How do I start going to church?

My husband and I have decided that our family (we have 2 kids, 1 ages and 4) needs to start going to church for both spiritual and community reasons.

He and I have never attended any kind of religious service regularly since early childhood though both of our extended family has a Catholic background.

We’ve done the beliefnet quiz type of things, and we know that the Catholic Church isn’t right for us, instead we are more of the Unitarian Universalist, Episcopalian or United Church of Christ types.

What I’m stuck on is the actual process of finding and joining a church.

To compare, I understand the process of choosing a new daycare. If I was looking for a new daycare it would go something like:

  1. Gather a list of all local daycares
  2. Call to talk to the director to discuss avaliability, rates and just get a feel for the place
  3. Visit the best 5 or 6 choices
  4. Enrole my kid in the top choice

Does choosing a church go similarly: list, call, visit, choose? Do I call the pastors and explain my interest? Is it OK to admit I’m “church shopping”? I’ve never been to church with little kids. Do I just show up with them and hope they behave themselves and don’t yell during the service or will I be expected to wave them off to a Sunday School?

I know the act of attending church for many people is a weekly event that contains no mysteries (anyway in terms of behavior and expectations) but to me it is completely unknown.


A lot of churches have websites now, so you can explore there to see what the core values are as well as the different programs they offer, particularly for children. Then, I would suggest going (alone) to a service and if you feel that’s something you can go with regularly, then find the Sunday School department and ask if you can sit in the back and observe. I wouldn’t lie about your intentions, but I would try to keep the inquiries simple and keep your eyes and ears open, since you’re likely to learn more by observing than being “pitched”. Since your kids are too young for regular services, you can see what programs are available for you and your spouse besides the main service (you might prefer a smaller bible study group, say) and then test the waters as a family unit after that.

I’d say the decision is important enough that it’s worth doing a little more research on to make sure you’ve made the right choice (and since the holidays are approaching, it’ll be a bit easier to blend in as a non-regular, if you’re worried about appearing conspicuous).

Best of luck.

I think it would be pretty much the same process. If it were me, I wouldn’t necessarily talk to the pastor beforehand, I would just call (or visit their website) to find out what time the services are and get any childcare information. And unless you have strong feelings after visiting a church for the first time, I would visit a few times – you may not know that this is an abnormal week (maybe there’s a church retreat that weekend, or something, so that there are a lot fewer people than normal). I would definitely, if I was remotely interested, talk to the pastor afterward.

I might also, in advance, think about what atmosphere I was looking for. Do I want people to come greet me and welcome me? Do I want to just be a fly on the wall for the first couple of weeks? Do I like formal or informal services? Are there other programs I want – Bible study, weeknight activities, small groups, book groups, etc.

I like Archive Guy’s suggestion of visiting first, without kids, just to see what it’s like. And I don’t think there’s any problem with admitting you’re church shopping. I might not put it that way – I’d probably say, “We’re looking for a church home.” and leave it at that.

Do you have any friends or acquaintences who go to church? Maybe you could go with them some time; it’s somewhat less intimidating, I think.

I moved recently, so I will describe the process I’ve gone through in looking for a new church home.

Step 1: Consult the internet for the names and locations of churches in my preferred denomination (United Methodist).

Step 2: Visit nearby church.

Step 3: Evaluate church.

       A.  Did I like the location?(How far am I willing to drive for church?  Parking might also be an issue for some.)  

B. Did I like the building? (There is one church I will probably not go back to because I hated the looks of the sanctuary. Appearance/location of nursery and restrooms other common dealbreakers).

      C.  Did I like the music?  (I want a blend of contemporary praise songs and traditional hymns.  If I can't have that, I think I'd rather have the hymns. YMMV.  This is probably the biggest issue for me YMMV (and probably does)).

     D.  Did I like the minister and his (or her) sermon? (And does his or her theology appear to agree with mine?)

     E.  What are the demographics of the congregation? (For me, a good congregation has people of a variety of ages.  Not people from 18-40 plus children.  Not 95% over 65.  But a nice spread.  Racial demographics could be a factor for some--or money).

