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Ethics and Religion Talk: What do visitors to your place of worship need to know?

If a visitor were to attend a service/ceremony at your church, synagogue, etc., what would they be allowed to do, and what might they shouldn't do if they are not "fully initiated" in your faith?

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“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

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Linda Knieriemen, a retired pastor of the Presbyterian Church (USA), responds:

Visitors and non-members are permitted to participate in every way, including participating in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Even for the questioner, the doubter or the agnostic, this sacrament can be fruitful, healing and comforting. 

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

I can’t really think of anything. As a matter of fact, when I bring groups of non-Hindus to tour the temple, sometimes there is a ceremony taking place. The guests are always good about patiently observing, but obviously not participating. But I’ve had instances when one of the priests (or someone assisting) unwittingly cause a bit of discomfort.

For instance, we have a tradition of the priest taking a lighted oil lamp into the crowd. Devotees are invited to wave their hands over the flame and then touch their heads. This is considered a blessing. Well, on a couple of occasions the priest (or assistant) offered the lamp blessing to guests, who rightfully are hesitant to engage in a ritual they don’t understand. The motive of such an offering is hospitality, not to “make them Hindu” or any such thing. 

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

Any visitor would be welcome to participate in every part of our service that they would feel comfortable doing. A visitor could participate like other congregants. Most first-time visitors attend more as observers to learn about our faith and our worship service. 

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

Visitors to a service of worship in a Presbyterian or Reformed church may participate fully in all parts of public worship and are encouraged to do so. A line is drawn with regard to the sacramentsonly church members may present their children for baptism or partake of the Lord’s Supper. But visitors may witness these acts of worship along with the other congregants. There are no secret ceremonies, no rites intended only for “initiates.” The sacraments are administered publicly, in the presence of the congregation, which may include many baptized members who have yet to be admitted to full communion. The late Dr. Donald Barnhouse famously announced that visitors who were not professing Christians should not participate in the collection of gifts and offerings that was a stated part of services in his church. He did not want anyone to think that they had to pay for the privilege of hearing God’s Word preached.

My response:

We welcome visitors to Ahavas Israel synagogue, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and some, like our questioner, wonder about the etiquette. Here’s what you need to know when visiting.

If you are coming as individuals, you are welcome any time for any service. If you are coming with a group, we ask you to call the office and schedule your visit. We are a small congregation and in order to preserve the spirit of our gatherings, we limit groups to five people at a time. If your group has more than that, we ask that you divide your group and schedule your visit on more than one Shabbat.

If you visit on Shabbat or a holiday, please understand that Ahavas Israel strives to create an atmosphere of Shabbat within our walls, a “bubble of Shabbat space.” Please help us by turning off cell phones and other electronic devices. Texting, audio or video recording and photography are prohibited on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. In consideration of traditional Shabbat practice, we also ask that you not write in the synagogue.

Jewish adults are encouraged to wear a tallit (prayer shawl). All men should wear a head covering during worship. Kippot (head coverings) are available in bins outside the sanctuary or chapel. Women’s head coverings are only required when leading a service or being called to the Torah. We do not have a dress code, but simply ask you to wear something appropriately modest. Men wear anything from a suit to a nice shirt and slacks or clean jeans. Women wear a suit, dress, skirt or slacks.

Our services start at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday mornings and end at about 11:45 a.m. We use a prayer book that has both Hebrew and English. Services are in Hebrew, with some prayers in English. If you don’t know any Hebrew, you can read along in the English translation.

After services we have kiddush, which is a light communal meal/snacks. You are welcome to attend; we would like to get to know you, whether you are Jewish or not.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area.

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