8 Things to Expect in an Orthodox Church

The perfect guide to preparing for your first visit

Worship in the Orthodox Church often seems strange to others, especially other Christians. Many of these differences in worship make their appearance the moment you enter the church, while others may go unnoticed for quite some time. In this post, we lay out eight major things you should expect during your first visit to an Orthodox Church.

Expect lots of activity

When you walk into an Orthodox Church, you may see a couple people here and there actually standing in their pews (if the church has pews). But most everyone else is doing something else. You may see some lighting candles in the narthex (vestibule or entrance of the church) or near the iconostasis (wall of icons separating the altar from the rest of the church). Others you might see kissing icons all around the church, weaving in and out of alcoves while the priest prays at the altar. In Orthodoxy, we like to call all this activity “holy noise.”

Let’s say you show up right at 10:00 a.m. for the Liturgy. When suddenly, you find yourself accosted with “holy noise,” and realize the service has already started! Clearly, our website says service starts at 10:00 a.m. So…why is everyone here so early?

At this parish, we celebrate two distinct services every Sunday morning: Orthros (Matins) and Divine Liturgy. When the first service ends, the second immediately begins. On a given Sunday, worshipers typically arrive anywhere between the beginning of Orthros and the start of the Liturgy. Orthodox services have continuous flow to them. Rarely is there ever a moment when worshipers simply sit waiting for hymns to start. So if you happen to get there and the noise is already happening, that’s perfectly normal!

Expect plenty of icons

When you walk into an Orthodox church for the first time, expect to see many painted pictures on the walls. Some churches have these pictures on every conceivable surface! These painted pictures of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints are called icons, and they are an important part of Orthodox spiritual life.

Icon of the Theotokos. Expect to see at least one of these in every Orthodox Church.
An icon of the Theotokos, or “Mother of God.”

Icons mean far more to us than ordinary paintings. They serve as windows into the sacred realm of heaven, into the kingdom of God. The persons portrayed on these wooden icons are, in a spiritual way, present with us. So, do not be alarmed if you see Orthodox Christians crossing themselves in front of the icons and kissing them.

Isn’t this idolatry?

Kissing icons does not mean we worship them or the persons portrayed in them. Only God (as Trinity — the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is worthy of worship. The Virgin Mary and the saints are worthy of our deepest respect and love, or what we call “veneration.” Even as we might kiss a picture of a loved one, so we kiss the icons to show our love and respect for these spiritual beings who are alive in Christ and, therefore, with us in worship.

Expect worshipers to make the sign of the cross

To say the Orthodox make the sign of the cross “a lot” is an understatement. You may be hard-pressed to find a time we aren’t making the sign of the cross. Expect to see the sign of the cross constantly when you enter an Orthodox church.

Traditionally, Orthodox cross themselves whenever the clergy, choir, or congregation invokes the name of the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We also make the sign of the cross when venerating (kissing) icons or the cross itself, before receiving communion, and on many other occasions.

How do the Orthodox cross themselves?

In the Orthodox tradition, we cross ourselves with our right hand. We join our thumb, index, and middle fingertips and rest the ring and “pinky” fingers against our palm. First we touch the joined fingertips to our foreheads, then our abdomen. After this, we touch our right shoulder, and then the left. This is the opposite of Roman Catholics and some Protestants.

The arrangement of the fingers while making the sign of the cross is incredibly important. Crossing yourself correctly takes time, especially if you have crossed yourself differently in the past. Again, don’t worry! We won’t deride or make fun of you! Here as elsewhere, we follow our impulse to make everything we do reinforce the Faith. Can you figure out the symbolism behind all this? 😉

Position of the fingers when an Orthodox Christian makes the sign of the cross.
Appropriate positioning of the fingers of the right hand when making the sign of the cross.

Note that not everyone in an Orthodox church crosses themselves in the same way. For example, some Orthodox may cross themselves three times in a row. Others may finish the sign of the cross with a sweep of their right hand along the floor. They may also cross themselves at different times. All of this can be incredibly confusing at first. But don’t worry. No one expects you to get everything right the first time. Nor do they expect you to follow suit if it makes you uncomfortable.

Expect the priest to face away from you most of the time

During Orthodox services, the priest spends the majority of the service facing the altar and the icon of the crucified Lord. He faces the same direction as the congregation, as we look to Jesus throughout our worship. The area where the congregation gathers we call the nave. That word is related to the word “naval,” which should remind us of a ship. The priest, then, might be compared to the first mate on a ship. From the altar area, the priest leads us in prayer and directs the readers and chanters.

You may notice that the priest does turn toward the congregation on occasion. He faces the congregation to bless us, to give the sermon from the pulpit, and to cense us with incense.