    F.  Is the congregation a good size?  ( You could call and ask about this one, I didn't.  But 25 people in church is too few for me, a couple thousand is way, way, way, too dealbreaking big. YMMV) 

     G.  Did I feel welcome?  How do they treat visitors?  (I have a pen, a mug, and a CD of Contemporary Christian music as free gifts from various congregations.  I declined to put on a name badge which said VISITOR at the church that thought I should. I have put my name and address on attendance cards so they could send me a letter inviting me back or a newsletter)     

H.  Did the congregation dress appropriately for church?  (YMMV--I don't like contemporary services at "community churches" where half the congregation wears jeans.  I like people to dress up a little bit for church.  Doesn't have to be fancy, but I'd like to feel "normal" wearing a dress.)

  I.  (not something I actually have dwelled on, but many people do).  Do they have appropriate programming?  Is there a choir, a bell choir, a youth group, do they support Habitat for Humanity? etc.

  J.  (Not an issue because I've stayed mostly within the denomination I'm comfortable with, but an issue for others).  What are the "rules" for communion? (Open table or not, what do they do about the gluten-intolerant, how about children, etc.) How about offering?

 K.  (I'll stop here, this one sounds trivial, but it's amazingly important to me).  Is the structure of the service appealling to me?  (I will probably not return to the church which did NOT end the service with a song.  You just can't do that.  Services must end with song.  I'll tolerate organ, guitar and drums, a capella, piano, or even recorded music, but the service must begin and end in song.)

Step 4: Start again with step 1.

I hit 4 United Methodist Churches, and 1 Free Methodist Church in just over a month. The 1st was an imediate ick–though I loved the location and gave it a second chance, still ick. 2nd was ok, but way too small. 3rd is probably the one I’ll keep attending–it’s not perfect, but it feels right to me. 4th was ick–for different reasons than 1, and 5th was ick, for different reasons still.

Most churches expect some new folk to just show up without warning. If you want to call ahead, you can do so-- I guess, I’ve never done that. Dress the way that you want to dress to go to church–be that a modest calico dress, jeans with holes, a business suit, or a nice pair of slacks. This will help the minister to recognize you as someone who doesn’t belong (if you are too far off from their norm) and might enable him to point you towards a church that would be more to your taste. Many churches have mission statements or classes for membership which can help you decide if their beliefs are what you want them to be. If your kids can sit halfway quietly through church, take them with you. There is very likely to be a nursery for the one year old, and possibly for the 4 year old, or they will have crayons or a special kids’ bulliten. (Of course, any given church may not, it just depends).
I’m not very knowledgable about the list of denominations that you mention. It’s ok to admit to church shopping. It’s ok to admit to not being sure what you are looking for in a church. If you have ideas of what you would like in a church, bring them with you–the church you drop in on may be able to tell you whether they have what you want or not. But part of the reason that in many places there are so MANY churches, is because what’s best for me is not the same as what’s best for my college roommate–trust me, I recently attended church with her, her church is not one I’d have been to on my own, and my reaction was “ick, ick,ick”.

And remember, your reasons for church hunting are really quite common. Any church where you are looked down on for what you are trying to do is not a church you really wanted to attend. For a while in my youth–like most of it–I attended a large United Methodist church which frequently added new members from the parents of kids in Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts who met at the church (not to mention those who attended Pre-school or Mom’s Day Out there). Many people who are happy not going to church for themselves, feel akward not giving their children a chance to develop spiritually.

This is longer than I intended it to be, so I hope something in it is helpful to you.

Speaking from a Lutheran perspective, which I believe is pretty similar to Episcopalian, visitors are always welcome with or without “warning”. It wouldn’t hurt to call ahead though because some churches (probably not the ones you have expressed interest in though) are more “closed” to others and may not take to strangers showing up. By the way, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America is the most “liberal” of the Lutheran synods, the others being Wisconsin and Missouri, and has nothing to do with the fundie, evangelical Christians you hear about on the news so don’t let that scare you away.

Most churches will have “new member” classes on a regular basis to introduce perspective members to the church. At my current church, there was no pressure to join and the pastor even offered to point us in the direction of a denomination that might suit us better if Lutheranism wasn’t a good fit. It sounds like you are going for a non-fundamentalist type church, so if a pastor bristles when you mention “church shopping” then his congregation is probably not the one for you.

