We are the most missionary-oriented, proselyting church this side of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. So you would think we would love to have visitors come to our services. And in theory, we absolutely would love that! Come one, come all, you are certainly most welcome!

The problem that I see is that we don’t think this through thoroughly  from a visitor’s perspective. We’re so used to attending our services that we think it’s all obvious, and so we don’t think to prep our guests.  But haven’t you ever attended an unfamiliar church and had some anxiety about the experience for not being confident what to expect? We need to look at the experience not from a lifelong Mormon’s point of view, but from the point of view of someone who knows next to nothing about Mormonism and is maybe a little anxious about an unfamiliar situation.

When I first thought about this I thought in terms of an old school pamphlet, but these days a resource for visitors would probably need to be on a phone-friendly webpage or Facebook page. Or if you’re inviting a friend, just communicating this information informally in person. Most basically, where is the church and how does one get there? Don’t assume people are going to find the lds meetinghouse locator on lds.org. I go to a lot of movies, and when I go to an unfamiliar theater their webpage prominently features the address and a map. If we want people to come, we need to make it easy for them to find us. What’s the parking situation? In most cases there will be free parking on-site; say that. In urban areas there may be a pay lot nearby, or there might be public transit options. Don’t make someone research them; lay them out.

What times are the services? And what are the services? If we use the word “sacrament” meeting, we might parenthetically call it a “worship” service; the word sacrament is not clear to outsiders. Don’t assume people are going to stay for three hours; tell them the end time of the worship service. A basic diagram of the building would also be a good idea. (In particular, where are the restrooms? If ye are prepared, ye shall not fear.)

What should people expect? First, how should they dress? Give people some indication how people dress for our worship services. Don’t be too demanding; not everyone owns a suit or a white shirt; there’s no reason to impose such constraints on visitors.

Outline the basic worship service. (It will be conducted by a local leader. There will be an opening hymn, usually to organ accompaniment. You’re welcome to sing parts, but it’s not necessary, singing the melody or not singing at all is perfectly fine.)

Explain the sacrament (our word for communion). This might require a brief explanation of why young men are officiating in this service. Also, why are we using water? Most importantly, should they participate or not? We need to nuance the idea that it’s fine if they partake (i.e., it doesn’t hurt anything), but in general it’s intended for baptized members.

We also need to explain that there will be no offertory, and they will not be expected to make any contribution.

We probably need to explain briefly our lay structure, and that “talks” (i.e. sermons) are given by members of the ward, usually a youth speaker first and then two adult speakers. We don’t want people to expect the polish of a trained minister.

Families need to understand that we don’t have a nursery during the worship service, but children are present. That means there will be a certain level of ambient noise, which is normal.

If people are going to stay for the later meetings, we need to explain the options to them and what to expect, the different classes and the separation of some classes by sex.

What else do we need to explain to visitors so that they feel comfortable attending our services? Any experiences with this kind of thing you’d care to share? How about your visits to other churches; were there things about the experience you wish you had known beforehand? Your experiences, please.







  1. I attended my local ward a couple of times on my own after doing extensive online research about where it was (lds.org) and what to expect. The missionaries flung themselves at me as soon as I stepped through the door, which was daunting at first, but eventually good. They found me someone to sit with and made sure I knew where I was going between classes. The stuff about how to dress is important. It was only because I’d been raised in a church that I picked up on the need for a knee length skirt and sleeves rather than pants, jeans and a sleeveless top.

  2. Hope Wiltfong says:

    Thank you – I have been saying this for YEARS. If nothing else, we should have meeting times actually on the church doors (although we will have to change them every year). Thanks for sharing!

  3. jaxjensen says:

    The three churchhouses I have attended in rural US each had posted times of services on the doors as well and phone numbers for after hours contact.

    Include a FAQ, including definitions for words they are likely to hear and be unfamiliar with. A notice that it is discouraged to clap or shout AMEN after sermons/performances would be nice.

