Some Thoughts on Christian Etiquette, by Pr. Mark H. Hein

BJS has found this series of articles written by The Rev Mark Hein. He is in the process of updating them and they will be published here.

Church Etiquette? What is that all about? Aren’t there more important things our church and our pastor should be doing than promoting etiquette? Well, you decide for yourself how important and relevant is the information provided in this series. As you will see, what we are talking about is more than just etiquette far more!

Part 1 – The Importance of Etiquette

Church Etiquette? What is that all about? Aren’t there more important things we should be talking about, promoting, encouraging and urging other than etiquette? Well, you decide for yourself how important and relevant is the information provided in this series. As you will see, what we are talking about is more than just etiquette – far more!

In the dictionary, “Etiquette” is defined as,

“the rules and conventions governing correct or polite behavior in society in general or in a particular social or professional group or situation.”

If you look at a thesaurus, other words for etiquette are: good manners, protocol, custom, propriety and decorum. I think that we would agree that all of these things are important in our life – in our society, at home and yes, at church. When you think about it, etiquette separates us from the barbaric, the boisterous, the crude, the rude, and the uncivilized.

Sadly though, etiquette in all its forms is disappearing and, in some cases, is glaringly absent. What is the reason for its decline? Of no surprise, it is sin. That is the real culprit here. What is sin? It is unlawfulness. It is the act of transgressing. Sin is going against the will of God. It is going directly against He who is holy and righteous, He who would have us do all things with order and propriety, showing due reverence and respect.

If anyone doubts that the one true triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is the God of order, all you have to do is look at all that He has created. Look at the orderliness of our universe, solar system and planet. Look at all life here on earth. Look at the crown of creation, namely mankind and the human body. Everything screams “order” and “orderliness.”

An even better way to see the orderliness of our God is to look to His Holy Word. In addition to the inherent orderliness of what He created, look at the orderly way in which God created all things. Furthermore, look at the orderly way He commanded His people to live and to worship – all for their benefit and blessing. This includes the orderliness of our relationship with Him and our relationship to one another. Look at the structure He has established for the home, for society and yes, for the church, – the leaders and authorities He has set over us – all for our good.

It is no surprise that with the demise of etiquette has also come the erosion of order in our homes, churches and land. With the demise of etiquette has also come the absence of respect and honor for those in authority over us, beginning in the home and moving to the church and out into society. This includes the lack of respect for parents, pastors, teachers, policemen, employers… and let’s face it… a lack of respect in some cases for anyone and everyone.

As was just mentioned, it all begins in the home. What begins in the home? Really everything and that is the way God planned it. The way He designed, ordered and arranged it. It is where worship of the Lord begins. It is where teaching about the Lord and His ways begin. It is where learning about the world begins. And yes, it is where TRAINING and DISCIPLINE begin – namely, IN THE HOME. These things begin in the home and should continue in the home.

Put quite bluntly, the reason there is little etiquette being exhibited in the home, in our church and out in the world today is because, by and large, IT IS NOT BEING TAUGHT AT HOME!!!!! Yes, thanks be to God, there are many wonderful parents – fathers and mothers – who are taking the time to properly teach their children, to “train them up” in the way of the Lord and in that which is good and right. This includes teaching them proper manners… proper etiquette. But sadly, there are many, many more so-called “fathers” and “mothers” who are not teaching, who are not training. They are not doing it at all… or…. they are not doing it consistently or properly. They are referred to as “so-called fathers and mothers” because, by and large, they are a father or a mother in name only. Conceiving a child is the easy part. That makes you a biological father or mother – nothing more. Raising a child, taking the time, energy and effort to consistently TRAIN a child, DISCIPLINE a child is the hard part. And this is what separates real parents from play parents, plastic parents.

In the past, there use to be a wonderful “handing down” of our Christian faith, our Lutheran heritage and traditions, of proper ways, rules and orderliness from one generation to another. You taught your children as you were taught by your parents as they were taught by their parents and so on and so forth. Sadly, this process has been interrupted and we now have multiple generations who do not know what is right, what is good and proper. Can the situation be reversed? Of course it can. People of all ages and in every stage of life can be reminded or taught for the first time what is proper Christian etiquette. Teaching is not the hard part. It is a person’s desire to learn and their willingness to change certain behavioral patterns. If the desire and willingness are there, the information provided in this series will go a long way toward assisting men and women, teenagers and children in making positive improvements in their own lives, in their own home, church and society.

