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Church Ettiquette 101

Lori Colbo loves to write about her Christian faith and the Bible to encourage and inspire others.


The Hands and Feet of Jesus

Church attendees might look at the title of this article and wonder why anyone would need to know how to behave in church. The reason is that churches are filled with human beings. That isn't an excuse for rudeness, just an explanation. I am going to share some of the most common or irritating blunders in church etiquette and offer the proper courtesies for those situations.

One thing people need to remember about church is that it is a corporate worship experience. That means we worship with other people of faith. The Bible says, And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approach.

The ten commandments are summed up in two great commandments - Love God and love one another. In order to love one another, we have to be together. We also have the opportunity by good behavior to be a light to newcomers who may not know Christ. We are to be the hands and feet of Jesus.

Be Friendly and Welcoming to Newcomers

We have probably all heard someone say they attended a church for the first time and no one said hello to them. Perhaps it has happened to you or someone you know. We as a body can do better to reach out to new people. Maybe as an established member of the congregation, you are a bit shy or don't know what to say to people. You are intimidated by the thought of engaging in conversation with a newcomer. I used to struggle this way and began watching other people I knew who were really good at it and I learned a lot.

Sometimes we spot a new couple or person and think "someone else will greet them." Probably, but it could very well be that the other people you hope will greet them are thinking the same thing and the new people are left alone. Just go up and say hello. Look them in the eyes and say, "Hi, I'm so and so. Is this your first time with us?" The smile and making eye contact are very important. From there you can ask if they are new to the area, and you are off and running. They will very likely return because they saw and felt the love of Christ through the people who greet them.

If you see visitors have children tell them about children's church (nursery, Sunday school, youth group). Offer to show them. Stay with them if you can while they check their children in. Invite them to sit with you.

If you meet someone after church it's pretty much the same except if you want to you can invite them for lunch or coffee. You can tell them about the activities of the church, answer their questions.

In very large churches with hundreds or thousands of people, sighting a newcomer is like "Where's Waldo?" It's good to talk with the people next to you, perhaps they are new. If not, you still have made a friend.

Sometimes you may encounter a new person or couple who are shy. They may be standoffish or anxious. Try to read their cues and don't overwhelm them. Keep it brief and simple and perhaps if they keep coming you can gradually build a relationship.

After you've met someone, don't go to others and say bad things about them, or gossip about them. If you gossip to one person, it will spread. What you say about the new person may influence others to treat them badly or steer clear of them. If you are a true follower of Jesus, you should know better. Be the hands, feet, and mouth of Jesus.

Pew Manners

Human beings are creatures of habit. I notice, and it's true of me, that we like to sit in the same place at church. There is nothing wrong with this. But it's a sorry sight to see what happens sometimes when someone needs a seat, particularly a new person, and isn't given accommodation.

  • First come, first serve: Don't save seats, it's rude and very junior high. I use to attend a small country church. One group of people liked to sit in the very back row, week in and week out. One day a woman visiting for the first time was greeted by a back row sitter. She did everything she could to make the woman feel welcome. The back pew was empty at that point because it was early still. The visiting woman said, "May I sit here with you?" looking at the empty back row. "Oh," said the 'welcoming' back pew worshiper, "I'm saving these seats 'for my friends.'" Despite this rude beginning, the woman came back and became a well-loved member and is a joyful servant.
  • Move over, make room: Moving toward the center of the pew makes it easier on everyone. People shouldn't have to climb over aisle sitters. The seated people will save themselves from the irritation of having people squeeze by or crawl over them if they sit in the middle, or scoot to the middle when someone comes. Exceptions would be people with health issues, disabilities, or slow-moving elderly people who need a quick or easier exit. If you accommodate others, they will feel welcomed and return. Most importantly, you will bring honor to God by loving others. People shouldn't have to use a pole vault to get a seat. And here's a news flash, the world will not come to an end if you move over in the love of Jesus.
  • Honor all people the same: I will let James 2:1-4 explain this one: My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? One thing I would add is that sometimes, rather than giving preference and prominence to another person, they give preference and prominence to themselves.

Etiquette for Devices

  • Silence your device. Everyone knows its rude to allow electronic notifications to sound off in public gatherings and meetings. My suggestion is to silence your device completely or turn the device off because even vibrate sounds and can be distracting. It's a good personal policy to check your device even if you think you have it turned off. It's nice when there is a reminder on the screen up front or if the pastor or other leader reminds people. Hearing a cell phone go off during church or any other church function can cause a terrible distraction, especially for the preaching pastor. One time I was in a prayer meeting and a friend's cell phone went off while we were storming heaven for something. She answered it as she got up and left. She sat right outside the door in a hallway which echoed. I've seen it in Bible study too.
  • Don't text or check email or social media. It is pretty common now for worshipers to use their mobile devices, Kindles, tablets, or laptops to read the Scriptures rather than a Bible in book form. This is great. But some people who should know better will text, or check in with their social media or email, or even shop online throughout the service. This topic need not be long and drawn out. It's flat rude and very disrespectful, not just to others, but to God.
  • Leave your device at home. If you are too tempted by your device, just leave it at home.