    If we are serious about adding more visitors, then I’d also like us to get more serious about our sermons focusing on Christ more. I assume most of us couldn’t even count the number of Sacrament Meetings we’ve sat through without hearing His name except to say as a closing plug. That’d need to change. I’ve been in wards where I actively didn’t invite friends because I knew that the sacrament talks would not be Christ or Gospel focused.

  4. I’ve been thinking a lot about this question, as I’ve visited a number of completely unfamiliar churches recently. I actually pulled up mormon.org at one point to try to imagine how helpful it would be if I were trying to find out about Mormonism the way I’ve been researching other traditions. There is some useful info under the subheading “worship with us,” like telling you that you can wear whatever “modest” clothes you’d like (though are people going to know that “modest” is code for covering the shoulders, for example?), but most people will be dressed in skirts/dress and suits/ties; the main worship service is a little over an hour and includes hymns and talks; and you won’t be expected to participate or give money. Something I found really striking is that while it explains what is meant by “sacrament,” it doesn’t say anything about who should take it. Does this reflect what seems to be a rather fuzzy position on that question by the church, I wonder?

    I agree that there’s more info that would be useful, particularly about local congregations. I did find that it was fairly easy to locate the closest church with a map and worship times, though I’m not sure it would be clear to a non-member what was going on with different “wards” having different times. But stuff like parking info and public transportation routes would really come in handy, I think. I also have to admit that I don’t like the extent to which the site tries to steer you toward contacting the missionaries. I realize people go about things differently, but I would absolutely want to keep my distance from missionaries.

    In addition to having that stuff online, I think it would be great if wards included information in the bulletin about where the Sunday school classes would be held and what the different classes were, and ditto for the RS/Priesthood hour. I’m imagining that if I were a first-timer, I’d feel pretty lost after sacrament meeting when everyone just took off to the next place. Mormon.org just says “ask someone for directions,” but people with my temperament (that is to say, introverted), might be reluctant to do that; it would be nice to just have the info printed out.

    Several of the churches I’ve looked at have “welcome centers” for newcomers, where they give you a packet of info and answer any questions. I don’t know how feasible that would be for Mormons, but I l rather like the practice. (The Seventh-day Adventists get bonus points for distributing loaves of banana bread to new people.)

    One of the things that really initially drew me into the Episcopal congregation where I’ve landed is just how accessible it was for outsiders. All the liturgy is printed in the bulletin, so you always know what’s happening and what to say. It tells you when to stand and kneel, but also says explicitly that you’re welcome to do what feels most comfortable. It explains that you can take Communion if you do it in your own tradition, and that you can go forward and cross you arms if you want a blessing. It made it all feel quite friendly and welcoming. As I’ve read the websites of a lot of different churches, I’ve also found it reassuring when along with giving clear information, they’ve said something like “we know often people like to visit different churches and see what they’re like; we’re not going to pressure you in any way.” (Though I don’t know if LDS could actually say that, given that the missionary zeal of many members.)

  5. 1. Easter Sunday (and Christmas, and Palm Sunday, and other liturgically notable Sundays) require some extra explanation. It’s a big topic, including whether one might choose any other Sunday but.
    2. On the other hand, do you really want to explain Stake Conferences and General Conference? Or avoid them.
    3. On the third hand, Testimony meetings need their own explanation.
    4. There’s a whole class of visits and visitors for baby blessings and missionary (non)farewells. Yet another conversation. My most recent experience was with a baby blessing. In fact the service was unusual from a Mormon practice point of view, but how much of the “unusual” do you want to discuss?
    5. I discover that our eucharistic practice is unusual. We’re an “open communion” church (a recognized term, I learn) to visitors. But some version of “closed communion” for members, who may be subject to external or internal discipline. How much of this do you want to explain?
    6. When I had some say about the printed programs, we included the full text of the sacrament prayers in the program. I would do it again.

