Whenever I go visit my grandparents in the mountains of east Tennessee, I usually go to their church. As someone who normally goes to a church that averages thousands every Sunday, walking into a small backwoods church that may average 75-100 is a bit of an adjustment. OK, let’s be honest, it’s a big adjustment. Here are some pointers to survive Sunday.
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1. Smile and nod.
Since the congregation is a lot smaller than you’re used to, you’re going to feel some stares whenever you walk in. They can sense when there is a new presence in the pews. If you’re visiting grandparents like me, you’re going to hear whispers like “That must be ________’s boy.” The best thing to do is just smile and nod if you feel anyone staring at you. Or just stare down at your phone.
2. Prepare for weird looks.
The last time I visited my grandparents church I forgot my bible, so I used the app on my iPhone. The part of the country I was in was populated by mostly Tracfones from Walmart, so immediately I felt eyes on me, as if they were wondering if I was texting or tweeting (neither, I had zero service). I was also wearing glasses which to some people could be described as “hipster”, though I prefer to think of them as Tina Fey-like, so I knew I was quickly being labeled as the “Hipster family member from out of town who does nothing but text on his iPhone during church.”
3. Cut through the noise of crying infants and screaming amens.
One of the most underused things in a small country church is a nursery. This becomes very apparent the second the sermon starts because you are immediately hit with a wave of children blabbering, mom’s shushing, babies crying, and dad’s threatening beatings coming from every angle. It’s a miracle the preacher can preach with all the ambient noise in the church. The first time I experienced this I was on the verge of punching children. As someone who is used to a quiet congregation during a sermon it’s utterly maddening to have to fight with 30 children just to hear the preacher talk about the love of Christ. It literally raised my blood pressure and stressed me out to the point of headaches. The only advice I can give is focus and pray all the kids magically fall asleep. As far as the “Amens” go, it was something I was completely unprepared for. I know there are many churches where saying “amen” during a sermon is completely normal (including my church), but what surprised me was the volume and the sheer number of them. These are legitimate screams and shouts, coming in a barrage that made the preacher shout even louder to be heard over them, escalating the sermon to moments of a literal shouting match. Here are some other things you’ll hear (These will be capitalized for further emphasis):
– NOW THAT’S GOOD PREACHIN!
– TELL IT PASTOR!
– SWEET MERCY!
– GLORY BE!
– I AGREE YES INDEED!
– TRUTH BLESSED TRUTH!
– I GOT THE HOLY FIRE!
– HE’S RIGHT Y’ALL! (as if the rest of the congregation needs convincing)
– OHHH LORD JESUS!
– YES SIR!
(all of these I have seriously heard over the years)
4. Complete strangers will talk to you like they know you. Just go with it.
I was once hugged by a crying woman after a church service and between her sobs she spoke about how big I’d gotten and how she’d missed me. I had no clue who this woman was, and when I found out she was childhood friend of my grandmother and she hadn’t seen me since I was 8, I had to just play along like I knew who she was and it had just slipped my mind (I had no recollection of this person ever before that day).The key here is making your comments ambiguous enough to hide the fact you really don’t know this supposedly “real close” family member.
5. Hope and pray the pastor doesn’t ask for visitors to stand up.
This is almost on the same level of awkward as giving a toast at a wedding you don’t want to be at. Whether or not you choose to stand is up to you.
6. Hope and pray your grandmother doesn’t point to you when the pastor asks visitors to stand up.
This is even worse than the above.
7. Don’t flirt with the cute girls.
They’re probably a cousin you never heard about. Better to stay on the cautious side.
8. Keep your answers short.
More than likely you will be approached after the sermon by a bunch of older women who are friends with your grandmother. This generation was married by the time they were 17, mothers by 19, didn’t get color TV until the 70’s and that same TV is probably still in their living room. So when they ask why you at 24 aren’t married yet just say “the good Lord hasn’t brought her yet” and leave it at that.
9. Get ready to be hugged.
I don’t mind hugs. To be honest I love hugs. But receiving hugs from multiple strangers who claim to know all about you is mildly disconcerting. Just grin through it and be polite.
10. Prepare yourself for curveballs.
What are some of these curveballs you ask?
– Getting a friend request on Facebook from an 80 year old woman you met the previous Sunday
– Being asked to explain what Twitter is.
– Being asked if Siri on the iPhone is an atheist and not being satisfied until you ask in front of them.
– Getting invited to potluck at a strangers house.
– Old women trying to set you up with their granddaughter.
– Seeing said granddaughter and understanding why the grandmother is going out of her way to play matchmaker.
– Meeting the people your parents went to high school with and seeing everything in a new light.
All in all, visiting a small country church when you’re not from there isn’t that bad. The sermon was on point and the people were very friendly, especially the ones who claimed to know me and talked about how they remembered me wearing diapers. That’s not awkward at all. Keep in mind this is all just a culture thing. Some of the nicest people I’ve ever met were in these churches and this is just my experience with the culture shock. My parents grew up in this environment and are able to blend back and forth seamlessly. It’s almost a superpower. My mother’s country accent will double down to sounding like it belongs in Mayberry within two hours of arriving in her old hometown. It’s uncanny.