Expect standing

Another thing you should expect is quite a bit of standing during services in an Orthodox church. The faithful stand the majority of the time.

Our services usually last between one and two hours. The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which is used in most Orthodox churches on most Sundays of the year, usually lasts about an hour and a quarter, including a ten to fifteen minute sermon. Services during Lent (the fasting period before the Resurrection/Pascha) can run a bit longer, sometimes between two and a half to three hours. Standing for all this time can easily intimidate newcomers.

Not to worry! Most churches will have some chairs or pews if you find the amount of standing too challenging. No one will think any less of you. Honestly, they probably won’t notice. After all, that is what prayer is about. Inward focus on God and the divine, not on what your neighbor is or isn’t doing.

What about kneeling?

The Orthodox don’t typically kneel during services, except during weekday services throughout Great Lent. Since kneeling is considered penitential, we do not kneel on regular Sundays, as Sunday is a day of rejoicing, the Day of the Resurrection.

In the Orthodox tradition, we also “prostrate” at times. Unlike Roman Catholics who lie flat on the floor, the Orthodox kneel, place our hands on the floor and touch our foreheads to the floor between our hands. Sometimes we do this and get right back up again. Other times we get down and stay there awhile.

Variations of the prostration.

Not everyone does this, so please do not feel obligated to mimic anyone who prostrates. No one will notice. In Orthodoxy, you will find a wider acceptance of individualized expressions of piety, rather than a sense that people are watching you and getting offended if you do it wrong.

Expect lots of kissing

Earlier in this post we talked about venerating. When we mention “venerating” something, that usually means we cross ourselves and kiss it. When you go to an Orthodox church, expect a lot of kissing.

The Orthodox love to venerate things. When we enter the church, we kiss the icons of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and other saints. We kiss the relics of saints as well. Some Orthodox kiss the hems of the priest’s vestments as he passes by during the Great Entrance, while others kiss the chalice after receiving communion. We all kiss the cross after Liturgy concludes. Altar servers (acolytes) also kiss the hand of the priest when he takes something from their hands, such as the censer.

You may also notice different cultural displays of kissing as a greeting. In the East, the kiss is the standard greeting. Greeks and Arab kiss once on each cheek, and Slavs return to the first cheek for a third kiss. This may be unfamiliar to those of you used to Western greetings like the handshake.

Expect lots of singing

Nearly three quarters of any given service is usually congregational singing. The parishioners in Orthodox churches absolutely love to use their voices to sing to the Lord, so expect to hear a lot of it!

A choir typically leads the people in a Capella harmony, though some churches (mostly Greek Orthodox) may have an organ as accompaniment. In some parishes, the congregation does very little singing, and allows the choir to do most of it. In others, the entire congregation will join in. Depending on the Archdiocese, musical style also varies. In an Antiochian church, music is chanted in a Middle-Eastern style. But in a Russian or Serbian Orthodox church, you might hear four-part harmonies. Our particular church mixes many styles together to create an eclectic liturgical sound.

This constant singing is a little overwhelming at first, but you’ll soon notice that the songs stay mostly the same from week to week. Before long, you’ll find you’ve memorized them. Then you can connect with God on a deeper level, which is what worship is all about!

Expect to be left out of Communion

The Orthodox Church believes the Eucharist is a sacred sacrament, a family meal shared between those who are under the supervision of the same Bishop, or another Bishop with whom he is in Communion. Simply put, this means Orthodox Christians practice inter-Communion with other Orthodox Christians, but not with Protestants or Roman Catholics whose church leaders are not in Communion with Orthodox Bishops.

Only baptized Christians confirmed in the Orthodox Faith who have prepared themselves (through penance and fasting) may approach the priest for Communion. The Orthodox believe communion is the literal Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is holy beyond our comprehension; it is the Church’s treasure and must be protected. That is why it is reserved only for those who unite themselves with the Church.

Thus, the fact that Communion does not extend to persons from other Christian groups is not meant as an insult. All visitors are invited, at the end of the service, to approach the front to receive from the priest a piece of “blessed bread.”

All are welcome!

As we wrap up, one last thing. Even those who are not Orthodox (or even Christian for that matter) are more than welcome to attend an Orthodox service. We are always overjoyed when someone joins us for worship and experiences the beauty of the Orthodox Holy Tradition. And don’t worry – you do not have to be Greek, Serbian, Antiochian, Russian, etc. to attend one of those Orthodox churches!

Because the services differ from Protestant and Roman Catholic services, it is probably a good idea to contact someone at the parish (via Facebook or through their website) and tell them you intend to visit for worship. The priest will see that someone from the parish greets you and helps you find your way through the Service Book.

Read More >> The Basics of Church Etiquette