By Kara Wibberding  |  9 August 2021  |  

I’m certain all of us have had the experience of visiting a new-to-us church on vacation. A one-time visit, never to return again. And while we do just fine visiting yarn shops and such places, churches are not the same. Churches are not businesses. They are communities. Churches are places where you connect with people. That’s half the experience. 

And nobody is connecting well in a new place that they’ll never see again, given less than two hours in it.

Avoid Sabbath School

The first thing—as any experienced visitor knows—is you simply do not go to Sabbath School unless you know someone there. It’s like in The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything (a VeggieTales movie) when Eliot and Sedgwick have to explain to their dates that they cannot get them the sauce they want. Because “It’s in the back room. Outta range.” You simply don’t do it. It’s in the back room. Outta range.

Here’s why. The first thing that’s going to happen is you’ll have to introduce yourself. And unless you have someone to introduce you, you have to introduce yourself—yourself! In the doorway, before you’ve even made it to the safety of a chair in the back of the room. You have to tell them your name, where you’re from, and why you’re visiting. It is treacherous.

Next, there’s bound to be some group activity. Maybe a discussion, or a game. Depending on how old you are, you could be required to actually stand up. Or (and I pray for you here) you may have to find a partner. Either way, you will probably be expected to engage in an activity with people you don’t know, but who know each other. 

If you already know someone, you have a guide. Otherwise, I am so sorry.

So suppose you do not make the mistake of going to Sabbath School. You are still faced with the fact that you don’t know how anything happens. 

What happens next?

You know the basic worship service. There’s a sermon, inevitably. Worship music at some point, likely. There will be announcements. But at what point? Are they at the beginning or end of the service? Or after the music and before the sermon? What if the music is after the sermon? What if the music is one song? And that one song is a hymn you have to pretend you know the lyrics to. 

You also don’t know the schedule. Whether they do Sabbath School before or after the service. What if there’s a potluck? Do they do something weird and unexpected? At one of the churches I used to go to, they had a six-minute social after the service, where they’d serve juice or coffee. Sometimes crackers. At my current church, in pre-Covid times, they had a table with snacks before the service started. 

None of these things are bad, but they add a sense of confusion.

One church I visited was particularly confusing. We had actually had the foresight to check their website beforehand. Thus, we arrived in time for Sabbath School. (I know, I know. I just warned you about that.) 

Anyway, it turned out there was no Sabbath School at all. But they had cheese. So I guess it was okay.

You won’t be faced with this problem if you are visiting a friend’s church with them. You have someone to show you around. Someone who knows the patterns. Someone who will likely have to introduce you to their church friends.

First impressions

Here’s the funny thing with that. Like actually, laughably hilarious if you think about it. Whatever you say or do in the minute or less you have talking to each person, is how they will perceive you for the rest of their lives, unless you meet again. But assuming that you don’t, things as little as word choice are all they have to remember you by. 

As you have probably gathered, I am an overthinker.

But let’s really consider this. They may perceive you as inscrutable, or eccentric, or boring, or mean, or shy. The possibilities stretch as far as the core of the Earth. You could easily convince someone you are obsessed with camels, by simply mentioning it twice in a two-minute conversation. (Not sure what conversation this would occur in, but I don’t know you.) 

There’s probably half a dozen people who only remember me for being the pineapple queen. That was one month out of my entire life. One month. But that’s not the point. And it really doesn’t matter.

Once we were visiting our cousins close to Thanksgiving and decided to go to church with them. There were ten of us altogether, so we took two cars. The one my brother was in arrived first. So when I walked into Sabbath School, I found the teachers were both calling him Michael. His name is Jack. And it just got better when I referred to him as Jack, and not knowing we were related, one of the teachers corrected me. (He’s done this other times with the names Jeff and Phil.)

The bathroom

Finally, after all else is done and you are just about ready to go home, there is one more task that must be completed: finding the bathrooms.

Now, in a business, they usually have very clearly labeled signs leading you to the bathroom. And plenty of churches do have signs, but you still have to do a bit of searching. You will probably be forced into some awkward wandering. You’ll attempt to look like you know what you’re doing so no one will ask you if you need help and you’d have to talk to them.

Speaking of which, I’d like to take a moment here to appreciate church bathroom decor. At least in the women’s bathrooms, it’s almost always just… pleasant. It usually has a soft spring theme. Some fake flowers somewhere. A gold-framed painting. Pastels. Occasionally a couch even. I once saw a shiny tin bucket being used as a trash can, and I found it more aesthetic than strange. I do not know who decorates church bathrooms, but you are doing a lovely job.

My point is simple: visiting new churches is a socially awkward experience, but they sometimes have nice bathrooms. 

The reason visiting new churches is so hard is because—like I said—church is a social activity. This is why I, an expert introvert, could write and direct a horror film on this topic. But I suppose I won’t. 

My best advice: everyone use a fake name and never go to Sabbath School. 

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Kara Wibberding is a freshmen at Pacific Union College Prep. She has a dog named Lucy, and she thinks the 1990’s are aesthetic.

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