’t involve those hot-button social issues, but rather were at churches which mostly focused on the failings of others. I’ve been inspired by sermons at churches with which I have deep theological disagreements, because they were focused on things like helping the people in attendance build a better relationship with God. And I’ve come to think that if a church really is great, you’ll figure it out through your experience of it—not because people emphasize over the pulpit how superior it is to others.
10) All things being equal, a good sermon is a short sermon. I’ve heard many, many sermons at this point. In churches which focus more on preaching than on liturgy, they can go as long as an hour (or more). Rarely, though, have I heard a sermon that made me think, wow, I wish the pastor had continued and expanded on those points even more. But I have often thought, those were some really good points, and they likely could have been made just as effectively in half the time. (Though maybe that’s reflecting a non-Protestant orientation to religious services on my part—I realize that for many churches, the preaching of the Word is kind of the point of it all.)
11) The Bible is many things, but a clear guide to how to structure your worship it is not. If nothing else, I think this can seen in the simple fact that so many churches claim to be following the Bible with exactness—and then they do different things. I will admit that I did not previously know that the question of whether to use musical instruments in worship was so contested—does the lack of mention of any such thing in the New Testament mean that contemporary believers should also eschew their use? Opinions vary widely. Some groups are even so committed to following the Bible and just the Bible that they will only sing Psalms. Or what about the issue of a common cup versus lots of little cups for Communion? The New Testament doesn’t offer a lot of guidance there, but that hasn’t stopped groups from splitting over the question. I’ve seen the claim made from a wide variety of groups that unlike everyone else, they are offering an authentic experience that closely replicates what worship was like for the primitive church. I must confess to being generally dubious.
12) Canned expressions of belief are deadly, not faith-promoting. When I’m in a church setting in which people are, to put it in Mormon terminology, asking the questions from the manual and responding with the correct Sunday School answers, and there’s no hint of substantive discussion or mention of the actual complexities of life, I feel like my brain shuts down and I have zero interest in what they’re saying. And it’s been striking to me to notice my extremely negative reaction to this dynamic in non-Mormon settings. I’ve so often heard from other Latter-day Saints that we need to make sure everything we say in the hearing of a non-member is properly faith-promoting, which usually means scripted in a particular way and carefully skirting anything negative. But even thinking about this issue on a practical level, it’s hard for me to believe that this sort of behavior actually comes across as faith-promoting to outsiders. I can only speak for myself, of course. But when I hear people talk about their faith tradition being challenging, or genuinely wrestling with what it means, I’m usually riveted. When they just drone on about how perfect it is, my attention wanders.
13) Technology has invaded most worship spaces. I’ve found so far that it’s the rare church that doesn’t have some sort of electronic screen at the front on which to display things like hymn lyrics, scriptural passages, and visual aids. The exceptions to this are mostly churches which are very high church in their worship style. But it’s made me curious: how long before electronic screens appear in Mormon chapels? (I don’t see any real doctrinal objections here, or even many cultural ones, given that the LDS church seems to be fairly enthusiastic about embracing things like movies—in fact, can you think of another group with a liturgical movie?)
14) People are just people, wherever you go—and they’re usually pretty friendly. I have to admit that there have been some religious groups that I’ve been a bit nervous to visit, that I’ve found myself thinking things like, these beliefs strike me as so incredibly weird that I don’t know how it will be to interact with members of this group. (It’s given me perhaps more appreciation of how others might sometimes feel about Mormons.) And then I’ve gone and discovered that once again, they’re just regular people—not some kind of aliens. Also, my experience is that people in all kinds of religious groups are overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming to newcomers. (Baptists, Pentecostals, and large nondenominational churches might even give you a gift of a mug or a water bottle.)
15) God moves in mysterious ways, and speaks in many languages. I realize that’s not a particularly original observation. And on the one hand, seeing a wide variety of groups claim with supreme confidence that they’ve got a real handle on the nature of the divine, that they are God’s specially chosen group in some way, or that they interpret sacred texts better than anyone else, has raised some real questions for me, and made me even more skeptical about exclusivist religious claims. In that way, it hasn’t exactly been a faith-promoting experience. But in another way, it has. To my own surprise, I’ve had experiences I can only describe as spiritual in settings where I did not expect to have them. Theologian Mark Heim, who writes a lot about pluralism, makes an observation that I’ve come back to again and again (and probably quoted on this blog before). Because each of us has a unique relationship to God, he says, there are facets of the divine that we can never learn on our own, but only in relationship to one another, as we learn from other people’s experiences of God. That applies not just to individuals, but to religious traditions. I’m still working out a theology of pluralism that makes sense to me. The happy idea that all roads lead to God strikes me as too facile, and lacking any rigor. At the same time, I have to say that my testimony that God is at work in the world in many different ways and many diverse places, has grown by leaps and bounds.