  6. This is a topic I have thought about often. As I have tried to put myself in the shoes of a first-time visitor, I have gained a better sense of the potential awkwardness this could create for a lot of visitors, and I think all of your suggestions are good.

    Another way I’ve thought about how we can make our meetings more accessible is to ensure that the those conducting sacrament and other meetings treat it as though it were intended for a true public audience. There are practical limits there – for example, we can’t give a complete background of the every auxiliary program every week over the pulpit (so maybe more detail in the program would be useful, like Lynette pointed out). It would feel really weird at first, but would not only help new visitors – I think it would send a powerful signal to ourselves and change our mentality towards our meetings, fellowshipping, etc.

  7. I showed up one Sunday.
    I figured things out as I went along.
    When I wanted something explained, I asked.
    When I realized my skirt was shorter than the ones I saw, I made the decision on whether to keep wearing the same thing or adjust.

    I came from a different world in so many ways.
    But it felt like home. The way we do things–it’s not that haRd to figure out.

  8. Many yrs ago, I called the “mormons” in the phone book on the east coast of the United States. I didn’t want to be pestered by the mormon I was impressed with so I went alone to find out more. Someone answered my phone call on a Friday morning. (I didn’t know they didn’t have full time church staff.) When I said I wanted to attend his communion, he offered to send his wife and kids to pick me up and take me to any one of several worship services. I was mightily confused. No pastor offers to drive you to another church. I was truly bewildered. Later, I discovered he was a member and just happened to be picking something up in the office with the phone.
    I walked in alone and couldn’t find the chapel. Most churches have a foyer and ushers. Not here. I could see a basketball court through a slightly opened door. The halls looked like I was in a church daycare building that houses weeklong children’s classes. Nothing on the doors indicated a chapel.
    Seeing my confusion, and hearing me say “I’m looking for your communion”, sister missionaries became instantly attached to my hip.
    It was an upscale ward just outside of Washington D.C. They passed torn up, cheap, wonder bread (rather than communion crackers). I thought maybe they couldn’t afford to order the real stuff. Then I was served water. Not wine, not even grape juice. Water. I looked around at well dressed congregants. So confusing. Then I pulled out my money for the communion plate. Never came. That must be why they can’t afford grape juice for communion.
    This “communion” presented with a choir. These guys couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. I made some notes about how I could help them hire a better choir and get robes. I knew a minister with connections. I could also help hook them up with some grape juice and wafers pretty cheaply. The sisters smiled ear to ear as I wrote notes on my paper. They also didn’t have a pastor or seasoned substitute speakers. Sigh, I thought to myself.

    I asked to talk to the “Elders” planning a helpful introduction to some donation plates, maybe in the foyer where people could contribute for robes or choirs or grape juice. They excitedly brought me two young men with black name tags like my newfound sisters had on. Elders in my other churches would have financial responsibilities on behalf of the congregants. These two high school like boys certainly were not “Elders” nor elder.

    While this is usually amusing, it also illustrates the vast disparity that can sometimes cause issues and alientation. Later, at my baptism, sister’s shoved a hymnbook in my hand and said “pick your favorite”. I couldn’t find “the old rugged cross” or “the garden”. The only ones I recognized were christmas hymns and it was Feb. Sigh again. Very little intentional awareness of my background or my thoughts. They didn’t seem to care at all about my own transitioning experiences. Missionaries were too busy talking most of the time to help me move from where I was into cultural mormonism or help me understand the trappings that came with the “gospel message”. I had to do that myself. And it wasn’t all bad. But I see people who can’t step over that hill on their own the way I was able to. And it’s an important hill if you are going to belong to a society on this side of mortality.

    Many years hence, I’m still hyper aware when people bring a newbie into our “communion”. No way to explain our strangeness completely, but you can mitigate that strangeness with good and honest communication and lots of questions about their experience.

    My two cents. Be aware of differences and broad scale diversity.

