What typically happens during a church service?

I found the recent thread on Why do people attend church? to be very interesting.
I was wondering what usually occurs during a church service? If I were to visit your
church / synagogue / mosque on the Sabbath day what would I experience?

I can only remember going to church once or twice back I was about 4. All I remember
is the choir singing and being extremely bored.

Thank you in advance for your replies. And please no nasty comments about other
people’s religion. There’s already enough trouble in the world - let’s not add to it OK?

Well, it really depends on the congregation, or the denomination.

Some are more formal, with a liturgical format and an order of service that’s fairly regular. There will be hymns, a sermon, scripture readings, and Communion/Eucharist, in a regular order. These might be Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopal, Lutheran. High church some call them.

Some churches have a regular order of service but are plainer in style. Low church

Then there are churches that are more free form, or non-denom churches that create their own style, and are wide open and more emotionally expressive.

All are equally valid expressions of worship. I’ll bet if you go online you can type in denominational names and find out how they express themselves. And bear in mind that even within a denomination there can be variances.
I’m Episcopalian, here is a link to what we call Rite II, an order of service with contemporary language and a lot of music and scripture reading.


There are also videos online of church services.

Almost forgot, this is a link to the “Get Acquainted” book at my own church. It can tell you a lot that goes on.


My father once described the church he was raised in as, “a hymn and a prayer, a hymn and a prayer, a hymn, a sermon, a hymn and a prayer, pass the collection plate, a hymn and a prayer and out.” I’m pretty sure there had to be a Bible reading or two in there as well.

Speaking in very broad generalities, as far as Christian denominations go, Baker’s high churches tend to have slightly more passive services. The priest/minister says or at least starts most of the prayers, a choir sings (or leads) most of the hymns, someone reads from the Bible, and the congregation is mostly limited to responding. The non-denominational churches tend to adopt their own order of worship and amount of congregational involvement.

Frankly, the biggest change in mainline Christian services I’ve seen in the last 50 years or so has been the “sharing of the peace,” which IMHO was developed simply to get members of the congregation to at least greet one another.

The key part about most mainline church services is the celebration of the Eucharist. For Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Lutherans, it’s a sacrament. For many others, it’s a commemorative service but not a sacrament.
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At my catholic church, Sunday mass consisted of (not 100% sure about the order though) A Song, A Gospel reading followed by explanation of the lesson we can take from that, Prayer recital, Passing of the collection plate for the poor, More prayer recital, Passing of the collection plate for the Church, Communion (eating the wafer/bread and wine - only priest (and alter boys :p) get wine, ask me how I know), Song, Prayer recital, Turn around and say “peace be with you” to everyone standing around you, Another song maybe. At various times you are either standing, sitting or kneeling, with lots of changing between those states. Maybe an hour long?

I’m a member of a United Methodist church. While we have “traditional” services that are much more like the “high church” liturgy that Baker describes, I attend the contemporary service.

In those services, we usually have:

  • Four or five contemporary songs (all of which are played by, essentially, a rock band – two guitars, bass, keyboards, drums)
  • Several minutes spent mingling with other people (this is the “passing the peace,” but we’re encouraged to get up and meet people we may not know)
  • Possibly a few minutes of announcements
  • One or two scripture readings
  • Several minutes of prayers
  • A"children’s church" segment (five minutes or so of a lesson from one of the pastors, specifically for the children at the service, who come up to sit with the pastor in front of the altar)
  • A sermon (around 10 minutes or so)
  • Offertory
  • Once a month, communion

The entire service takes an hour, give or take five minutes.

I grew up Catholic, and then was an ELCA Lutheran for a number of years; both churches had a similar structure to their liturgy. If I remember the order correctly, it usually ran something like this:

  • Opening hymn and procession
  • A prayer
  • Old Testament reading
  • Psalm recitation
  • New Testament reading
  • Gospel reading
  • Sermon (called a homily in Roman Catholic Mass)
  • Offertory (with hymn)
  • Eucharistic prayer
  • Communion (with one or more hymns)
  • Closing prayers
  • Recessional hymn

This, too, typically lasts an hour or so, give or take. When I was in high school, the priest who did the Saturday evening Mass at our church was very popular, because he never ran longer than 40 minutes. :smiley:

There’s a basic structure which all regular Catholic masses follow–the “Order of the Mass”–and the readings of the day are the same at whatever church throughout the world, I think. (Maybe that’s the Pope’s job–to decide what everyone is going to read from the Bible each day of the year?) I know that mass in Colombia follows the same format as in the States.

Different congregations can vary how they sings songs, etc., and in the U.S. I think most Catholic churches don’t have a special mass for the “lessor” celebrations like Sacred Heart or Corpus Cristi.

Thank you for that! I see that the big thing I forgot to include was the Profession of Faith (usually, a recitation of one of the creeds, IIRC).

