It started with my first and one of my only (I am a teetotaler) sips of alcohol. I was 14. I was sitting in the back of a Church of England service in Binfield, the little English village where my family lives. I was there for a school project in which I had to observe a service from a tradition other than my own.
We had gotten as far as Communion and I had decided that to get the full effect of attendance, I was going to join in. So I joined the line of parishioners heading to the front of the church to sip from the same cup. When it was my turn I took a generous sip and to my utter astonishment, the liquid burned all the way down. “I think I just had alcohol,” was my one big takeaway from the service as I left.
After I got over the novelty of the fact that I had had my first drink, I started to focus on the overall experience. It had been different from services that I was used to. The formality, the gowns, the High Church music, the centuries-old village church – it all was seriously intriguing. It was my first taste of church tourism and I was hooked.
I have no idea how many churches, temples and synagogues I have crashed since, but here are a few tips I have found helpful for doing so without getting thrown out or (perhaps worse yet) being targeted for recruitment…
Watch Fight Club
You know when when Ed Norton’s character in Fight Club is visiting support groups and he says that if you say nothing as a visitor people always assume the worst? Well, I am not sure the same holds for crashing religious services but if you remain silent (and you don’t physically look different from everyone else) there is a chance you can just observe without being identified as an “outsider”. Of course, your chances of flying under the radar are better if you pick big churches where everyone doesn’t know everyone.
Give Places the Benefit of the Doubt
Here’s a good rule of thumb: Don’t compare the worst of other religious communities to the best of your own. If in doubt about a novel practice or something that seems “weird”, assume that these are good people and that there is a good reason for how they worship. Are people jumping up and down? Crying dramatically in pews? Falling over? Let them do their thing and don’t just rush to assume the worst.
Find Common Ground
When I was younger I would immediately start making a list of things that I disagreed with whenever I was exposed to people and environments from different faith traditions. This is stupid, alienating and unproductive. It is far better to find the common ground between what you happen to believe and what is happening around you. There are nearly always things that you have in common with the community you are visiting. It makes for far better conversation and relationship-building.
YOU are the Guest
Remember that you are the one visiting and you are not there to question or lecture anyone. As fun as it may be to start asking controversial questions, don’t do it. Even if you totally disagree with things, ask questions and show appreciation for anything and everything that looks remotely interesting. If you do this, people will lower their guards and you will be able to get to know them.
Learn How to Ask Questions
Asking good questions is an art form. Do some research and think of some insightful questions to ask when you visit a place of worship. I like to ask questions of a range of people. I compare what I hear from little children to what I hear from bored teenagers or charismatic clergy. The answers will often be different and if you ask questions of a lot of people you will become more comfortable asking questions and you will be more able to root “scripted” answers from reality.
Stay for Coffee
In an Armenian Church in Switzerland it was tea and cookies. At a Lutheran Church in Chico, CA it was coffee and at a hip worship service / 20-30 something Jewish mixer in Beverly Hills it was sushi and sake. Whatever form the social hour takes after the religious bit, stay. It is fun. People are more relaxed and have time to chat. You can learn a lot and meet very interesting people. FYI… young singles often flirt shamelessly at these kinds of occasions. Don’t believe me? Visit ATID LA for Friday Night Live (the Jewish mixer I mentioned). It gets crazy.
The problem with being a religious tourist and crashing random services is that you will definitely get pitched with every religious spin under the sun. Not only will people try to convert you, they will sometimes do so aggressively. Be ready with answers to the most common questions: “Will you be here next week?” is a common one. I have found that saying something vague like, “Next week might not work but maybe sometime in the future,” works.
How about you? Have any tips you want to add to this list? Any horror stories from church crashing gone bad? I’d love to connect in the comment section…