Adventures in Visiting Other Religions’ Services with Rowdy Boys: Memories and Tips

“Gothic church & Islamic mosque architectures combined.” From Midjourney v5.

I’m a strong believer in the educational value of visiting religious services other than one’s own. However, you need to do it right so that you’re respectful and it doesn’t come off as a “let’s observe the natives in their natural habitat” kind of voyeurism, and that can be tricky.

When we lived in Philadelphia we visited the historic Unitarian Church in downtown Philly as a family and realized too late that other churches usually have some kind of Sunday school for the kids while the parents watch the sermon, making the main hall as quiet as a single’s ward. Suffice it to say a rowdy group of Utahns hushing their kids throughout the sermon on global warming was probably a bit of a two-way educational experience. Everybody was nice and understanding at the coffee and cookies afterward even when I had to drag our second-born out as he shouted that he “hated this church.” So with that experience we learned that you should probably do some basic background research before you just show up at a service.  

One more sidebar on this: at the Unitarian Church there were several “visibly queer” individuals, and I felt grateful that religious options exist for people in same-sex relationships (saying this as somebody who is not only 100% orthodox on the hot-button sex and gender issues in the Church but has also gone out of my way to publicly defend the Church’s stance thereon). Sometimes I get the sense that liberal religion is just used as a trump card to attack conservative religion by people who don’t ever actually go to church, and it was refreshing to see the former in action instead of just being trotted out as a counterfactual.

During our time in Philadelphia we also visited a Church of Scientology. There was a handful of people there; I was kind of expecting some spit-shine, well-rehearsed tour but I could tell that they were short staffed. The person who gave me the spiel seemed very interested in what sensational things I had heard about the Church, and I could tell they were trying to get into a discussion about Xenu, psychology, or some other controversy Scientology has come to be known for. Seeing things from the other side informed my own perspective on apologetics issues in our own Church: making your faith about the sensational, critics vs apologetics debates is kind of a turn off. I knew this intellectually before but it was educational to experience it viscerally from the other side. It would have been much more effective had they given their spiel about what was important to them on their own terms, and kind of in passing alluded to the more sensational stuff and pointed to other sources and references that address those if I was interested.   

When I taught introductory sociology at Baylor I would assign students to attend one religious meeting that they normally did not, and the majority chose “The Church under the Bridge,” a neat little service put on by volunteer pastors in Baylor for the homeless in the city. (Of course nowadays they could upload the materials for the Church and just get Chat-GPT to write a response paper about their moving experience—I’m still waiting to hear how teachers will figure that one out or whether they’re so demoralized at this point that they don’t even care). 

While at Baylor I also had the opportunity to join Gordon Melton, the Godfather of New Religious Movement research in the US (who worked up the hall from me), on a trip to celebrate Halloween with Neopagans at Fort Hood. There was a prayer-circle type ritual where people passed around a drinking gourd; upon imbibing they would offer a few words of praise to their chosen deity and there would be a sort of call-and-response where everybody in the circle would chant “hail [the name of their deity].” They seemed pretty ecumenical about it, as some people’s chosen deity was Jesus. (They graciously allowed us to observe outside the circle.)

When we moved to DC and our kids were old enough (we thought) we took them on the tour of the Catholic National Basilica. However, after turning my back on him for a moment one of my younger ones stole away to one of the chapels and horrifyingly started trying to climb up onto one of the altars. Once again, make sure your children are old enough to understand the concept of reverence and sacredness around people’s beliefs (even if they don’t understand the concept during our sacrament meetings).

Finally, I have had the opportunity to take my children to the National Mosque a number of times. While they were old enough at this point to be well-behaved, the first time I took them it was the morning of the Christchurch shootings (it was morning for us, with the time change I’m not sure how long it was after the actual shootings). I was vaguely aware that something had happened but I wasn’t expecting the Mosque to be packed and surrounded by cameras. It might not have been the right decision, but it had been quite an effort to get there with DC traffic being what it is, so I thought it would be okay if my very not Muslim-looking family slipped in for a moment. I think we pulled it off without drawing attention to ourselves or in any way disrupting what was clearly a moment of mourning for that community, but we were still approached by several reporters on our way out, who I brushed off when I made it clear that we had been planning to visit for a while and were only vaguely aware of what had happened. We have been back several times, and the National Mosque is used to respectful outsiders, so it is highly recommended for a Washington DC trip itinerary. 