Be On Time

Habitual tardiness is not okay. It happens in most churches. The service starts and the place is half empty. Ten minutes into the service hordes of people come in and distract those who are worshiping. We all occasionally are late for church, but there's little excuse for habitual tardiness. There are, of course, extenuating circumstances sometimes. Consider the following. These are just common sense, but as my son, Jake always says, "Common sense isn't so common."

Care, priority, motivation. You are going to church to worship and honor the Lord. Care about giving your very best to Him by being on time. Consider also that the pastor and worship team or choir have done a lot of work to prepare for you to have a quality Sunday worship service. Here are a couple of things to consider.

  1. Plan time for parking. If parking hassles are an issue (as big churches do), plan extra time for it. If your church has multiple services learn the timing they have established for entering and exiting the parking lot.
  2. Coffee shop challenges: A lot of contemporary churches have little coffee areas with baristas making lattes before the service. This is a possible set up for people to be late because they are socializing at the church Starbucks. Closing the coffee area fifteen minutes before the service is a good goal. If you are a coffee corner socialite, get a time strategy.
  3. Save socializing until after the service. Don't stop to chat with other people when you get to church and/or drop off the kids unless you're really early. That goes for people you meet in the foyer/lobby/narthex. Save it for the designated fellowship time. If there are multiple services you'll have to be even more disciplined.
  4. Have a heart of worship. This is hard when you've endured three hours of chaos getting the family to church. If you're frazzled, ask the Lord to help quiet your soul. I know he does a lot of that on Sunday mornings (see below for time strategies for families).

Below is a special section on strategies for getting families to church on time. I raised four boys so I know how challenging it can be.

If you are a coffee corner socialite, get a time strategy.

If you are a coffee corner socialite, get a time strategy.

Time Strategies for Getting the Family Ready for Church

Extra measures are needed for families, especially if you have children who lollygag, quarrel, or you have a sour, moody, arguing teenager who hates church (oh, do I remember). There may be situations where there is a special needs child who takes more time. Here are some tips to get the family off in a timely manner.

  • Keep breakfast simple. Forget a big sit down breakfast of bacon, eggs, or pancakes (even cereal takes too long sometimes). Try yogurt, fruit, toast, and a packaged beverage. Feed the lollygaggers and quarrelers first. Sometimes blood sugar could be what's making them cranky. Give the children incentives or rewards for doing their best.
  • Plan for leaving time. Instead of "Church starts at ten," think "We need to be in the car by nine." Children have to be delivered and signed into the nursery, children's church or Sunday School so plan for that as well.
  • Parents be unified. Parents, you are the grown-ups. If parents are squabbling Sunday morning will be a train wreck. You will need a plan for how to execute the strategy together, including discipline. Dad, don't read the paper and yell at your wife for all the chaos. And Mom, don't primp and change clothes several times while the kids run wild or your husband is scrambling.
  • For single parents. There are a lot of single parents out there, or there may be only one spouse who attends church. This is an extra pressure. But try the tips above and brainstorm for any issues I did not mention. My heart goes out to you.

Getting Up During the Service

Getting up during the worship service can be very distracting to others around you. If it's not absolutely necessary, don't do it. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Take care of restroom needs before church. Sometimes nature calls despite your best efforts to go before you enter the sanctuary. Sometimes an unexpected emergency restroom issue will come up. If you have to go in those cases try to be as unobtrusive as possible. Find a place to sit or stand in back when you return so there will be no further distraction. Also, if you have issues, such as IBS, or something similar, sit in the back or go to the cry room. I have been to a couple of very large churches where people who get up and leave the sanctuary will not be allowed to come back in and are directed to a room where the service can be viewed on screen.
  • Don't go for refills. I've not seen this a whole lot but a church I used to go to had trouble with a few people who would get up in the middle of the service and get a refill on their coffee. Not okay. The church isn't a coffee klatch, it's a worship service.
  • Don't leave early. Some people like to leave early to avoid back up in the parking lot, to beat traffic, get to Sunday brunch, a televised ballgame, or children's sports events. That's really not respectful. I used to go to a mega church. The pastor gave altar calls every Sunday. Every week he had to ask people not to get up and leave early to beat parking issues, for two reasons. One, it's a holy moment. Two, those making their way to the altar shouldn't have to maneuver around people leaving.
  • DVR those ball games.
Don't leave early to avoid parking lot congestion. Especially during an altar call.

Don't leave early to avoid parking lot congestion. Especially during an altar call.

Talking During the Service

I am always surprised at how people talk during a service (or other church activities). I have noticed that elderly people do this. In this case, we need to be kind. I think part of it is hearing problems, or there's an attention difficulty. I handle it in these cases by putting my hand on their shoulder and either put my finger to my mouth and direct their attention to what's happening up front or I lean close and tell them the leader is speaking and we can talk later.

