ARTICLE: The Beginner's Guide to Church
Source : Signs of the Times - Monday, November 17, 2008
The Beginner's Guide to Church
Many of us do not go to church. Some of us have never been. Christine Miles talks about what to expect and how to prepare
The first time Karen Ward attended church, it was at the suggestion of a group of friends with whom she had recently begun studying the Bible. She went to Bible study (also known as small group, home group or cell group) for 10 weeks before setting foot in a church building.
“The reason I finally went to church,” Karen says, “was that the people in the small group were all raving about the ‘Evangelism service’ that was coming up. I had no idea what evangelism was but they were talking 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 that 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 unwell, 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 Saviour 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 learnt 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 behaviour, different approaches to the truths 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
A church can look like anything on the outside. It might be a traditional church building; a warehouse; a school hall; or a private home. It might even be a church in the bush.
But when conversation turns to what a church should look like, the people are more likely to be discussed than the church building. What are the people like? How will they treat me? What can I expect to happen throughout the course of the worship service?
The perfect church would be welcoming.
While we might wish to be alone from time to time, we don’t want to feel alone, especially at church, surrounded by people who are meant to care. On the other hand, a visitor can feel their personal space has been invaded as well-meaning church regulars make small-talk, ask questions and attempt 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 old myth that one needs to be good 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 biblical beliefs of a church. What are their beliefs? 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 (or make an appointment to visit the pastor at church) 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.
Surprising as it may seem, all Christians do not share the same beliefs.
When you experience rocky times with the church you attend, it will be the relationship and experience you have with God, and the knowledge that comes from the Bible, that gives you strength, more than the relationships you have with other people at your church.
what happens at church?
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 most in the songs that are sung and the people who present the program. What will mostly likely happen is the following, in any order:
1. Welcome—Usually done by one or two people. Like the church bulletin, which you will probably be given as you arrive, the welcome will give you “between the lines” insight into the workings and passions of this particular group of people.
2. Singing—Led by one or several people, with musical accompaniment by anything from an organ to a band.
Songs may be sprinkled throughout the worship service or they may be all sung in a block. Some congregations stand when they sing, others sit and others do a combination of sitting and standing.
Some congregations encourage clapping or raising hands; others are more traditional.
Most people do what everyone else does but if you’re comfortable being yourself, that’s fine too.
3. Prayer—You may be invited to kneel, or to stand, or even to remain in your seat. Again, most people do what everyone else does but it’s quite acceptable to stay in your seat.
4. Offering —Quite often, a bag or plate will be passed along the rows to collect an offering, which will be used to either cover costs for the local congregation or to support a project or mission. Alternatively, an offering box will be placed in a strategic position. It is not compulsory to give an offering (or donation), so if you choose not to give or are caught unawares, don’t be embarrassed.
5. Sermon —This might begin with a drama, story or object lesson to get everyone’s attention and help them begin thinking about the topic or theme.
The sermon is usually an expansion of somebody’s thoughts on a theme and may include one Bible passage or story, or several. If the Bible or God isn’t a central theme in the sermon, you will want to rethink your purpose for attending this church.
6. Winding it up—A church worship service usually ends with a prayer, called a benediction. There may also be more singing. Some churches are big on having a “call” as a part of their concluding activities—essentially an invitation for anyone who wishes to publicly show that they choose to be a follower of Jesus. Done well, this will not be a long, drawn-out, guilt-ridden process but there are churches who measure their success on how many people stand or come down the front as a result of this call, and will continue to call and call and call until a satisfactory number of people respond.
what to take to church
If you have a Bible, take it. If you don’t have a Bible, don’t panic! Many churches provide Bibles in the back of the pews. A pen and notepad is useful for taking notes. Taking money to place in the offering is optional.
can I take my children?
Absolutely. Children are able to participate in church worship services—in addition, many churches have an age specific children’s program operating at the same time as the church service. If your child is to sit in with you throughout the worship service, consider some ways to keep him or her quietly interested— a good book, some things to draw with, maybe something to eat.
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 worshipping 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 I had all the facts before I prayed! “Despite being a little miffed, 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 baptised. The fellowship is absolutely wonderful. I love church.”