Other services I would like to attend at some point: 

A synagogue service: This is one I’d like to do with a Jewish associate. We have several Jewish friends in the area but we haven’t imposed on them yet about this. 

Buddhist temple: I’ve tried doing my background research on this, but I’m still not sure I wouldn’t look like a gawking idiot if I visited.

Hindu temple: Ditto. 

American as apple pie Protestant service: Ironically I’ve still never been to one of these. I kind of want to experience a small town rural church service “where everybody knows your name” before they’re gone, as well as a megachurch service since those are the shiny new things in US Christianity. 

7 comments for “Adventures in Visiting Other Religions’ Services with Rowdy Boys: Memories and Tips

  1. Stephen, what about one of the newer mall-based, non-denominational churches? That model seems to be even newer than the megachurch (and if you ask me, a more attractive one).

    In any case, I can report that the options for where to go and what to see with middle school through teenage children expands dramatically, so there’s that to look forward to.

  2. I’m a little embarrassed that I wasn’t aware there were mall-based churches, but yes, definitely something to check out even though the mixing of materialism and God in such an explicit way seems a bit odd.

  3. I don’t think it’s materialism, just relatively affordable space that’s otherwise going unused – what do you do with a mall once the main stores leave? So it’s more a mix of late stage capitalism and God.

  4. My visits to other church’s services have mostly been as a guest musician in my younger days. Most were “American as apple pie Protestant service[s],” another was an American as apple pie Catholic mass…then there was time I was tasked with fulfilling an invitation to talk to the Unitarian youth group about our beliefs since I was the most recent returned missionary. That was interesting.

    FWIW, and this is mostly a function of where I live, most of those mainline Protestant churches now display prominent rainbow flags or other signals that LGBT people are welcome. The Catholic church I went to…not so much, but that’s mostly driven by the leaders and not the members (there’s enough drama between them that non-Catholics like me are aware of the conflict).

    My #1 piece of advice to Latter-Day Saints looking to make such a visit would be to NOT assume children are welcome in their main service or that our standard of sacrament meeting behavior for kids will be acceptable. As you discovered, there’s a good chance the kids will have separate activities or there’s a designated “family” service. Find out before you go.

    Also, you may be asked for a donation, and I’d suggest making a small one. Most likely the service you’re attending is the work product of professionals who need to make a living doing what they’re doing. They’re not paid by their equivalent of Salt Lake City, nor can they count on their members paying tithing; just the expectation that people who attend their services will make a donation. Another part of your donation will probably go to good works in your community. Rest assured they won’t take it as a declaration of allegiance to their church, like we might with tithing.

    The service I want to attend is a traditional Black church, mostly for the experience of mixing music and worship. I haven’t because of exactly the “let’s observe the natives in their natural habitat” concerns you expressed. One local congregation has a choir that does regular concerts, and they’re wonderful, but that strips their music of its context and purpose. I’ll confess to feeling a sacred envy for the music of traditional Black churches, the passion they bring to it, and the way both the choir and the congregation use it to express love for God and the Savior–thus helping them fulfill the first and great commandment. The problem isn’t our hymns (though I do hope the new hymnbook will add Amazing Grace and other spirituals) but the way we usually sing them without any thought or feeling.

  5. I so appreciate the guidance provided by RLD, since I haven’t previously given the proper thought to my conduct when visiting other congregations. Especially the advice to make a small donation – that is a point that I had never properly considered before; “of course” I haven’t made a donation when the plate was passed, since I was a member of The Only True Church – and I realize now how petty I have seemed to those around me. Thanks again.

  6. Back in 1976 as a young missionary I had the opportunity to sing with a missionary ensemble, the “Mormon Madrigals” in a Catholic rock mass in Adelaide, Australia. Our music was not so rock-ish (a hymn arrangement), but the priest invited us after he heard us singing in a mall. Then, when I was in the BYU A Cappella Choir in 1978, we were singing in the massive Duomo in Florence, Italy, when the priest asked us to sing in his mass. (We sang in every cathedral we visited. One can only experience such sound of the music composed for cathedrals when singing those in the cathedrals.) So, our director, Ralph Woodward, agreed, and humbly asked the priest if, for our last song, we would sing a hymn that meant much to our own congregation, depicting our own as they were going across the U.S. west to find a place where we wouldn’t be persecuted. The priest generously allowed it. So, for the final number in the mass in one of the world’s most famous cathedrals, we sang “Come, Come Ye Saints,” a beautiful J.J. Keeler arrangement that included a marvelous organ part!

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