We've been told since we were small children not to talk and disrupt. We adults can do better.

If two adult people beside, in front of, or behind you are talking, do your best to sensitively but firmly ask or indicate to them to be quiet. It can be touchy. If they don't stop, you may have to be a bit stern or get up and move, but don't be unkind.

Please be quiet.

Please be quiet.

Handling Sticky Situations with Children

There are times when sticky situations arise when there is a disruption in the service by babies and children. Sometimes it's a cranky baby or one that decides that making a joyful noise of squealing is a good idea. The parents bounce the infant or coo at them to calm them down but the child will not be soothed. What do you do in a situation like this?

You may be tempted to tell them, "There's a cry room you know," in an annoyed or angry voice, but that makes the tension worse and/or alienates the parent[s]. If they are new they might not know that there is a cry room or even know what it is. A different way to handle it could be to say, in a kind and gracious voice, "You know, we have a cry room for young mama's like you where you can have privacy and minister to your babies needs, and still watch the service on a screen. I can show you where it is."

Sometimes there will be a fidgety or naughty small child. Hand them a pencil or pen and give them a bulletin to draw on. You might even consider having little coloring papers and small sample crayons to be handed out by the ushers like you see in restaurants.

If the parents don't bite with suggestions because they think they are so special that the rules don't apply to them, then it can be pretty unpleasant. Sometimes you endure it graciously in the name of Jesus.

A Word to Parents

Mom and Dad, be sensitive to others around you when your baby or child becomes noisy. Everyone is there to worship God, and a crying or otherwise noisy child will create a huge distraction, not only to the congregation but to the pastor sometimes, although I think many have learned to adapt to such noises. Cry rooms are designed to care for your baby and still be able to watch or listen to the service on a screen or by speakers.

This applies to misbehaving children. Have something quiet for them to do, like coloring, to focus and stop their behavior. Tantrums sometimes can't be avoided with very small children, so be ready and willing to take them out of the sanctuary and do your discipline there. If it's a consistent issue (I had one son who tested me every week) you have some troubleshooting to do.

If someone comes to you kindly and offers to show you the cry room or children's church, don't take it to mean they don't like your child. In the end, you will be able to enjoy the service if you take your children to be with the other children.

Stay Home When Sick

This is tough when your children are always sick. My son has four little boys and they are always sick (as my four were). You know how it is, kids go to school and bugs pass around. Your kids then share it with you and you're all sick. Bummer. It's hard to miss church, but if one of your children is sick, it's not fair to all the other kids that your child come in and spread the germs.

With babies, it can really get touchy when they are teething and the clear snot is nothing but teething stuff. Try to talk with the teacher or nursery worker and see what you can work out.

If you yourself have a bad cough or cold where you are blowing your nose constantly, for goodness sake, stay home. If coughing comes on suddenly for a non-illness reason, slip out until you can get it under control or have a cough drop, hard candy or bottled water at the ready.

In the case of allergies for anyone in your family, take the allergy meds before you leave for church.

If you...have a bad cough or cold where you are blowing your nose constantly, for goodness sake, stay home.

If you...have a bad cough or cold where you are blowing your nose constantly, for goodness sake, stay home.

Blocking Pews and Doors

When the service is over people like to chat and without realizing it, block the pew or an exit door so people have to say excuse me and maneuver around them. Just be intentional about not doing that.

A Word to Greeters and Ushers

Hopefully, you've been trained, but in case you haven't, there are a few basic courtesies you need to remember.

  • Don't stand and chat with another usher, greeter, or parishioner while people wait or pass you by.
  • Pay attention to seating availability. People need direction when the sanctuary begins to fill up.
  • Don't talk down to or be impatient with people - especially seniors, disabled, or otherwise vulnerable people.
  • Don't favor people who are your friends, hold a high position, or are rich.

Don't Hold Up the Pastor at the Door

Most all pastors stand in the doorway at the exit doors to shake parishioners hands. This is not the time to seek pastoral counseling, give a complaint, or offer your theological opinions that will tie him up so he can't shake hands with people. All of those things can be done through an appointment, email, or phone call.

If you liked the sermon, it can be nice if you say why very briefly.

"That was a good sermon on witnessing. It helped me to see better and more effective ways to share the gospel."

Hypocrite Hounds

We churchgoers get tired of hypocrite hounds, who are always saying they don't go to church because of all the hypocrites. This is usually an excuse to not go to church, which is their perfect right. We might examine ourselves, however, and make sure we're not the kind of person they're talking about, although let's face it, we are all hypocrites in various ways, but we can do better.

I have heard more than a few peachers talk about this issue and they joke saying they would like to tell these people, "Well, we could always use one more." Hmm.

First impressions are important. Attitudes and behavior at church are the first things new people notice. We need to be careful not to give them more ammunition.

Church etiquette isn't rocket science. It's really very simple. Be like Christ, selfless, kind, loving, humble.


© 2018 Lori Colbo

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