For urban explorers, abandoned churches can be some of the most beautiful and haunting sites to visit. Whether they’re abandoned or still in use, churches’ dramatic architecture, colorful stained-glass windows and geometric lines make them stunning subjects for photos and exploration.
However, exploring a church or other house of worship isn’t the same as wandering through an abandoned warehouse or crumbling mansion, especially if it’s still occupied by congregants or clergy. In most instances, a trip to one of these sacred sites requires additional preparation and an extra measure of care and respect.
Keep reading to learn how to approach urban exploration in abandoned churches or other religious facility without committing any faux pas that might result in you being asked to leave.
Commandment 1: Do Your Homework
Before you head out to explore abandoned churches or other religious sites, do some research on the facility itself as well as its associated faith tradition. If you’re familiar with the layout of the building, you’re less likely to come across as someone who isn’t there for religious purposes.
A basic understanding of the traditions and values of the group can also help you avoid offending anyone, and even if the site is abandoned, knowing something about the faith may also provide you with deeper insight into the meaning behind the architecture and relics you see inside.
Commandment 2: Dress Appropriately
If you’re certain the building is truly abandoned, you may be able to let this rule slide, but if there’s any chance you’ll run across worshippers or faith leaders on site, don’t show up in dirty jeans or an obscene t-shirt.
If you’re visiting during a service, dress neatly in a collared shirt and khakis or a modest dress, and don’t wear a hat or sunglasses inside. Remember, the more effectively you blend in with the rest of the group, the more likely it is you’ll be allowed to stay to observe and explore.
Commandment 3: Go Alone or with a Partner
You’re almost certain to raise suspicion if you show up at the building with a dozen other people. Ideally, attend alone, or bring at most one other person with you. Even if you all behave respectfully, a large group of unfamiliar guests can be disruptive to a religious service or house of worship.
Commandment 4: Don’t Lie
If questioned about your purpose for being there, don’t make up a complicated story or lie about your religious beliefs. Not only can obvious lies make you appear to be there for potentially nefarious purposes, but it’s also unnecessary. Most churches and other spiritual sites welcome visitors who are genuinely curious. As long as you treat everyone you encounter with respect and don’t get in their way, you will almost certainly be allowed to stay and observe.
Commandment 5: Don’t Steal
This rule applies to all forms of urban exploration, but especially abandoned churches, shrines and other religious sites: Don’t take anything from the building that you didn’t bring with you, and don’t cause any damage to the interior or exterior of the site.
Even if the building is abandoned, stealing from or vandalizing it is probably a violation of local laws and definitely a violation of the urbex maxim “Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints.” Any damage you cause makes it harder for future visitors to enjoy exploring the site.
Commandment 6: Do Your Best to Follow Along
Even if you aren’t a follower of the particular faith tradition being practiced inside the building, you should try to match the behavior of the people around you. This may involve bowing your head or kneeling during prayers, standing during hymns or greeting the parishioners in the pews nearby. You don’t have to do anything that makes you truly uncomfortable, but when possible, follow the lead of the regular crowd.
Commandment 7: Be Very Cautious When Taking Photos
For many urban explorers, photography is a key component of the hobby. Most churches won’t mind you taking pictures as long as you don’t use a flash or disrupt services (or other visitors) while you do it. Avoid snapping photos during sacred moments like prayers or communion and do your best to be discreet. If someone asks you to stop, honor their request. Remember, you’re a guest in someone else’s house.
Commandment 8: Have Patience
Religious services can be long and tedious, especially if the rituals and traditions don’t hold special meaning for you, but it’s important to be patient and refrain from doing anything that would interrupt or interfere with the service.
While your purpose for being there is to explore the building and take photos, the majority of people inside are there for the purpose of practicing their faith. You may have to wait for services to end or for members to finish their business before you have the opportunity to get to yours.
Commandment 9: Smile and Show Interest
While you don’t need to be disingenuous, showing interest in the church or its religious practices can win you friends among the clergy or congregation, which could open doors for you to see places that might otherwise be off-limits. Be friendly but reverent, ask thoughtful questions and you may be rewarded for your efforts. u never know where it might lead.
Commandment 10: Be Respectful
Being permitted to enter abandoned churches or other houses of worship is a privilege, not a right. No matter what, treat everyone you encounter with respect, especially if they happen to be there for the building’s intended purpose. You may not agree with or adhere to the faith practices of the group, but you’re there to observe—not to argue with their beliefs or make fun of their rituals.
Be careful when touching anything, keep your voice low and silence your cell phone. If asked to stop doing something or leave the premises, do so promptly and without objection. Even if you’re not able to complete your exploration of this particular facility, respectful behavior may help pave the way for more successful outings in the future.