We pray – O Lord, we give you thanks that Your Son our Savior, Christ Jesus, is our Good Shepherd. We rejoice that in His precious blood poured out for us on the cross at Calvary there is forgiveness for all the times we have gone astray, each to our own way. Indeed, hear our confession and forgive us for transgressing Your holy will. Forgive us for all that we have done, said and thought that is not loving, proper or in good order. By the power of Your Holy Spirit, help us to change our ways that we may ever, always, faithfully follow our Good Shepherd in the paths of righteousness. May all that we do and say be pleasing in Your sight and to Your glory. This we pray in Jesus’ Name. Amen.

In Christ,
The Rev. Mark H. Hein
Pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church
Lockport, Illinois

About Pastor Mark Hein

Articles can be found here The Rev. Mark Hein is pastor of St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church, Lockport Illinois, and also fire chaplain for the Lockport Township Fire Protection District. This year, he will celebrate twenty years in the ministry in addition to previously serving ten years in hospital administration. St. Paul's, Lockport, hosts the monthly meetings of the Northern Illinois Confessional Lutherans (NICL) for their ongoing study of the Lutheran Confessions. St. Paul's has a very active chapter of the Brothers of John the Steadfast. Pastor Hein hopes to work with the women of his congregation to establish the first chapter of the Society of Katy Luther (BJS sister organization) possibly to be launched during the 2012 Festival of the Reformation.


Some Thoughts on Christian Etiquette, by Pr. Mark H. Hein — 24 Comments

  1. As an usher I have seen the decline in etiquette and behavior in the Lutheran church over the decades. People show up in baggy jeans, wrinkled shirts, shorts, flipflops, and sun dresses. These are not the illiterate, poor, or homeless with the world’s belongings in a plastic bag. I am talking about people with college degrees, who are in the upper middle class income, who drive late model cars (or SUVs), play golf, talk about their investments, real estate, or their new boat over coffee after the service. And they bring in the Mocha Frappuccinos they picked up from Starbucks on the way to church.

    More than once I’ve seen someone bend over in the pew to answer and talk on their cell phone (once during a sermon). And sermon time is also when the adults get up to go out and relieve themselves of the coffee they drank from Starbucks.

    Part of the ushers’ job is “clean-up” duty after the service. In addition to the usual bulletins, crayoned attendance cards and offering envelopes (some parents don’t bring paper or coloring books for their small ones), we have collected used kleenexes, Sunday School craft materials, near/empty coffee cups, used diapers, gum wrappers (empty or used), empty soft drink cans, Cheerios and crumbs of assorted candy, cookies or other food, purses, cell phones, sunglasses, umbrellas, pens/pencils, toys, toddler socks and shoes (including the ones with blinking LEDs), assorted toys, and enough crayons to build several complete boxes.

    The lack of training (and self-training) by parents is a large part of the problem. But some of this decline in etiquette I believe comes from people who have been brought up in other more casual (in etiquette and doctrine) denominations. Adult confirmation classes usually doesn’t cover church etiquette. Also our American culture over the past few decades has been infested with a number of subcultures (and by “sub” I mean “inferior”) that have been given protected status for business and political exploitation. Criticizing such subcultural behaviors, particularly in church, is not considered political correct since they are tolerated and even promoted in schools and on TV.

    Now I should say here that there are many congregational members, including children, who are well trained in etiquette. There are also the mothers who make sure they and their daughters are all wearing coordinated outfits, and the little boys wear (clip-on) ties and have their hair combed. And we have several young couples who sit in the back pews while shouldering their quiet, cuddly, infant bobbing his head with a toothless grin, so they don’t distract others (except for ushers, of course).

  2. I agree with you , Carl. I too am an usher and have seen much of what you describe. I was wondering if you have encountered people who will walk into church during confesion? Instead of stopping the moment they know confession is in progress and bowing their heads and confessing their sins they march right in get themselves comfortable then, if time permits, they will partake in a most important part of the service and (whether they know it or not) their Christian lives. Once confession has started my duties as an usher cease. I do not pass out bulletins or greet. I wish Pastors would address this issue as I have seen this in more than one congregation. I’m sure many have but I have never heard it mentioned.

