A guide for your first venture to an Eastern Orthodox Church
The Sunday morning service you will most likely encounter at an Orthodox Parish is called the Divine Liturgy. The most common liturgy in use today was compiled by St. John Chrysostom in the 4th century. It is a collection of songs and prayers offered in worship to God with the Eucharist (holy communion) also being consecrated and offered to the people.
Am I welcome?
Almost all Orthodox Parishes are very open to visitors. While they probably won’t have greeters at the door, this doesn’t mean they don’t want you there. Be sure to linger after the service is completed so you have a chance to speak with the priest. And don’t be afraid to tell people you are new and just checking this Orthodox thing out. Many Orthodox people are converts, so they understand where you’re coming from. Most parishes serve lunch afterward. Staying for the meal is one of the best ways to get to know others.
What’s with the constant singing?
Most of the service is chanted or sung. About the only speaking you will hear is the short sermon (homily) that the priest gives. Among all of the singing and chanting, you may find yourself getting bored and waiting for it to actually get started. That is normal; it’s the result of growing up Protestant. In a Protestant church, Sunday morning revolves around the sermon. In Orthodoxy, Sunday morning revolves around the Eucharist in which we believe Christ manifests His presence. Therefore, His presence is the focus of our gathering and not hearing a motivational sermon.
How should I dress?
Traditionally, the Orthodox stand the entire liturgy, which is typically close to two hours long. While some have pews or chairs, it’s best to be prepared on your first visit by wearing shoes that are supportive and comfortable for standing. It tends to be a little less casual than contemporary churches: women often times wear a dress or skirt, guys wear pants and a collared shirt. In some parishes, women wear head coverings, in others they don’t. If you’re visiting though, don’t sweat it. Just be respectful in the way that you dress.
Do they speak English?
Over the years, I’ve attended numerous Orthodox parishes, and each one has its own customs depending on the needs of the congregation. Some examples: At a Greek parish I visited, it was about half Greek and half English; at a Russian parish it was mostly English and some Slavonic; at two Carpatho-Russian parishes it was all or mostly all English. Churches that are part of the Orthodox Church in America will most likely be 100% English (unless they have a particular ethnic group that largely attends the church such as Hispanics).
There are paintings everywhere!
You will certainly notice what they call icons. These bothered me when I first heard about them, but after learning what they are and what they mean, I found them to be quite beautiful. Essentially, they are considered windows to heaven . They are the saints who have come before us and are cheering us on and interceding to God on our behalf, as Hebrew 12:1 states, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…”
Like most Christians, the Orthodox do not believe that when people die they cease to exist. Jesus Himself preached against that, “Have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living...” (Mark 12:26-27) Icons help us remember the Church Triumphant that surrounds us.
Why are you all praying to Mary and the saints?
As mentioned above, we believe as Christ taught, that the righteous are fully alive with God. Just as you and I ask one another for prayer, we also ask those who are alive in Christ for their prayers. We also recognize nobody is saved alone. We all need a great deal of help in struggling through this life, and whether someone believes in saints and angels or not, that person has heavenly intercessors praying for them. So why not become friends with our intercessors? We also sing occasional songs honoring them for “fighting the good fight,” and running the race with perseverance all the way to its end. Christians have done that from the earliest times.
Why are you all kissing those paintings of saints?
“Greet one another with a holy kiss…” (Rom 16:16) writes the Apostle Paul. We greet both the living and the departed brothers and sisters with a kiss. This is also a way that we show love and respect for the saints who are friends of God. In Eastern Cultures, greeting people with a kiss was, and still is, quite common. The fact that this shocks some people shows that we Americans are a bit culturally ignorant.
It seems so Catholic!
While the Orthodox do have some things in common with the Roman Catholics, they are certainly not the same. If anything, many Orthodox feel that Protestants are too Roman Catholic in their beliefs. Outwardly, there are several similarities between Orthodox and Catholics: you’ll see a priest and deacons who are dressed in fancy vestments, they use incense, things are formal and rather ceremonial, and in both faiths the people confess their sins to a priest. Also, like the most ancient Christians, we make the sign of the cross. However, once you get past the externals, you’ll find the similarities greatly decrease.
Why all of the pomp and circumstance?
All this display is not to be showy though. Showiness is truly in the eye of the beholder. Instead, this is a worship ceremony we are performing for God every week. One purpose of the incense, the robes, the icons, and everything else is to help the worshiper engage in something ancient and beautiful with all five senses.
The first Christians were Jews, and their liturgical services were therefore very Jewish. The Jewish form of worship came from explicit direction God gave Moses in order that their worship may be a reflection of the worship that is occurring in the throne room of heaven. That being the case, the Orthodox Church has simply seen no reason over the past 2,000 years to revise their way of worship to something less biblical in order to stay modern and culturally relevant.
Why does the priest hardly face the people?
Ever since the time of the Apostles, Christians have faced east while praying. The priest is no exception to this rule, and most church buildings will be designed so that everyone is facing east together. The priest is not putting on a show, but praying with the people. Therefore, he does just like the rest of us and faces east.
Can I receive communion with everyone else?
Until around the time of the 20th century, all churches practiced “closed communion,” which means it is open only to Christians who are in good standing with the church and share the same faith. I own Baptist encyclopedias published in the 1800’s that confirm closed communion as a standard Christian practice.
Unlike most churches today, the Orthodox have not changed their beliefs to conform with popular opinion. Unfortunately, that means you won’t be able to partake in communion with everyone else. However, you are able to go up and receive a piece of the blessed bread at the end of the service. If you want to know more about this, you can check out the historical reasons here and the theological reasons here.
I do hope you make it out to an Orthodox liturgy. The more you learn about our practices, the more beautiful and meaningful they will become to you.
When I first began to attend liturgies, I found them to be quite dull and boring compared to my charismatic upbringing. Stylistically, it is like visiting a foreign country, which can take weeks or months to become accustomed to. The Orthodox are not here to entertain. I now enjoy Orthodox worship and prefer it greatly over the modern, American style of worship.
I merely hinted at numerous topics in this blog, for further information on a few of these topics, check out:
- Why a Closed Communion Table: Part 1 & Part 2
- A review of scriptures showing how the Orthodox Liturgy is far closer to the way God has commanded us to worship Him than the Protestant or charismatic forms of worship.
- Iconography in Ancient Jewish Synagogues – the Orthodox were not the first to utilize icons. It was carried over from Jewish practices.
- Making the sign of the cross – Wikipedia article on the topic
 When I wrote this article, my understanding of icons (and everything else Orthodox) was a bit simplistic. There’s much more richness to the theology of icons than what is mentioned here. I’ve left this article in place because it reminds me of where I used to be and where many other people are coming from.