Of the churches I’ve attended, Sunday school has always taken place between morning services, but for little ones who can’t make it through the service there is often a supervised nursery available. You will probably want to check out the churches policy on communion for visitors or just abstain from it if you are not sure.

Count me in the “drop on by unannounced” group. When you are starting your list, think about what size church you are interested in. Large churches can offer something for everyone, but it’s much easier to get lost in them. To show up 5 minutes before the worship service, and leave immediately after, never talking to anyone. Small churches can be much more cosy, but like a small town, often everyone knows everyone elses business.

Listen and watch through a few services. Are women and welcomed into the lay leaders (and does that match how you feel?) Are the services informal or formal, to match your preferences? Do the sermons hit on topic that are important to you, or maybe they make you feel uncomfortable enough to not go back?

Then read through the program they gave you at the door, and look at the posters on the bulletin boards. What kinds of things are going on? Music groups, youth get-togethers, discussion groups, study meetings, support groups.

In addition, I would also suggest not starting the process during the holiday season. Around Christmas, church services can have a very different feel from the average middle-of-March service. The numbers of people present, how they interact with each other, the topics of sermons, the presence (or lack) of choral or childrens programs.

Also, talk to friends and acquaintances with similar beliefs and ask where they go. That can provide a good start.

AIUI, the Catholic Church frowns on church shopping- your home is in a particular parish, and they want you to go to your parish’s church. I don’t understand why they do it that way, but that would be an example of a non-fundamentalist reason why a church might frown on church shopping.

I can tell you that synagogue-shopping happens all the time among liberal (non-Orthodox) Jews, at least in the Bay Area. If I were doing it, I’d just show up the first time. Then, I might call someone at the ones where my experience at the first service I went to made me think coming back might be a possibility.

I’ll second the recommendation not to look during the holiday season. I’ll also recommend not looking during summer vacation- some parents don’t take their kids to church or synagogue during the summer, so there may be fewer programs for kids active then.

Does it have to be a Church?
Have you thought about just joining and being active in a secular volunteer organization? You may find this less confusing and more rewarding.

I am part of a local environmental group. I have friends that volunteer regularly with Habitat for Humanity. There are hundreds of worthy organizations that need volunteer help more than money.

What are the spiritual and community reasons? Do you live somewhere, where the neighbors look at you funny for not belonging to a church?
Do you feel a lack of religion in your lives?
I am honestly very confused by a need to find a church. Could you please explain this part?


I think this is a seperate discussion not germaine to my question here.


Another really simple thing to do might be to just go with some friends to their church. It’s always easier to find out what’s going on, and to meet people, when you already know someone, after all. Since you’re apparently not too hung up, within limits, on whose version Christianity you end up with, this seems like a viable option.

I think it’s because theoretically the experience (at least from a theological standpoint) should be the same at every parish. Since Catholics don’t have the option of choosing their own priest at their parish, the Church doesn’t want a parish to be abandoned because they have assigned a dud of a priest to that parish. It’s different in a lot of Protestant and Jewish congregations, where the congregation (or at least, a representative council of members) hires the clergy. One of the hallmarks of the Catholic Church is that the Mass is supposed to be exactly the same all around the world every day…the same readings will be read today at the Vatican as at my parish, for example, and the sacraments are administered the same way everywhere, etc. The only differences should be minor cultural ones. And in the old days, that culture was pretty much determined by the neighborhood, so there was no reason to shop parishes, anyway. These days, the differences tend to be more political in nature, and the Church is a lot more lenient about parish-shopping than they used to be, actually (the priest who married my husband and I actively recruited us to become members of his parish, which we do not live in, but live nearby.)

Back to the topic…I was going to say what Kelly5078 said…it might be a good idea to go with some friends, if they seem to have the same ideas about religion that you do (just be sure it will be someone who won’t be insulted if you decide not to join that church!)