  3. “I was wondering if you have encountered people who will walk into church during confesion?”

    When latecomers arrive during the confession or prayer, we ushers now hold the middle doors to the sanctuary closed until the absolution or prayer is completed, and then open the doors for the people Some do occasionally go to the side doors.

    I’m tempted to recommend putting up a large sign in the narthex – “This is God’s house, treat it as such… unless God tells you otherwise.

  4. I appreciate the comments that Carl and Robert made. It wouldn’t be hard to put together a collection of horror stories submitted by church ushers. Not to totally let people off the hook, but we cannot expect that which the church and society (by and large) no longer upholds, teaches or emphasizes. The good news is that there are many people, both young and not-so-young, who are willing to learn and change and who are quite frankly embarassed about their previous behavior but never knew, they were never taught. It was never explained to them by parent or pastor.

  5. I agree with everything said here. My husband has been an usher also. I have felt like I was raised at the very edge of all this change in the world. I’m sure others can say the same of the era they have been brought up in. I remember my little sunday school papers showing someone going fishing on Sundays instead of going to church was wrong. As we raised our children each Sunday in worship, I noticed others bringing snacks. We didn’t take ours to church hungry. We brought quiet soft books and small toys to keep infants happy. I actually saw someone bring a small child into a week night sevice with a large Etch a sketch type toy a few years ago. When the infants are enrolled in the cradle Roll, ecouraging parents to have pictures of Jesus in the babies rooms etc. Maybe it’s time to include etiquette in church.

  6. In addition to training children, there is also a need to train ushers. One of the paperback books I refer to is Usher Handbook, by Ralph R. Van Loon (Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, 1990, 58 p.)

    The handbook describes the history and duties of the usher before during and after the worship service, as well as other services, and the components of the church building, and liturgy. (Dealing with latecomers is discussed on pp. 27-8.)

    CPH publishes Welcome to Our Church: A Handbook for Greeters and Ushers by Annette Schroeder (1997).

    And for teens who start to help out as ushers they can be given their own books, which are cheap enough so that the costs don’t cut into the ushers pension fund.

  7. I certainly agree that people who come to the Divine Service should treat the space and the people who use it with respect. I’m intrigued by Carl’s idea for a sign. I’ve had similar inclinations myself. However, can we actually draw a true parallel between our houses of worship and the Temple of Jesus’ day in the sense that it is God’s house? St. Stephen makes it clear that we cannot in Acts 7:44-50. Perhaps, “This is God’s Office” may be the better option. It emphasizes the fact that the Divine Service is God serving us, being where he has promised to be: in Word and Sacrament, working in us forgiveness of sins.

    The great part is that young children understand offices. That’s where people in a uniform work. It’s where children go after the fight breaks out on the playground. The principal gives you a stern talking to, but the nurse patches you up. It’s not a house where you leave your dirty underwear in piles by the washing machine…wait…that’s almost good imagery for baptism, although crass.

  8. I agree, but to a point. Parents of children with the host of developmental delays (once was me), elderly who have no one to care for them but live alone, people who may not have been taught morals or values, etc, do not wear signs above their heads for all to see. I have attended Lutheran churches around this world, and this article & comments do seem to have a very narrow & shallow view of what members and visitors “should” be. From the inner city Lutheran church in London, where homeless, prostitutes, & tourists outweighed the members, the small & closed in Lutheran church in Germany, where deodorant is unheard of, am I starting to make a point here? For my part, I would rather sit next to any of these, than sit next to an individual, who I know outside church, who forgets their Faith and how to they WERE taught to live once they leave the service. I know why I AM THERE, and I would like to think, that is the same reason THEY ARE. The outside dust cover, isn’t important, what is written on the heart, the part our LORD is aware of, that is what counts. Before we begin to focus on the blemishes in our brothers, let us first focus on our own, the ones that are not seen by human eyes.

  9. Dutch,

    You make a good point. We do not want to be pharisaical in our upholding of etiquette. However, even the prostitute can have good etiquette and respect the house of God. We aren’t talking about turning people away or looking down on them but simply educating folks about proper behavior in the Divine Service.

