Airline tickets? Check.
Rental car? Check.
Church for Sunday? Uh, no. This is vacation.
There are many reasons we don’t attend church while on vacation or traveling abroad. We wouldn’t know anyone at the church, so we might be uncomfortable and conspicuous. We might have to get up earlier than we’d like. There might be a language barrier. What about childcare? You don’t want to leave your kids with strangers! And as Thabiti Anyabwile notes, when we plan to take a break from our normal routine, we often include a break from church.
Going to church on vacation is challenging, but our family has come to value it as an opportunity to fellowship with believers we might not otherwise meet. Some of my most memorable and spiritually refreshing moments while traveling have been worshiping in a local church. In fact, they’ve transformed my perspective on how God is at work through his people around the world.
Blessings of Worshiping with Strangers
Years ago, I attended an English-language service in a small basement church in Paris. The congregation of 50 was dynamic, comprising many nationalities using English as the common language. That Sunday they were having a clothes drive for families in poverty, not unlike what my home church would do. My love for the global body of Christ grew through that interaction.
In Chartres, France, my husband and I were deeply moved as a young man and his praise team led a small group of worshipers in the main hall of the famous cathedral on Easter Sunday. Though my husband doesn’t speak French, I translated some of the phrases, and he was able to sing with understanding. Hearing worship in a foreign language deepens our understanding of how God communicates and inhabits the praises of his people. We may not understand the words, but God does.
In Amsterdam, I attended a centuries-old English-speaking church. The sanctuary built to host hundreds held only a dozen elderly people. They were overjoyed to see my young face, and even more excited that I participated in the congregational singing. The presence of a stranger worshiping in their midst was a tremendous encouragement to them.
On a three-day weekend in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, my husband and I decided to worship at the church of a familiar denomination. Before the service began, we bumped into parents of a college friend I hadn’t been in touch with for several years. What a pleasant surprise to meet his relatives. There are no surprises in the body of Christ—only encounters he uses to refresh us and remind us that his family is everywhere.
How to Find a Church
When researching churches to attend on vacation or traveling abroad, you may not find a church you would join, but it’s likely you can find a church where you can worship for one Sunday. Here are seven ways to find one.
1. Read the ‘Statement of Faith’ page on the church website.
Church websites often have a summary of their beliefs, along with a list of staff, including short bios of the individuals and their education. This will give you an idea of their theological bent. If your home church belongs to a particular denomination, visiting a church of the same denomination mitigates (though it doesn’t eliminate) church-search challenges. (The Gospel Coalition has a church directory of likeminded congregations around the world.)
2. Find a church close to your lodging.
You’ll be more likely to attend and even arrive on time. It will also make you aware of the believers who live in the community you’re visiting. The church members may be your neighbors, particularly if you’re staying in a vacation rental.
3. Research denominational church plants abroad.
Missionaries serving these church plants would be aware of any local English-speaking fellowships. I grew up overseas, the daughter of missionaries. On Sunday mornings the missionaries ministered in the local languages. In the evenings English-speaking expats would gather for English fellowship. Guests were always welcome; indeed, their presence was greatly encouraging.
4. Find English-speaking services.
If traveling internationally, research “English-speaking fellowship” or “international church” in the city of your choice. That’s how I found a worship service in Cyprus composed mostly of British retirees and snowbirds. I was encouraged by their evangelism efforts and their passion to serve the growing refugee community from their meager resources.
5. Find services with simultaneous English translation.
Many churches in urban centers and university towns abroad offer simultaneous English translation. We visited a church in Germany where English speakers were offered a headset to wear during the service. A translator spoke the sermon in English while the pastor preached in German. Simultaneous translation may seem odd to the uninitiated, but across the globe thousands of churches use it so members can hear God’s truth in their mother tongue.
6. Arrive with a posture of humility.
I’ll be the first to admit that when I visit a church, I’m quick to notice the things I don’t like. The guitar is out of tune. There are typos in the bulletin, how unprofessional. The sermon isn’t polished. Do they really need to repeat the chorus seven times? A mature Christian sets aside preferences and rejoices to worship the living God in unity with their brothers and sisters in Christ.
7. Be flexible with your kids.
As a mother of four, ages 8 and younger, I’m well aware that visiting a church on vacation is hard. Some churches keep children in the service. Chances are, if there are many youngsters in the crowd, the congregation is used to the occasional youthful shenanigan. If childcare is offered, though, arrive early so you have time to put them in the nursery or Sunday school. Visiting a church is a great opportunity for children to expand their vision of what church is.
Diversity of the Global Fellowship
A friend and I once took a pilgrimage to a dreamland from our youth—Prince Edward Island, Canada. I researched churches near our lodging and found a good option. Shortly after breakfast we drove down a winding country road and spotted the white church on a verdant hill in the distance. We parked on the gravel and walked into a service that had already begun. We, along with my 4 month old, entered discreetly and found open seats. The congregation was small and, yes, I felt all eyes on us as we took our places at the end of a pew. We were obviously not from around there.
Unlike my home church, this one didn’t use instruments. The congregation raised their voices heartily, led by the pastor at the pulpit. At the close of the service, we were greeted genuinely by various congregants who invited us to the fellowship hall in the basement for the weekly church potluck. Though we came empty-handed, they insisted we join them. They had nothing to gain except mutual encouragement. They knew they would likely never see us again, but they extended the hand of Christian hospitality anyway. I was reminded once again that even though attending church on vacation can be stressful, the blessings far outweigh the burdens.