Want to visit an Orthodox Church? Here’s my advice.

Since beginning my personal website regarding my faith, I have received requests for help from people to learn more about Orthodoxy and how to choose a church to visit first.

I’ve heard from Americans who have visited an Orthodox church for the first time who came away perplexed and discouraged. They had no idea what was going on or what they were to do. Wanting to be respectful, they adjusted (coped) as best they could, but the differences between what they knew of churches and this experience were overwhelming. There was no one there to help them. One man even told me recently that in his search for a church he felt was truly teaching the truth of Christ, he had visited many churches over the years – none of them resonated. He shared that in his search, he did visit an Orthodox church, over 50 years ago, and he never went back to that or any Orthodox church after because it was strange, and without any context or help, he understood little. He never returned until 50 years later, after hearing me speak. And, after a few years of learning, study, and worship, he is now an Orthodox Christian in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR). His and other similar stories have led me to know that it is very important that we as Orthodox Christians do more to guide those who are interested in our faith – including providing guidance for their actual first visit. It is my hope that this brief piece will help.

Thus, I write this guide, informed by my personal experience and faith. It is by no means exhaustive, and in fact, is only a preliminary piece to which I may return and add as time permits.

Which church to visit – there are so many Orthodox churches?

That’s the first question I get asked. I recommend a Russian Orthodox church.

The answer you will generally see is that since we are all of the same Orthodox faith, just visit a few and find which one you feel most comfortable with. That answer is the nice answer. But that is not my answer.

While ideally, all would be the same – in harmonious unity – they are not – and it is not a matter of surface differences as in language/ethnicity of parishioners/etc. Instead, it is a matter of holiness and love of truth. 

Due to my experience (in the USA), I prefer to attend a Russian Orthodox Church (with a few exceptions of other Orthodox churches I know). It is the Russian church that brought me to knowledge of Orthodoxy after a lifetime of searching for it. My years of loving Christ, seeking to evince God’s will, on a path to develop holiness so that I may be in communion with God, culminated when I discovered there is the one true, authentic, apostolic original church still in existence: The Orthodox Church. 

Being in America, I have found Russian Orthodox parishes to manifest the holiness of what church must be to me, and it is there that I became Orthodox. For me, everything in the Russian Church communicates the sacredness I seek when I worship, it is why I am in church – to worship God. The music (Church Slavonic) is wondrously beautiful – and those words do not adequately describe it. 

Although I know there are many faithful Orthodox clergy and parishioners at other Orthodox churches in my country, I have found Russian Orthodoxy provides me the spiritual edification I require attending Diving Liturgy and partaking of the Sacraments. The sermons have the depth of teaching I seek. My purpose in attending is to become closer to God; I find this in the Russian Orthodox Church. Holiness is felt immediately upon entering. (They have not become Westernized, or Americanized as I call it – the Western mind produces a very different type of worship, which may be good for those who seek more of a social experience at church.) For me, I seek holiness and spiritual edification.

Also, I cannot trust or wish to pray with anyone who does not make the truth their highest priority.  Despite some others also being, of course, beautiful in appearance, and similar, I cannot, for one example, in good conscience, commune with those whose churches have high-ranking clergy who are touting the US government’s narrative of lies about the Russia-Ukraine conflict. To choose to stand with evil makes a church literally one I cannot stand together with to worship God – it makes such teachers untrustworthy as I must have trust in the priest I listen to, not be in a constant evaluation of what they say – for if by my values they are untrustworthy, I cannot relax and learn because everything they say is suspect as false teaching may be mixed with truth – a dangerous combination (more on the subversion of Orthodoxy in a future essay).

Unity among Orthodox believers is beautiful, but those who share false narratives are the ones who, in my opinion, cause the division we are now witnessing. I prefer to attend the church I trust: Russian Orthodoxy.

