Dr. Brett Younger: A Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Church Behavior

You don't need me to tell you about Judith Martin's Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior.  You may have read it more than once.  Perhaps you have underlined portions for your children or spouse.  We love Miss Manners' strong opinions.

For instance, if you have not yet sent a thank you letter for any gift you received more than thirty minutes ago, Miss Manners has no mercy on you.  You are also in trouble if you sent your thank you via e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter.  There is, in Miss Manners' world, no such thing as a thank you note.  You must begin your thank you letter with a "burst of enthusiasm" and make sure it "names the present with a flattering adjective."  When one of her gentle readers confides that she has only green ink with which to write, Miss Manners tells her that she must save all her letters until Christmas.

The use of tacky note cards and brightly colored ink are not the only subjects about which Miss Manners expresses strong feelings.  The only excuse for declining an invitation to be a pallbearer is "a plan to have one's own funeral in the near future."  Don't wear black to a wedding.  If you are in deep mourning you should not come in the first place.  Even the young are expected to act with extreme manners.  When a six-year-old reader asks what is important enough to tell his mother when she is talking to company, Miss Manners provides a short list that includes "Mommy, the kitchen is full of smoke."

Good rules come in handy.  They help things go smoothly.  What would Judith Martin include if she decided to help church people with Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Church Behavior?

If you are in your eighties, come to Sunday school early.  If you are in your fifties, be on time.  If you are in your twenties, everyone will be overjoyed if you show up at all.

You may take coffee to Sunday school.  If you bring Starbucks, pour it into a different cup so you will not look uppity.  Bring the donuts when it is your turn; Krispy Kremes are preferable.  Adults never promote to another Sunday school class.  It makes the others in the class feel bad.

Women are encouraged to wear hats at Easter.  Men are encouraged to wear hats at church softball games.  You can wear flip-flops in the sanctuary only if your mother is not the kind of person who reads Miss Manners.

Be on time for worship.  This means before the music begins.  The first note on the organ, piano, or guitar is not a starter's pistol for the hundred yard dash.

Children need to learn the sacred nature of worship.  This means no chewing gum, iPods, or iPhones.  Stare with disdain at anyone whose cell phone rings.

Try not to draw attention to yourself by singing louder than any three people on your pew.  The only satisfactory excuses for not singing are life-threatening conditions.  If you only have green ink, it is perfectly acceptable for filling out a check.

When faced with the question of what is important enough to whisper to the gentle worshipper seated next to you, it must be as crucial as "Mommy, the sanctuary is full of smoke."  When speaking to the pastor after worship, begin with a "burst of enthusiasm" and "a flattering adjective" in relation to the sermon.  After a particularly offensive sermon, use a side exit.

As far as I know, Miss Manners has not written any rules for proper church behavior.  It might be helpful to look to someone like St. Paul for guidance.  In Romans 12, he writes: "Let love be genuine.  Outdo one another in showing concern.  Put others above yourself.  Extend hospitality to strangers.  Pay no special attention to the wealthy.  Talk just as much to the poor.  Go out of your way to be kind."

When Paul writes rules for correct church behavior he sounds like my mother: "Be kind.  Be sweet.  Love everybody.  Don't say mean things.  Make sure visitors feel welcome."  Maybe we don't need Miss Manners.

[Taken with permission from Brett's Blog, Peculiar Preacher. Originally posted 8/3/11.]