As I’ve said before, it’s a perilous thing to visit someone else’s church, and it’s doubly perilous to talk about it in public. I tend to visit churches when I travel, partly to see what’s going on in the Church Universal, partly because I’m not entirely happy with the church I attend most regularly, and partly because I sometimes visit a church looking for something in particular. One of the grave dangers in visiting a church is to have in one’s head a picture of how everything should go, and to criticize everything that doesn’t measure up to that standard. Another grave danger is to decide that whatever a group of people who call themselves Christians want to do is okay and there’s nothing left to do but describe what group X is doing.
It turns out there aren’t lots of guides online to visiting churches. There are some interesting points from the Ship of Fools Mystery Worshipper columns [link], but they seem to be most appropriate for people with Anglican or UK Catholic expectations. There’s a guide for visiting Episcopal Churches for non-Episcopalians [link], courtesy of a real estate company in Tennessee. There’s a list of ten tips courtesy of a layman of the United Church of Canada [link]. And there’s David Cloud’s 2003 visit to Saddleback [link]. And that’s about it, so far as I can tell.
It’s my general impression that in a random church most of the people there would be somewhere else if they knew where to go. So it’s not fair to wonder why, after visiting a particular church, to wonder why anyone puts up with what I’ve just seen week after week. It’s because they don’t know what else to do. Or they’re afraid to leave. Or they’re resigned to staying. Or they have some commitment to the church that keeps them there. People who actually love their church and look forward to going back week after week are rare.
It’s important to remember when visiting a church that there are things that are essential and things that are not essential, and it’s important to keep the distinction between the two clear. For example, I don’t particularly like contemporary music; I was raised on a series of Baptist hymnals, and I’m accustomed to four-part harmony pitched so I can sing along, with verse-chorus distinctions. And I don’t think it’s necessary to sing every verse of a given song; sometimes the most beautiful words in the English language are “third verse as the last.” But I have to remember e.g. that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with guitars in church, and repetition, while occasionally tedious, isn’t actually evil.
Finally, every church has something weird going on, something unhealthy or wrong-headed, and there’s nothing innately wrong with pointing it out. It’s just vital to do so gently and without scorn. And it’s helpful to do so without Christianese if possible: i.e. no “they shame the Word of God with their lack of attention to its teachings” when “the sermon was only ten minutes long” would do.