  9. Elle B’s comment was so entertaining and insightful–I realized how unhelpful my comment was.

    I do have a suggestion. A bulletin board explaining the Sacrament ritual with scriptures. Perhaps with other frequently asked questions/answers.

    I say this because I didn’t realize I was (arguably) not supposed to take the a Sacrament as a person who had not committed through baptism. I saw everyone else (including babies and toddlers) taking it, so I figured I was supposed to as well. I didn’t meet with missionaries, and I guess nobody wanted to offend me by telling me to wait until I was baptized.

    My point is I knew a whole lot about the Church, but for a whole year I missed this core concept…of what the Sacrament is really about.

  10. I would also suggest having more information on mormon.org outlining what children and teenagers can expect in meetings. While members are maybe more likely to look out for younger people and guide them through the experience, sometimes it helps to know in advance what to expect, whether it’s for yourself or your children. I joined the church with my part-member family when I was twelve, but I went off and on for years before that. I remember wondering things like which classroom to go to, what the words to the songs were, how to hold my hands and arms during prayer, and whether or not to close my eyes during the prayer. Don’t assume that children will understand what’s going on. I remember attending once when I was about seven or eight, and a well-meaning Primary teacher asked me to say the class prayer the following week. I’m sure he was just trying to help me feel involved, but I was freaked out because I didn’t know what to say in a prayer and I didn’t want to stand up in front of everyone and look stupid, so I never returned to that ward. Try to put yourselves in the shoes of someone who has never gone to church, and remember that other churches often do things very differently and so people may have other expectations.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Great overnight comments. Many thanks. Lots of cogent suggestions that had not occurred to me. I think the key is to have a healthy sense of empathy, to put ourselves as fully as we can in the shoes of someone for whom our worship is completely new and unfamiliar. We need to try to see and imagine every step of the way from their perspective, and do what we can to help them understand what to expect to lessen their anxiety about it.

  12. Chadwick says:

    Our friends first experience with church was on a fast Sunday. She was so confused. She calls it our open mic meeting which I suppose is quite fair. Testimony meeting really is a strange thing, especially since every ward has that handful of members that hijack the meeting to talk about anything but their testimony.

    And yes most assume it’s a one hour commitment. Rarely can I get people to stay three hours.

  13. A few thoughts:

    1. This is more of a long-term structural change, but meetinghouse location is often not conducive to attracting visitors. If we want to attract visitors, putting meetinghouses in high-traffic areas, especially areas with high foot traffic, can do a lot to attract curiosity. And our meetinghouses are often set back from the street/sidewalk with a large parking lot in front, and then a large lawn between the parking lot and the building itself. Somebody who’s already not that comfortable visiting might feel even more awkward to walk across a big open space to even get to the door. Put the front door as close to the street or sidewalk as possible. And for folks that don’t have a car, make it easy by paying attention to public transit routes and having bike racks (I have been asking for years for a bike rack at our building, to no avail).

    2. Relatedly, meetinghouse design. I know we pride ourselves (inconsistently) on our low-church utilitarian sensibility, but making our buildings architecturally interesting and beautiful could do more to attract and encourage visitors. More windows. Maybe even stained glass. Just do what we can to make it look less like a government building.

    3. Open the exterior doors, not just the chapel doors, while everyone is arriving. Maybe even keep them open during the service itself. Make it look welcoming from the street, not closed off.

    4. As far as substance, jax’s point is so important. If we claim to be Christian, then every sacrament service should be focused on the life and teachings of Jesus. In other words, practice what we preach, or (even just preach what we preach, really). Years ago, Tom Griffith was my stake president at BYU, and gave the instruction that every talk and lesson given had to be directly focused on the atonement. If it wasn’t, then either (1) you weren’t thinking hard enough about the topic or (2) the topic was not appropriate for sacrament meeting. Greatly improved the quality of our meetings. The Holy Ghost is what makes people want to come back, and the Holy Ghost isn’t there if we aren’t focused on Jesus.