    (Like I said last time – great nickname!)


  10. Pastor Rossow, hello again, God’s Peace to you! Well said & true enough, but again, only to a point. Now, I have seen churches let kith & kin run amuck (?!) but this is a fine line. My husband just reminded me of a story I read in the Daily Mail or London Times a year or so ago (true story). A vicar, really desired to put this same subject into context for his parish. He soaked an old and ripped outfit in ale & let them dry in the sun (rare day in England), found the oldest, shabbiest hat he had, didn’t shave for a couple of days, and then placed himself on the steps of HIS OWN PARISH. Not one person, recognized him, nor stopped, nor said a word, but plenty looked…with distain. He then walked in, sat a bit in the back, and when time to take his place, stepped to the front. To the best of my recollection, the most this vicar said was, “Here endeth the lesson, amen” or something to that effect. Most, even the “prostitute” know those who attend our Father’s house should have a FEARFUL LOVE AND AWE FILLED RESPECT for who’s House in which they sit. I sadly know too many, even in my own family, that are perfectly pressed, dressed, prompt and perfectly mannered. On the outside, but on the inside, and after their 7 day inocculation of “faithful warm feelings” live as they will in horrid unbelief and rebellion. Could this be the knowledge without action? Which, is really the worst situation in respect, sin or lawlessness? Having seen and known both, I would say the whited sepulcher, rather than the poor and untaught brother outside my gate. I thank our Lord they came warts and all, I grieviously aware of my own.

  11. I was amused by the picture of Michelle Obama meeting the Antichrist – What did she wear? A modest black dress with no muscular arms exposed and a veil. Despite our society’s penchant for casual dress there are still some people you dress up for. Too bad some “casual dress clergy” don’t feel they have to dress up for their God, but instead want to impress the congregation as to how “hip” they are. It’s not your grandfather’s church for sure

  12. I have been looking for Scripture about this, and looked in James 2 for a verse or two, and guess what I saw? The entire chapter speaks about this from time to time. In the NIV, the headers are,
    1. Trials & Temptations-tempted to place ourselves higher than those sitting next to us maybe?
    2. Listening and Doing-rather self explaining
    3. Favoritism Forbidden-enough said
    4. Faith and Deeds-same as above
    5. Taming the tongue-same as above
    This ENTIRE chapter of our Lord’s Word is about MY etiquette, MY behavior, and MY conduct in the Divine Service and outside it. Critiquing behavior, complaining about what we clean up after service, OUR SERVICE FOR HIM, mind you, did anyone ever stop and thank our Lord there was someone else there to clean up after, to sit next to you in a pew or preach to? Does anyone realize there are Lutheran churches abroad that PRAY FOR THAT PRIVILIGE? These are your brothers and sisters, the LEAST of these, at THE least, the recognize their NEED to be at a Divine service. Do we?

  13. My, my, my. I was surprised (and pleased) to see so many posts regarding the subject of church etiquette. And all this before we have really delved into the topic at hand to any degree. That is great. We have obviously struck a nerve and that is understandable given prevailing conditions. I too appreciate and agree with brother Rossow’s earlier comment. My purpose in writing this series is not to point fingers or place blame. It is to teach… to encourage… and if need be, to humbly exhort. Keep the posts coming. The next installment in this series will be out soon.

  14. Church etiquette involves rules and law and order, so sinful men like me are quick to rebel against it. I want a religion that revolves around me. In my religion I want to sleep in late, throw on yesterdays clothes and go read the Sunday morning paper at my corner Starbucks. If my wife won’t let me do this, I at least want to be half as comfortable as she drags me to Sunday morning services.

    But then I get to her stogy Lutheran church and I, in my self centered religion, am made to be anything but comfortable. I have to sit on that hard wooden pew and then stand and say with everyone else that I am a poor miserable sinner. This does not massage my, god like, ego at all. After this I have to ask God for forgiveness and mercy. What kind of god am I. Then I hear the pastor tell me I deserve eternal punishment in hell because of my sinfulness. Get me out of here. I don’t want to be polite. I don’t want to be kind. I just want out of here. If I have to go to church I at least want to go to one that doesn’t make me feel so uncomfortable. I want to be at ease in my demeanor and my sin. Tell me about what I am doing that makes me such a good person. Give me a coffee, a lounge chair and some soothing music sung by a beautiful woman and I can adapt to your religion. Let my family play comfortably as if we were in our own living room or better yet give me a free babysitter for my kids so I can better enjoy the entertainment going on up front.

