How to Act at Someone Else's Church

Back in December, we offered some tips on going to a holiday celebration of another religion. But religious services of various kinds go on all year, and different rules apply when you're in church than when you're at a Hanukkah party. Herewith, some advice on going to someone's place of worship without making an ass of yourself.

Do your homework.

Ah, this old tip again. But seriously, doing your homework is crucial before you take part in something that's sacred for other people. I talked to Wendy Cadge, associate professor of sociology at Brandeis and author of Heartwood: The First Generation of Theravada Buddhism in America, who advises that if the place of worship you'll be attending has a website, you should check it out beforehand. Buddhist services in America can vary a lot depending on what kind of facility conducts them, and taking a look at the website can help you determine that. You could also talk with a clergyperson or other official — Zahra Suratwala, President/CEO of Zahra Ink, Incorporated and coauthor of I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim, says that before attending a Muslim ceremony, you might consider "a meeting [...] with the imam or leader of the mosque they plan to visit, so that he can fill you in on what to expect and what is expected of you."

You might also seek out some relevant reading material. Mary Boys, author of Christians & Jews in Dialogue: Learning in the Presence of the Other, recommends Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott or Tevye's Grandchildren: Rediscovering a Jewish Identity by Eleanor Mallet. Several people I talked to also mentioned How to Be a Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook, which has advice on going to services of a variety of faiths.

Dress the part.

Different religions (and different denominations) have different dress codes, and it's a good idea to learn what's expected of you, clothes-wise, before you show up. Suratwala says, "in most mosques, the dress code is on the spectrum from modest to very covered up. Thus although a visitor is not expected to dress exactly like the members of the mosque, they should take some measures to be dressed modestly." For Buddhist services, the expectations are a little different — Cadge says visitors should always wear "nice socks," because they'll be expected to take off their shoes.

Go with a friend who knows the territory.

You may be planning to attend a service of another religion precisely to support a friend — say, at their wedding or their daughter's bat mitzvah. But if you're simply curious about another tradition, consider attending services with somebody who knows the drill. Says Boys,

If possible, go with someone who is knowledgeable and who can act as a guide. This is all the more important if you are attending a worship service beyond the boundaries of your own tradition (e.g., a Christian attending a service at a synagogue). Or introduce yourself to an usher or staff member.

If you're at, say, a friend's Catholic wedding, consider sitting near somebody who's familiar with the practices at hand. That way, you can ...

Watch and learn.

Cadge told me that she routinely asks her students to visit the services of two religious traditions other than their own, and that her most important advice for them is to sit quietly and watch first. Then, if they have questions, they can ask afterward. Sometimes just watching what other people do can be the best lesson — it can help you understand customs and practices that might be hard to explain beforehand.

Be open.

This might be obvious, but it's worth saying: don't go into someone else's service in a judgmental frame of mind. Boys advises that you "aim to understand rather than judge, particularly if the style of the service is very different from what you are accustomed to" and "avoid generalizing about a particular tradition on the basis of a limited experience; even in churches that have a set liturgy, services may vary widely in terms of music, tone, and involvement." Also, you'll get more out of the experience if you really immerse yourself — she says, "Be fully present — worship speaks to the whole person, not simply to the mind." Basically, walk into the experience with information but without preconceptions, and be prepared to learn.

It's not that complicated.

Going to an unfamiliar type of service may seem intimidating — after all, this is a part of many people's lives that they take very seriously. But really, it's not too hard to just behave respectfully. Cadge says that as long as you're a polite person, you should be totally fine. And Suratwala adds, "Common sense and common courtesy in this, as in most situations, will get you very far!"

I Speak For Myself [Official Site]
Heartwood: The First Generation of Theravada Buddhism in America
I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim
Christians & Jews in Dialogue: Learning in the Presence of the Other

Image via Nagel Photography/Shutterstock.com