This is not a story about your religious obligations! Even my Bible-thumping parents never dragged the family to church if our vacation overlapped with Sunday morning. But there are two great reasons to attend a religious service while you travel, regardless of your personal beliefs.
Go for the aesthetic experience
If you’re the type who might already tour a church (or other place of worship) on vacation, then this is just a more immersive way to do so. Look for a church that has preserved its own traditions as well as it preserved its building. And then soak in the hymns, the sermon, and the benediction while you gaze at the architecture from your pew—the way the church was meant to be appreciated.
Growing up, I went to a bland “modernised” church with PowerPoint sermons and soft rock instead of hymns, so even in the most strident early years of my atheism, I liked picking a particularly beautiful church and attending a service. It was a lovely way to appreciate a historic place, and I appreciated the more humanist and less fundamentalist sermons of San Francisco’s churches. This was a way to discover my own city, but it’s also a lovely way to discover a new one.
Refrain from taking more than one or two pictures, or otherwise acting like a tourist. If you want to wander the building a bit, stick around after the sermon, when congregants tend to mill around, and you can get a few different views.
Beforehand, check the church site for the customs surrounding services (and whether any events are scheduled after this particular service). Also search for etiquette around that particular religion. You could consult How to Be a Perfect Stranger, a book of etiquette for visiting services of many religions and Christian denominations.
Go for the people
Here’s a more intense tactic: actually meet people. While I kept to myself at churches, New York Times writer Seth Kugel recommends church visits as a way to meet locals and find new experiences. In his book Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious, he writes:
As a lone traveller, I’ve been to church dozens of times, because church is the most intimate part of people’s lives that is open to the public, and welcoming by mandate.
Kugel describes a trip to Hungary, where he attended evening Mass, chatted up some local college students, and ended up getting invited to the house of one student’s godfather to buy some of the local fruit brandy. This is Kugel’s M.O.; he befriends people and tries to have interactions directly with the locals, finding much more culturally authentic and interesting meals than he could find in a local restaurant. Hear him discuss his approach on the radio show Think; he talks about churches at 06:33.
You don’t have to insinuate yourself into anyone’s home; you can just make a little small talk with some of the more friendly attendees, or compliment the choir and the clergy on the service. (Do not call it a performance.) But do try to stretch a little outside your comfort zone; that’s the difference between a traveller and a tourist.