    5. Similarly, we need to think of ourselves more as in conversation with the larger Christian community. The Book of Mormon especially has so much to offer to the topics that concern Christianity as a whole, and we should be highlighting that. And not in a confrontational or self-aggrandizing way either–not like the typical “this isn’t in the Bible, but the Book of Mormon fixes it, isn’t that great?” Instead, even if we aren’t going to formally observe the liturgical calendar, be aware of what other churches are talking about at certain times of the year, and find ways to highlight what the Book of Mormon and other restoration scripture has to say about those topics.

  14. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    As a missionary, we always tried to avoid taking new investigators on the first Sunday of the month. We knew we have to spend much time during the next week resolving concerns.

  15. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    Also, I am in a Ward that has lots of visitors, every week. Most of these visitors are fellow members from other areas who are in town as tourists, to visit family, for conferences, or many other reasons. A smaller number of visitors are people who are coming to discover something about the Church. This has it’s own problems, as we have been told, on occasion, that we are somewhat unwelcoming to visitors. Mostly, this is visitor fatigue. You just can’t consistently swarm so many random people every week. Even the full-time missionaries have stopped introducing themselves to every new face that shows up. However, I have heard from former investigators that it was nice to come visit, and not be hounded by people. They were able to sit through a service somewhat anonymously.

  16. My less-active sister-in-law had sporadically brought her non-member fiancé to sacrament meeting maybe four or five times and on one particularly cringe-worthy Fast Sunday I leaned over to him and said reassuringly not to worry, not all our meetings are weird like this one. He looked back at me utterly confused and said they indeed were all like this meeting, that congregants get up every time and “bare their testimonies”. It was then I realized that it just so happened that they had only ever visited on the first Sunday of the month and he believed understandably that EVERY week was fast and testimony meeting.

    What was even more strange than describing a “normal” meeting to him after he had already attended several times, was the realization that testimony meetings and regular meetings really aren’t that different.

  17. A couple of useful resources on Mormon.org that aren’t bad: https://www.mormon.org/worship https://www.mormon.org/beliefs/church-community

  18. Not a Cougar says:

    Keri, I think what you’re experiencing is a derivative of the apocryphal Chinese curse. “May you live in interesting wards.” For the most part, I’m glad that I don’t. Makes it easier to doze through sacrament meeting.

  19. We did Easter with our kids while on vacation in Mexico. They kids were so horribly bored (only my wife speaks Spanish) that we decided to leave right at the “greet your neighbor moment”. All attendees were to shake hands with those next to them, we walked out as we shook hands, very awkward.
    Another time, in Lave Hot Springs at a little bible church we downed the grape juice communion cup immediately ( as Mormons do) while the others held and contemplated for a few moments and preacher gave a thought, all the drank together while we sat empty cup in hand. The best was a former Mormon turned back to us as the communion was being past and whispered “don’t worry it’s grape juice”. Fortunately I talked to her before the service and that we were outsider-Mormons coming to see how others do things.

  20. Suzanne Lucas says:

    When I was a missionary we would give investigators a run down of what to expect. We also said, “the women will be wearing skirts and most of them men will be wearing suits, but you are free to wear whatever you feel
    Comfortable in.”

    My ward now is in an office building in an industrial park. You really have to ant to come to find it.

  21. Mike W. says:

    When I was a missionary, had an investigator show up to church out of the blue. Very rare event. The meeting was kind of rough. Some weird stuff was shared, won’t bother getting into the details. I was sweating bullets. I talked to the investigator later, and all the stuff I was worried about? He liked all of that. Later got baptized.

  22. Kristine says:
  23. Kevin Barney says:

    That’s a useful link, thanks for sharing. Of course it won’t help if people don’t know about it or use it.