Lutheran here. As others have noted, Lutherans are similar to other “high church” groups as far as the service is concerned. The most notable differences comparing Lutheran services to Catholic/Episcopal that I’m aware of:

[li]In most Lutheran churches there is no procession, i.e. the minister and others do not formally march to the front with the congregation standing.[/li][li]Service begins with a confession. That is, the entire congregation including the minister recites out loud a written general confession of sin, after which the minister pronounces forgiveness. (Episcopalians, in my experience, put the confession right before the Eucharist. Catholics, of course, do confession singly at another time.)[/li][li]The Lutheran Eucharistic prayer is very short. I would say it’s 1-2 minutes, vs. 5-10 minutes for Catholics or Episcopalians.[/li][/ul]

A professionally filmed, high-church Anglican service from the BBC, available in HD:

Christmas Day Eucharist 2017

It gives a very good idea of the atmosphere and feeling of a Christmas church service, and a sense of why people enjoy it.


The “Mystery Worshipper” section on the “Ship Of Fools” site is interesting because the volunteer writers have been instructed to show up unannounced at a church they don’t belong to and just see what it’s like.

The entire Ship Of Fools site, including that section, probably skews heavily toward the liberal end of the spectrum, but it’s something at least.

I’d like to add that ALL churches include in some form a sense of belonging and group membership and community and so on. How they do that may vary widely, but it’s never not there.

I haven’t been inside a church for a regular service for over 30 years, but I hear that there is a lot of people looking at electronic screens these days.

Yes, for sure. It can be a helpful and unobtrusive utility, or a garish stupid distracting sideshow.

People can still get quite exercised over differences in liturgy and service styles, though not so much nowadays, perhaps. Way back in the days when I was taken to church (Church of England=Episcopalian), my mother never quite took to “pings-and-pongs” borrowings from Catholic traditions. On the other hand, at one time, an early piece ofe ecumenism saw the parish church agree to joint services with the Methodists, alternating between each other’s ministers and churches: not a great stretch doctrinally, but the CofE people got a real shock when the Methodist minister got into his sermon. They were all used to about 10-15 minutes’ worth: you should have seen the shifting about in their seats as he got to 20 minutes, and the anxious expression as he got to 30 minutes and they were all thinking their Sunday lunch would be ruined. He stopped at the 45 minute mark, and the CofE never emptied so fast.

(Compare and contrast the clash of expectations over the visiting (US) preacher’s rather holy-roller style at the royal wedding).

One important factor, for most people who attend any sort of religious institution regularly, must be the comforting familiarity of the standard forms of service. Committed atheists who were brought up in that environment (as I was) may still find the phrasing of the older forms of the Church of England Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible rattling around in their minds, and get quite discombobulated when the church does experimental and different things (I’ve been known to watch the BBC’s Songs of Praise programme and shout “Wrong tune!” when they try updating familiar old hymns).

(Called “smells and bells” in an American context, because “pong” is quite a rare word on this side of the water. At least rare with that meaning.)

ELCA Lutheran.

[ul][li]Invocation (“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”.)[/li][li]Confession and Forgiveness[/li][li]First hymn, which we call the “Gathering Hymn”[/li][li]The Kyrie, which is a series of five short prayers which we sing in sort of call and response[/li][li]The Hymn of Praise, which is also a short hymn[/li][li]The Prayer of the Day[/li][li]The children’s sermon[/li][li]First reading, usually Old Testament or one of the Epistles. There is a standard lectionary that lays out which passages we use. [/li][li]The Psalm, in which we alternate where the reader does a verse, then the congregation does a verse. It is displayed on the overhead screen - the congregation part is bolded.[/li][li]The Gospel, read by the presiding minister[/li][li]The sermon. “Talk about the gospel, talk about Jesus, talk about ten minutes”. Our current minister is a very good preacher. He is scheduled to go on paternity leave in a couple of weeks, and I am doing one of the sermons while he is gone - I have a high standard to live up to. :eek:[/li][li]Hymn of the Day[/li][li]Prayer of the People - a general purpose prayer where we pray for whatever the theme of the day is, and also for all the people on our prayer list.[/li][li]Sharing of the Peace - we shake hands/hug/whatever everybody else and say “Peace be with you”.[/li][li]Receive the offering[/li][li]Prayer over the offering[/li][li]the Eucharist, with the Words of Institution and then everyone comes forward to receive the bread and wine or grape juice. We do intinction, which means we dunk the wafer in the wine. During communion our keyboardist, a world-class (literally) pianist plays glorious classical pieces that cause me to melt in my pew into little puddles of goo. She is spectacular.[/li][li]the post-Communion prayer.[/li][li]Announcements about how the ladies of the church are selling soup mix and the men’s club is fixing the tiles and if you want to order a poinsietta the form is in the bulletin and etc.[/li][li]the blessing[/li][li]The last hymn is called the Sending Song.[/li][/ul]Then we all go into the Fellowship Hall and have coffee and snacks and praise each other’s grandchildren pictures. If you are a visitor, five or six people will lunge at you and introduce themselves and invite you to join us afterwards so they can introduce you to everybody else.