It is because of the witness of the people, the government, and the society of Russia, that I found my home in Orthodoxy here in the United States. The Russian Church is pure in its worship, true to tradition (both in belief and practices); it teaches the love of Christ in all areas as no other I have seen. It stands courageously strong against Western subversion. So, I recommend those interested in attending an Orthodox Church, find either a ROCOR parish or one of the Patriarchal Parishes in the USA near you (if you are in the USA, use my links here to find the nearest parish: Links ).

What To Expect

First, prepare yourself by perhaps viewing a few Divine Liturgy services online before attending a church. Our customs/traditions date back to the Early Church, and having seen them first will help.
Attire: Dress respectfully. You are coming to worship God. Nothing overly formal (suits, for example, are not needed). For those attending a Russian church, be aware that females must cover their heads and usually wear long dresses.
Entry: Upon entering the church, you will notice icons – and parishioners venerating icons. This may be alien to you. That is OK. You need not do what you see others are doing (such as standing in reverence before icons, bowing head, praying, and kissing the icons). Simply walk past. You will learn what this is about later, if you have not already. Do not feel compelled to imitate that which you are not yet aware of. Simply enter into the church.
In progress? The priest and others have been there, in worship, preparing for the parishioners, for a long time before most enter (an hour or more). Be assured – you are not late, you are merely coming into the church as it is in worship preparing for you.
Language: Depending on the Russian Orthodox parish, you will hear English, Russian, and Church Slavonic. I particularly appreciate those who have readings in both, as I feel it is wonderful to hear both, as English is necessary for most of us in America. Many (maybe most?) ROCOR churches use English for the Divine Liturgy, while others provide both.
We stand: Well, at least in Russian Orthodox Churches, we stand, as well as in others true to tradition (though some other Orthodox churches in America have pews, as they are what I call Westernized or Americanized). We stand in reverence before God. We are about to partake in the Divine Liturgy, a commemoration of Christ’s life, so we stand in respect. However, you should always feel free to take a seat (usually there are chairs on the sides for anyone who becomes fatigued or who needs to sit due to age/infirmity). Do not be self-conscious. If standing for a prolonged time will detract from your appreciation of that which is being sung and spoken, please sit. No one will look askance at this.
The sign of the cross: You will see many crossing themselves (the Orthodox way) frequently. It is a physical prayer. Crossing oneself is done when we pray in the name of the Trinity, before icons, and at other times in the Divine Liturgy. Again, you may choose to do so or not at this point. Observance of others can help you learn when we do this. We also do so upon entering and leaving the church. In our lives, we do so in prayer throughout the day.
Music – The beauty of the human voice – no instruments – prayer to God. In the Russian Church, the music is soul-touching. Of course, as this may be new to you, you will not understand the words of praise (you may later wish to take the step of reading, in English, the chants/prayers/and psalms you hear).  Suffice to say: they are deeply spiritual, emanating from the Byzantine and adapted to Church Slavonic. (Visit my links page for music – some of my favorites, which I play at home.)
Holy Eucharist (Communion) – Only Orthodox can participate in this Sacrament. Simply stay put, standing or sitting, as not being Orthodox, you must not partake. However, we also have blessed bread, prosphora (antidoran). which you are free to take (usually offered to you or free to take at the end of the liturgy). It is the same bread as in the Eucharist/Communion, only it has been blessed by the priest, though not consecrated.
The Holy Theotokos – We venerate Holy Mother Mary and ask her help and intercession, as well as the help and intercession of other saints, just as we would ask for the help, guidance, and prayers from others we love and who love us – both living and dead. Those who love God are with us in spirit.
The Priest – Finally, arrange a meeting with the priest in which you express your desire to learn more. Our church is not one you just become a member of by attendance – it is a spiritual journey of learning, with your priest knowing when you are ready to join. He will explain the path from inquirer (where you are at now) – to catechumen – to member.

There are other significant aspects to the traditions and what you will see in our church, but as I said, this is just a quick piece I thought I’d write for those who are just beginning to explore.

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