    I know, I know. This is way over the top. Maybe one in a million men in church are as evil as me. It’s just too bad because I like your nice Jesus, but I don’t particularly care for the one who has zeal for His Father’s house and gets angry when people go there to be about something other than prayer. I don’t know if I like a God of order who won’t let me be disorderly. I can’t tolerate a God who demands perfection and also wants me to put my neighbor before myself. Let him sit up front If he wants to hear God’s word, and pray and thank and praise Him.

    Wait, what is this I am feeling? Guilt? Can’t be. I got rid of my conscience years ago. Is it fear? I don’t like this. I am getting really uncomfortable now. What do I do. I am having a panic attack. I am afraid of an eternity of suffering in hell. Who can help me get out of this awful predicament I find myself in? Who can save me from this body of death? Lord, to whom shall I go? You have the words of eternal life. He died on a cross for sinners like me. Keep sharing that sweet and good news pastor. I am now declared righteous before God on account of Jesus. When I die I will be with Him in paradise. Let me move up front. I want to hear more of this. Let me eat and drink His body and blood, for He is good. Thanks be to God for the mercy he shows to me.

  15. #14 Junker Jorg

    BRAVO SIR!! Very well said. For that indeed is the internal struggle, the Old Adam wanting everything to be about him, and for him. It’s no wonder the ‘entertainment center’ model of church brings in so many bodies–THEY’RE CATERING TO THE DESIRES OF THE SINFUL NATURE!!!

    It is only through the preaching of the Law that we are made to feel ‘uncomfortable’ about ourselves. And the Gospel, the good news that God forgives us, is the only remedy that will help.

    Still, it would be nice to have a cup holder in the pew. 😉

  16. why are baggy jeans and a t-shirt disrespectful to the HOUSE being visited ? Man , my best pair of jeans have two holes in them ; and all i own are t-shirts . remember … EYES OF THE BEHOLDER …

  17. The collapse in Godly etiquette, within the house of the Lord, stems in part from the so-called “nuclear” family (where the Trinity ought really to be revered as the atomic nucleus, about which the electrons of Dad, Mom and the kids buzz around); but sorrowfully, it also stems from the local congregation’s own failures. Ushers can collude with, and enable the process. Pastors can be casual, in directing attention and attitudes towards the Mysteries of God. As Pr. Hein emphasizes, a corrective to the looseness arises from a fortified willingness to train and to discipline. Discipline is something often shied from, by those in charge. It’s discomfiting, as something mean or politically incorrect. So is the first part, of what Lutherans say they believe, with respect to the meaning of God’s commandments i.e., “We should fear and love God …” Seemingly, that first-named fear part is out the window, in our haste to have fun and be comfortable in our worship services. So what is communicated, Sunday after Sunday? God is less Someone who could knock someone wreaking violence against His Church, off of a horse … than a buddy, or a late-night talk show host, quick with a quip. Have you ever oogled the stuff worn by the guests of Kimmel or Letterman? Of course you have. And this behavior is to be expected. It is easier to perceive Jimmy or Dave as buffoons, than as saviors.

    why are baggy jeans and a t-shirt disrespectful to the HOUSE being visited ? Man , my best pair of jeans have two holes in them ; and all i own are t-shirts . remember … EYES OF THE BEHOLDER … Gary

    I heartily agree. The eyes of the beholder must be taken into account. For example, in this case, the named gentleman above failed to behold the qualifier provided by one Mr. Vehse, who lamented the shrugging off and disrespect to the triune RESIDENT of the house: “These are not the illiterate, poor, or homeless with the world’s belongings in a plastic bag. I am talking about people with college degrees, who are in the upper middle class income, who drive late model cars (or SUVs), play golf, talk about their investments, real estate, or their new boat over coffee after the service. And they bring in the Mocha Frappuccinos they picked up from Starbucks on the way to church.” It is the EYES OF THE FAITH which matters, which is revealed more by a certain lackadaisical attitude, and less by the haute couture available.