Takes about an hour, end-to-end.


In Catholic and Episcopalian services at least, there are many memorized responses, prayers, etc. Most of the congregation have long ago memorized the Nicene Creed (recited virtually every Sunday) and so forth. There are times to stand, sit, and (especially during Lent), kneel, process in an orderly fashion, and so forth. Most of this is very rote and eventually you can practically sleepwalk through it, but as a visitor you’ll spend some time frantically leafing through the various books, mouthing the words, and nervously trying to copy your fellows.

The readings for Catholic, Episcopal, and Lutheran services are dictated by the Lectionary (all use the same one), which has a three-year rotation for Sundays and two-year rotation for weekdays. On an ordinary Sunday there are three readings, one from the Hebrew Scriptures (“Old Testament”), one from the New Testament letters or other non-Gospel book, and one from a Gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John). In the Catholic church, designated lectors read the first two, and the priest always reads the Gospel, for which all stand.

The Catholic Mass is divided into two parts. The first part is formed around the reading and at least one psalm (adapted from the book of Psalms in the Bible). The homily follows the readings and is supposed to explicate them although many priests go off on their own tangents. The second part is the Eucharist, which is the heart of the Mass. This is when the Body and Blood of Christ (the bread and wine) is served to the congregation.

After that it is just announcements, a closing hymn and recessional, and coffee and doughnuts in the parish hall.

Shoot, I had a bulletin yesterday and could have shown you. I’m United Methodist. We love our bulletins. They’ll tell you exactly when everything happens and God forbid you diverge from the agenda. :slight_smile:

On the first Sunday we have Communion, so things are different, but for yesterday, I’ll do my best to remember.

We tend to get there at about 8:15. There are two greeters, both older and they’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember. They’re a married couple and the lady is like a grandmother and her husband is like a grumpy, old man and he knows it and plays it up. They play off each other and it’s hilarious. Anyway, you usually mill around in the sanctuary for a bit catching up with people. At 8:30, the pastor stands up and welcomes you and then they usually play a processional. Acolytes who are elementary aged kids walk in with candles and robes and light the candles at the front.

Next, we stand for the first hymn, generally something related to the sermon. Then we do a passing of the peace where you go around and say “Hi” to people and catch up on their week. Then we sing the “Welcome” song - it’s just a song that says ‘You’re welcome in this place’ with various lyrics for a couple of verses.

Then we do Children’s time. All of the kids in the church go up front and someone gives them a simple object lesson. I think the last one was about helping others and everyone had to take a random ‘Act of Service’ to do that week.

Then, we read the Gospel lesson or Bible lesson and then a hymn and then the sermon.

The sermon is about 20-25 minutes and typically deals with where we are in the liturgical calendar or on some news item of the day. So last week’s was on the Tree of Life shooting and how hateful words can easily transition to hateful actions especially among the mentally ill, so it’s our job to make sure that our words are never hateful and that we should always speak of others remembering that they are valuable children of God who were each put here to be loved by Him and so we must make sure that our words are words of love and not hate. God always loves what we are and an insult to another human being is an insult to the image of God. When we use hateful and divisive language towards others, we are actually using hateful and divisive language towards God’s images and vicariously God Himself. Anyway, I digress.

After the sermon, we usually pray, typically a prayer of repentance for failing to live up to our ideals or a prayer that asks for the sermon to be remembered throughout the week. We end it with ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ Then we’ll do announcements, usually the charities that need volunteers or a musical show or art show that we’re sponsoring. Various people in charge of those efforts will go up and make their pitch.

Then we’ll take up offering and afterwards sing ‘The Doxology’. Then a final hymn during which time the acolytes go forward and extinguish the candles. Finally we’ll get a benediction “Go into the world and make it a better place” kind of thing that is only a few sentences. Then the pastor exits and the organist will play a recessional while we chat some more with friends. You walk out to the narthex and shake hands with the pastor who asks about your week. Whomever wants to then goes to a large side room where they have a light brunch set up. You can hang out there for awhile or go to some classrooms where they’ll do Bible study or other types of Sunday School-ish things. I typically don’t do those, so can’t say what they entail. I usually just hang out for awhile and chat with different people.

Most weeks we also have special music during the service, usually sometime after the “welcome” song and before the sermon. Sometimes it’s the choir or a mini-orchestra we have. We have a few classically trained vocalists who will often sing a religious aria or sacred song. We have a composer that will sometimes play some of his more religious works.

So, except on Communion Sundays, that’s the main gist of things. Communion Sundays aren’t too much different except that we take Communion, so the sermon is shorter and they’ll skip a hymn which is not a horribly complicated thing, but this post is long enough.