Apparently some are all “shook up” over the practice of greeting visitors during worship services. A variety of polls suggests that most visitors are extremely uncomfortable with this practice. Studies also suggest that many faithful church attendees are also uncomfortable with the practice of greeting the familiar, as well as those who may be new, in the ebb and flow of a church service.
Granted, there is clearly no Scriptural command to include a one minute and twenty-seven second opportunity in the worship service for greeting those you know or don’t know. There are a few passages though that speak to a practice of greeting one another with the “right hand of fellowship” (Galatians 2:9) and in other cases an “agape kiss” (1 Peter 5:14). However, these passages seem to simply report what was done and are not included to give a clear imperative for universal and normative church practice (though it’s enough to convince me of the benefit).
I have spoken previously about different levels of koinonia (fellowship). Interestingly, the “right hand of fellowship” and the “agape kiss” were mainly reserved for those within the church family. Are there implications that might impact the question of greeting one another in a church service? I think there are.
For local fellowship
While I’m not bothered that many church leaders do not include the “meet and greet” in their worship services, the stated reasons why many reject such a practice are, in my view, telling. There seems to be a common theme in the majority of those who reject the practice: “unchurched Harry and Mary,” who are visiting, really don’t want to be greeted.
Apparently, right next to the authority of the Bible is the opinion of the church seeker? This is the same kind of reasoning that fuels the church-growth movement as a whole. Let’s make the non-believer comfortable with church. Have we considered that perhaps church isn’t supposed to be that comfortable for those who are in rebellion against God? That’s not to say we should be rude or unfriendly.
To be clear, if there is a benefit for taking time in the service to encourage “right hands of fellowship” and “agape kisses,” it is primarily for Christ’s family. What I’ve experienced over twenty-three years of ministry is that when believers who are part of the body, or believers who are visiting (as Paul and Barnabas were visiting the believers with Peter in the Galatians passage), are greeted with a handshake or an arm around the shoulder, there is a real ministry of encouragement that takes place. I personally believe this can be an aspect of the comforting ministry of the Holy Spirit. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve embraced believers in a foreign land, who speak a different language, and yet in that momentary embrace volumes are communicated to each other. So the church I pastor includes the 87 seconds of “meet and greet.” I doubt seriously we will be removing the practice any time soon, and there are a variety of reasons why.
For the unchurched and visitors, too
Though the “right-hand of fellowship” and the “agape kiss” seems to have been primarily reserved for recognizing brothers and sisters in the assembly, there seems to be a legitimate role also for welcoming visitors who are outside the membership of the congregation. In our society, greeting one another is a sign of compassion and welcome. Paul explains in Galatians 6:10 that, “as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”
Frankly, not only does Heaven expect that believers would reach out to outsiders, but the outsiders themselves expect it. On a few occasions our folks have not been aggressive in shaking hands and reaching out to visitors. On each of those occasions one of the comments made by a visitor was how disappointing it was that no one greeted them! I think in 16 years that’s happened three times. On all three occasions the congregation was encouraged to do better.
I had the momentary thought after a recent flurry of articles against the “meet and greet” to just inform the next ignored visitor that all the church growth experts happen to know they really don’t want to be put-out by being greeted!
Compassion and openness
I would use an additional argument to defend the practice of greeting one another, using appropriate physical contact. Southeast Valley Baptist Church actually is not only a handshaking church. This will of course make us the laughing stock assembly of “hip” and “cool” church planters everywhere, but—we are a hugging church! We do that appropriately. Our congregation is compassionate and I’m very thankful for that. On a regular basis when that compassion is combined with a warm embrace the one being loved will break down with tears as they share various challenges of life. Talk about a great opportunity for real ministry! That doesn’t happen if you hermitically seal up visitors away from the rest of the congregation in some kind of an invisible “no formal greeting zone!”
There is something powerful when you combine compassion, love, worship and physical touch. I’ve on a few occasions wanted to throw a chalk eraser at some speaker who tells a room full of pastors they should never physically touch other believers. I’m fearful that some fundamentalist preachers are unbalanced in the topic of physical contact because there is something weird and twisted going on sexually, either personally or embedded in the DNA of the ministry they lead. Sex has been so poorly handled (even exegetically) as a biblical topic that we in separatist circles too often struggle in explaining how to have appropriate physical contact with other believers, especially of the other gender. It’s one of the areas that too many segments of fundamentalism handles irresponsibly.
The result of that has been multi-faceted. To say you can shepherd the sheep and not touch them is—unfathomable! Of course, so many churches and “church leaders” have lost the real meaning of what a shepherd is and what sheep are. Sheep have become computer numbers representing “giving units” instead of precious co-laborers who are dear to us in the faith as our own family.
Coming back to the topic at hand (pun intended!) there is one more reason I think it’s good to lead our church members into a season of greeting others who are present for Sunday worship. Our church (like every church) attracts a few believers every now and then who are tempted to enjoy their little circle of accepted friends (think “smug little clique”) at the expense of the rest of the body.
James 2 warns against reaching out with a warm welcome to the “golden fingered man” (James 2:2-3) while ignoring everyone else. That being the case, I like the practice of stretching the comfort zone of believers who would just prefer to only be with the two or three people they like. They need to understand they are in deep need of growing out of their selfish little bubble into God’s bigger world. Actually our congregation is probably as healthy as it has ever been in reaching out to different kinds of people with true Christ-like love and I’m thankful for it.
Of course this kind of thing makes some Christians uncomfortable, but as their pastor I’m not interested in their being more comfortable—I’m interested in their growing in Christ likeness! We have far too much individualism and spoiled-brathood in the body of Christ in North America for me to remove a practice just because some Christian (or even some visitor who may be seeking a God of his own imagining) doesn’t like to be bothered by greeting another believer who may be different than he is.
If visitors are truly offended by 87 seconds of greeting as the first step of “body life,” well, they can be offended! Part of a visitor’s seeking and thinking through a relationship with God is “counting the cost” of faith and repentance. Jesus makes the point (Luke 14:26) that part of the cost of discipleship is taking on a new family. That kind of “new family commitment” is going to demand much more uncomfortable elements than shaking hands with a complete stranger for 5 seconds!
One good counterargument
Having said all of that, I can think of one potentially good reason to junk the 87 second “meet and greet.” Some believers actually think they have fulfilled the “one-another’s” in the New Testament because they spend those 87 seconds each week reaching out to people who they might otherwise ignore. The 87 seconds is such a pathetic replacement for real body-life, it actually might be good in some cases to remove the 87 seconds so the church realizes one-another ministry requires far, far more.
In these days of automated, “have big church your way” innovation, I love the little antidote that comes from December 1989 Bits & Pieces. Mamie Adams always went to a branch post office in her town because the postal employees there were friendly. She went there to buy stamps just before Christmas one year and the lines were particularly long. Someone pointed out that there was no need to wait in line because there was a stamp machine in the lobby. “I know,” said Mamie, “but the machine won’t ask me about my arthritis.”
Joel Tetreau has over twenty years of pastoral ministry experience and presently serves as senior pastor at Southeast Valley Bible Church in Gilbert, AZ and as the Western Coordinator of the Institute of Biblical Leadership. He earned his MDiv at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary and his DMin at Central Seminary. He is married to Toni and is the father of three sons.