  24. Kristine says:

    The Church’s SEO whizzes have ensured that it’s the first thing that pops up if you google “what to expect at Mormon church…”

  25. As an investigator, the missionaries sent me this video to prepare for going to church for the first time. But this is assuming the person meet with missionaries to view this video first…

  26. Having taken bread and water for 60 years in the church, it only just occurred to me to remember what Christ’s first miracle was… turning water into wine.

  27. Kevin Barney says:

    Megan, I’ve never seen nor heard of that video before. That was great!

  28. A delightful lady and her husband wrote a book about Mormon culture years ago. It is fantastic, available on Kindle. I will have to look up the title.

  29. Mary Lou says:

    I think Mormons should visit other churches and congregations so they know how their neighbors, friends and co-workers worship! They would get a feel for how visitors feel and are treated there.

  30. Kevin Barney says:

    Totally agree, Mary Lou.

  31. I think visitors should be provided with a printed version of this post so they can follow along and understand what people are saying.

  32. Dog Spirit says:

    I was just thinking about this after visiting an Episcopal Church on Sunday. In addition to the excellent suggestions above, I think a calendar with the topics for the sacrament talks on the website would be helpful. It would take planning ahead, but when I visit other churches, I feel more comfortable if I know what will be the subject of the meeting. (Heck, as a Mormon, I’d like this feature!)

    A web presence for the local ward would also be helpful. Having everything funneled through lds.org can be a little limiting. For example, info about upcoming service projects or activities could be helpful, especially if care is taken to explain them fully. This would also be helpful to less active members who don’t get the sacrament bulletin, or habitually late members like my family, who routinely miss announcements and as a result never know what’s going on in the ward). Info about the ward leaders might also be helpful. When visiting other churches, I like to read the bios of the local leaders to get a feel for them.

    As had been mentioned, really clear info about who can take communion is necessary. Some churches I’ve visited haven’t been sufficiently clear about this, so I usually err on the side of not taking it, even though I’d like to. I’m never sure if Mormons count as “baptised Christians.”

  33. As a convert from the Baptist faith, I have been a member of the lds church for 7 years. I remember the greatest help to me, was that the missionaries who taught us, came out to greet us when we drove into the parking lot. It removed a lot of the fear of the unknown of going into a building we had never been in before and couldn’t see into the darkenened windows. It can be very intimidating if you do not know what to expect. I am grateful that those two Elders had thought of that and “held our hands” through our very first sacrament. We were nervous.

  34. Kevin Barney says:

    Writer, your story is exactly what people need to hear. We’re so used to it we can’t fathom that someone would be nervous about it, but that in fact is a very natural feeling to have going into an unknown situation.

  35. My wife and I visited a Quaker meeting and a man asked us if we were familiar with Quaker ways. We were made to feel most welcome.

  36. glasscluster says:
    I figured things out as I went along.
    When I wanted something explained, I asked.
    When I realized my skirt was shorter than the ones I saw, I made the decision on whether to keep wearing the same thing or adjust.

    Good on you, mate, and better on you for your next comment! :) As an introvert, I’m with Lynnette – I’m probably not going to ask. I think of this as the “Mac Syndrome” – when I bought my first computer in 1989, I went to the University computer lab and sat down in front of the machines. The MS-DOS PC sat there and blinked a C:\ prompt at me. The Mac basically said, “Welcome, friend! No offering needed! The bathrooms are down there!, etc.” So I bought a Macintosh. (I have since repented.)

    We are a DOS, C:\ church. Sometimes even a Linux box.

    When a stranger shows up in our ward, I try hard to introduce myself, introvert though I am, because few others will try. I’ll at least let them know about the schedule, and try to connect a sister up with a good, solid, extroverted sister who can brief them on what’s going on, get the kids (if any) connected with the Mutual leaders, etc. I dislike putting myself out, but I always think about how uncomfortable I would be, and how unlikely it is that I would ever have set foot in an LDS chapel without a friend to guide me.

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