  18. Yes , I really wish eyes and hearts would look deeper into someone instead of a quick examination of the surface . too many cell phones and less face to face i feel is one prob .
    just my 2 cents

  19. Gary, always a lame excuse from those who don’t want to do better. It doesn’t cost a lot to buy a pair of dark slacks and a white shirt. There are stores that have 75% off sales periodically and you could probably pick up a pair for less than $5. In fact Goodwill has a great selection of good, used clothing and you could certainly find a pair of pants without holes. I know because we give a lot to Goodwill and would never think of giving something that we would not wear ourselves. We give good clothes because we know there are people hurting that are down on their luck but still need decent work clothes and we do not judge . It is our way of trying to help others and we want to uphold the dignity of those who still take pride in their appearance even if they cannot shop the best stores. We cannot shop the best stores either but that does not give us the right to go around looking tattered and torn. If you were invited to the White House I would hope you would be conscious of how you present yourself. Can you not even be more conscious of how you present yourself to your God and your church family? And like it or not, people are judged initially by their appearance. Some people dress way too lavishly and give off a different kind of impression that also offends. So the bottom line is to use good manners and if you have not been taught them, ask your pastor if he knows someone who would be kind enough to respectfully teach you. Life is a marathon, not a sprint so there is no reason not to try to improve in all areas.

  20. pride in appearance ? still sounds like vanity to me. holes in jeans ; no holes in jeans. there is no difference. hearts and souls should walk around church . not facial appearances. what would you say if 30 bikers rolled into your parking lot and entered your church ? well , people were surprised , but they were very welcomed and we all had a good time. they were probably more attentive to the sermon than the regulars in suits. quit judging mr.salvation army vanity dude. go get yourself a old pair of jeans , go to church , and walk in my shoes for a change instead of trying so hard to get me to walk in yours.

  21. Thank you, Pastor, for publishing the rules on Christian Etiquette. I have asked our pastor to have a class for elders or ushers so that they could remind people when to enter the santuary or when to leave, but nothing was ever done to correct the situation. I was beginning to think that I was the only Lutheran left who knew about church etiquette.

  22. Poor etiquette and sin are not the same thing. Etiquette is based on the context of the people around you while God’s law is not. Dressing in a way that most people believe to be reverent and respectful would look very different. At Japanese churches you take off your shoes when you get there, at Haitian churches you speak in French, in many black churches you wear a suit. Is it sin to do something else? If you’re too busy criticizing others for their lack of, what you perceive to be, devotion then you own motivation for going might certainly be called into question.

    If President Obama invited me to the White House then I certainly would feel free to wear whatever I want. It is his call that gets me past security, his invitation that validates me as a person not my outward dress (which could always be better). The authority of God (or the President if you want to work with that metaphor) outstrips all my insufficiencies. And because it does I have the freedom to respond as I will.

    When I go to church I dress up (usually) because it is preparation for me. God doesn’t need me to dress up. But I do so because it helps me to realize that I am going to a time set apart from the typical day.

  23. @Marvalyn Kothman #21

    You are welcome Marvalyn K. And thankfully, you are not the only one who knows or is concerned about church etiquette which has nothing to do about the worldly and everything to do with the divine and our reverence, love and respect of the same.

    Ted C – Good point! And “skewed values” is an understatement.

    Matt B – No one is saying or even intimating that poor etiquette and sin are the same thing. Or that God needs you to dress up. Again, I am simply mentioning (and encouraging) the reverence, love and respect there should be for the divine, for the things of God… including the worship of His most holy name. I think you have missed the point of all of this. We are not talking about clothing or outward actions. We are talking about one’s heart and one’s understanding of where one is standing when they enter into the sanctuary of the Lord and into divine worship. It doesn’t matter whether this takes place in an edifice with marble, fine woods and stained glass or in a simple mud hut. The WHERE we are becomes truly special, is holy and sacred because of WHO is present with us, before Whom every knee shall bow. If you do dress up for church, more than it helping you realize that you are “going to a time set apart from the typical day,” I pray it will be because of Who comes to you and what He imparts to you… and this, indeed, impacts your actions.

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