Originally written by Michael A. Covington. Please feel free to adapt this document to your own needs. If you distribute an altered version, please indicate who altered it and who distributes it.
All churches welcome visitors, but sometimes, people are afraid to visit because they don't know what's expected of them. On this web page I want to answer questions that are likely to be uppermost in the minds of anyone thinking of visiting any kind of Christian church.
(1) How should I dress?
Your attire for church should be modest and suitable for a reasonably dignified occasion. Times have changed, and it's no longer necessary for men to wear suits and ties or women to wear dresses (though many still do). You'll find that not everyone dresses alike, with some people dressed very formally and others dressed for school or the office. Personally, I dress a bit informally so that other people without fancy clothes won't feel left out.
Of course, don't dress to show off, don't dress as if for a cocktail party or sporting event, and don't wear anything deliberately offensive. But the clothes you normally wear when dealing with other people will be perfectly acceptable at church.
That applies to regular church services. Funerals are more dignified and somber (suit and tie strongly expected), and weddings are more formal (wear your finest).
(2) How much money should I put in the offering plate?
That's easy: None if you are not a member of the church. Churches don't expect visitors to make contributions. There are rare exceptions for special events that have to raise all their funds on the spot. But don't feel left out if you don't put anything in the plate. Many of the biggest contributors make donations only once a month or mail their contributions in.
Having said that, if you're still wondering... $5 to $10 is a quite appropriate amount to put in the plate if you feel you're visiting a church that relies on visitors for financial support.
(3) What is Communion and should I participate?
Holy Communion, also called the Lord's Supper or the Holy Eucharist, is a memorial meal in which participants are given tiny servings of bread and wine to commemorate Jesus' Last Supper. Depending on the church, the bread and wine may be brought to your seat, or people may line up and go to the altar. The wine may be unfermented or may not be given out.
Should a visitor participate? In general, no, unless you're sure that you're eligible. Customs vary among Christian denominations, but in general, Communion is for church members in good standing who are spiritually prepared, and receiving it improperly is considered seriously wrong.
Don't be embarrassed at skipping Communion. Plenty of church members will be doing the same thing for various reasons.
(4) What if I arrive late, have to leave early, or have to go to the rest room?
At larger churches, ushers will help you get a seat if you arrive late. Some people always arrive late — if nothing else, there are always a few travelers who are unsure of the service time or didn't know how long it would take to get there.
There are times when you can get up and move around with a minimum of disturbance, and times when you shouldn't. Good times to come in and out are when other people are moving around, when they are standing up to sing, or any obvious transition point from one part of the service to another. As far as possible, stay in your seat while any kind of elaborate ceremony, procession, or musical performance is in progress.
(5) What should I do during prayers or anything that puzzles me?
Practices will vary from place to place as to whether you bow your head, close your eyes, and/or kneel during prayers. In some churches, people make the sign of the cross, tracing out a cross on their forehead, chest, and shoulders. There may also be other movements that you don't understand. When in doubt, just sit or stand quietly and respectfully. No one will mind.
In churches in the Pentecostal tradition, you will sometimes see people having intensely emotional spiritual experiences that look very strange to outsiders. Again, don't try to participate in something that you don't understand; just observe respectfully.
(6) What if I don't fit in?
Whether you "fit in" doesn't matter. Visitors are always welcome, and there's nothing wrong with being recognized as such. A church service isn't a social event. You're there to experience the presence of God, learn something, and perhaps make contacts with the church community. Welcome!
I should emphasize that we don't want you to be a hypocrite. We never want you to make any statement or demonstration of belief that isn't sincere. It's better to sit quietly and take it all in.