I visited churches and found some that I felt comfortable in. When contacted by their visitation committees, I let them tell me what they liked about their churches. Then, after narrowing down to 1 church and being the person I am, I made an appointment with the senior pastor and interviewed him. Not a typo - I interviewed the pastor, who turned out to be a really great guy and one I could agree with. (Not everyone is as argumentative as me, but ymmv.)

I hope you find a church that fits your needs.

More or less. You also might get recommendations from friends and neighbors.

You can call pastors and church offices to explain your interest, if you want. I would say “We’re looking for a church” but everyone calls it “church shopping,” informally, and it’s a more than ok practice. Ask when their services are, ask abou their beliefs, ask what they do with kids (every church varies. Some have them in the service, some want you to start out in Sunday School/Nursery care, some let you choose, some let you choose for certain ages, some let you choose up to the point your kid gets really noisy. If you ask, they’ll tell you in advance so it won’t be a surprise.) If you’re worried about the nursery/Sunday School, I would be suspicious of any church that didn’t let you sit in and see what happens with the kids for that period of time.

Last time I church shopped, though, that’s pretty much what I did - listed the churches that I thought I would probably like, and then visited them until I found one that fit. I didn’t call the pastors before hand, but I did call church offices to check times. (For a lot of churches, especially smaller ones websites are not always up to date, and there is the occasional “This Sunday we’re starting half an hour late. Don’t forget!” thing that happens, and you won’t know about unless you’ve called first.) But you don’t need to announce that you’re going to visit or that you’re visiting unless you want to.

Here is a site which has a variety of different churchs listed which were visited by a newcomer.

Here is the United Church of Christ’s website. They also have a discussion board which may prove useful.

I see nothing wrong with church shopping. I’d also suggest asking around at a church you find interesting, because members may have some insight. For instance, the 9 am service may run exactly on time to clear the parking lot for the later service. The later service may have a younger congregation and the choir might be encouraged to 'sing it again."

Also, in December, Advent begins. Even churches which aren’t as formal throughout the year may have a more formal worship service during these 4 weeks.

The last Catholic pastor I asked about that, and this was some twenty years ago, mind you, said that geographic concept of who goes to what parish is outdated.

If you have to go to “a real church”, I strongly recommend UU above all other organized religions. They are liberal enough to give kids a very broad spiritual base which includes learning about most world religions (which I think is very cool). Plus the people are usually highly intelligent and fun.

MWAAAHAHAHAHAHAH! Excuse me while I wipe tears off my eyes… you just brought back some funny memories. Good times, good times.

The Catholic church distributes people into parishes by geography, yes. But there’s also churches which are not parishes (for example, my hometown has 9 parish churches, 6 convents and 3 schools) and, well, yes, there’s problems with priests getting jealous when their parishioners prefer to go someplace else, but as the Bishop told the priests at St George, Mary Magdalene, Lourdes and St Mary when they whined that their teens would rather have Confirmation at Mother of the Good Shepherd “so get your own Confirmation programs up to par with them, I’m not going to tell them to make sunday school boring to fit yours and I’m not going to tell the kids they have to be bored just because they live where they do.”

3 of the 4 years I was living in Miami, my parish was the Augustins, whose theology and style don’t mesh well with mine. Often I’d go downtown to the Jesuits or to the secular church near my boyfriend’s. (Secular = priests who don’t belong to a specific order)

When I was a kid in Reston, VA in the early 70s, we were roughly equidistant between two churches: A liberal congregation in a new building that resembles a ski lodge, and a conservative one in Herndon in an old-style red brick church with steeple. After sampling each, we opted for the ski lodge.

If you test-drive a Catholic church, by all means talk to the pastor a few days ahead of time. Don’t go up for communion, though; doing so inappropriately (as in, you’ve never had the sacrament of First Holy Communion or in any of several States of Disgrace without the requisite Confession and Penance) is considered a sin, not a faux pas.

The OP doesn’t say if they were actually baptized Catholic, but if not then it’s pretty clear they wouldn’t go up for communion. I don’t think there’s any necessity for someone to talk to the pastor; just show up if you want to.

My father has always stuck to the geographical parish idea, but I go where the Mass is more my style. Good music, traditional liturgy, articulate homily and delivery. I’m very lucky to have that right now but things will be changing soon.