The first time Karen Ward attended church, it was at the suggestion of a group of friends with whom she’d been studying the Bible. She went to Bible study (also known as a small group, home group, or cell group) for ten weeks before setting foot in a church building.
“The reason I finally went,” says Karen, “was that the people in the small group were excited about an upcoming ‘evangelism service.’ I had no idea what evangelism was, but they talked about it for weeks, as if it was a circus or a big show. They were so excited and seemed so sure I should go, I finally gave in.”
Lorraine Rennie wasn’t too fussed about attending church. As far as she was concerned, she knew everything there was to know and was quite good enough without having to attend church. Her husband, however, did attend church, and every so often she’d go with him. When he became terminally ill, she was amazed by the ongoing love and practical support that was shown to her.
After her husband’s death, she decided to show her appreciation by becoming a volunteer in the church’s “Breakfast for school children” program, and later helped with the Sunday-night soup kitchen. Before long, she was having Bible studies, accepted Jesus as her Savior and her late husband’s church became truly her own.
When Reece and Vivian Skipper attended church for the first time, they knew they were in the right place. “We had Bible studies with a Christian friend for several weeks and were also blessed to have a friend who was from another denomination. We had good conflicts with him—and learned to find the answers in the Bible,” Reece says.
“We got to the stage where we knew we were ready to attend church,” Vivian says. Their friend, who had Bible studies with them, first took the Skipper family to a small local church. The following week, he took them to a much larger church of the same denomination. The people at both churches were overwhelmingly friendly and the Skippers loved it. They’ve never looked back.
It has different meanings for different people. People attend church with different expectations. Even within each denomination, there are different styles of worship, different expectations of behavior, different approaches to the teachings found in the Bible, and different emphases on moral values. And, depending on the interests, demographics, and age groups represented, each church group will place different values on different ministries, different evangelism and mission projects, different music styles . . . the list goes on!
It is little wonder people contemplating joining a church family feel a little overwhelmed.
What a Church Looks Like
These days, a church can look like anything on the outside. They vary from the traditional building with a spire, to a warehouse in a business lot, a school hall, or private home. But more important are the people who attend: will they be welcoming?
We might wish to be left alone at first, but we don’t want to feel alone, surrounded by people who are meant to care. A visitor will feel that their personal space is respected, as well as being made to feel the friendliness.
The perfect church would get it right. Every time. But it can’t, because newcomers aren’t all the same. And, regardless of the belief (or myth) that one needs to be good in order to attend church, the people inside the church have many of the same issues, hang-ups, and failings as the people visiting.
So if you’re looking for the perfect church, you probably won’t find it.
Choosing a Church
Many people choose a church in a similar fashion to deciding where to shop. What does this church offer me? Do I like the music style? Do I like the pastor? Are his or her sermons what I want to hear? Do I feel comfortable in this place?
Of more importance, however, are the beliefs of a church. What are they? Do these beliefs and values come from Bible teachings? Are these people following Jesus, or are they based on ideas from somewhere or someone else?
Never be afraid to ask questions. Start by calling the churches in your area and asking for a summary of their beliefs. Ask the pastor to visit and ask him or her to show you from the Bible the basis for each belief. If you’re going to be a Christian, you want to be sure you’re following the instructions Jesus gave.
Surprisingly, beyond a core, not all Christians share the same beliefs or give them the same emphasis. And if you experience rocky times with the church you attend, it will be the relationship and experience you have with God and knowledge from the Bible that will give you strength, more than the relationships you have with other people.
What Happens at Church?
Primarily, Christians attend to worship God. But worship styles vary from church to church. Sometimes, they even vary from week to week. But most churches—unless they’re running a special program— have a standard format that varies according to the people leading out. But in some form or another, with varying degrees of style and creativity, expect the following:
1. Welcome—This will give you an insight into what to expect, as well as the workings and passions of the particular congregation.
2. Singing/praise—Led by one or several people, with musical accompaniment by anything from an organ to a band. Songs of praise to God may be sprinkled throughout the worship service or they may be all sung in a block. Some congregations will stand when they sing, others remain seated, and others a combination depending on the song itself. Some congregations encourage clapping or raising hands; others are more traditional.
3. Prayer—You may be invited to kneel, stand, or even to remain in your seat. Do what everyone else does.
4. Offering—Our gifts to God and His cause. Quite often, a bag or plate will be passed among the group for the collection, which will be used to cover the expenses of the local congregation, the premises, or to support a project. Alternatively, an offering box will be placed in a strategic position. It isn’t compulsory, of course, to give an offering or donation, so if you choose not to or are caught unawares, don’t be embarrassed.
5. Sermon—This might begin with a drama or story to get everyone’s attention and focus on the topic or theme. The sermon is usually an expansion of somebody’s thoughts on a theme, and may include a Bible passage or story, or several. If the Bible or God isn’t a central theme in the sermon, you may want to rethink your purpose for attending this church.
6. Winding it up—A worship service will usually end with a prayer, called a benediction. There may also be more singing. Some churches will include an invitation for anyone who wishes, to publicly respond to an invitation from the presenter to be a follower of Jesus.
What to Take to Church
If you have a Bible, take it. If you don’t have a Bible, it may be provided. A pen and notepad are useful. Money for the collection plate is optional.
Can I Take My Children?
Absolutely. Children often participate in worship services. In addition, many churches have age-specific children’s programs. But if your child is to sit in with you throughout a worship service aimed at adults, consider some ways to keep him or her interested— a good book, some things to draw with, or note taking.
Should I Go to Church?
Yes! People were made to be part of a community, and a church community is one of the most healthy communities available.
Since attending church, Reece and Vivian Skipper have experienced a sense of belonging they’ve not experienced elsewhere. “The best thing about attending church,” they say, “is learning more about God and worshiping Him, and the friendships we’ve made.”
At the evangelism service Karen Ward attended, she was challenged to make a decision. “The guy preaching made the case for Christ and said if we believed what he said, it required some response on our part,” Karen says. “That felt logical to me. He asked us to bow our heads and said we should echo his prayer in our heart if we agreed with what he’d said. I did. When he finished praying, he said if we prayed the prayer along with him, he didn’t want us to leave without telling someone. I felt cornered! I didn’t see why I should tell someone—he should have said that first so that I had all the facts before I prayed!
“Despite this, I did tell someone from my study group. I really had no idea why she got so excited. She told the others and they were excited too, and I just didn’t get it. I suspect I had no idea what I’d really committed to, and yet, I guess I knew enough, because it stuck!”
Lorraine Rennie’s life was transformed by attending church. “I thought I knew it all,” she says, “and yet, I’ve experienced such peace since I decided to be baptized. The fellowship is absolutely wonderful. I love church.”
Glossary of Church Speak
|Church||Can refer to a local congregation (First Baptist Church of Centerville), the building where they meet (the church on the corner of Maple and Main), or a denomination (Methodist Church, Adventist Church).
||A group of local congregations that shares a name and certain beliefs. |
|| A short song of praise to God, often sung at the beginning of a worship service. |
||Immersion in water as a public acknowledgment of one’s belief that Jesus is Lord and Savior. Baptism is also evidence of repentance for one’s sins.|
||A worship service in which Christians celebrate Jesus’ death for their sins by eating small pieces of bread and drinking grape juice.