In my church tradition (Southern Baptist Convention), the welcome time has always been incorporated into the worship service. It varies from church to church, but it is typically a time when members and guests stand and offer and hand-shake and a word of welcome.
In a recent post, Thom Rainer, a denominational leader, reported the results of an informal Twitter poll of first-time church guests and what factors made them decide not to return. Surprisingly, the “stand and greet” time was the number one reason. He found:
1. Many guests are introverts. “I would rather have a root canal than be subjected to a stand and greet time.”
2. Some guests perceive the members are not sincere during the time of greeting. “In most of the churches it should be called a stand and fake it time. The members weren’t friendly at all except for ninety seconds.”
3. Many guests don’t like the lack of hygiene that takes place during this time. “Look, I’m not a germaphobe, but that guy wiped his nose right before he shook my hand.”
4. Many times the members only greet other members. “I went to one church where no one spoke to me the entire time of greeting. I could tell they were speaking to people they already knew.”
5. Both members and guests at some churches perceive the entire exercise as awkward. “Nowhere except churches do we have times that are so awkward and artificial. If members are going to be friendly, they would be friendly at other times as well. They’re not.”
6. In some churches, the people in the congregation are told to say something silly to one another. “So the pastor told us to tell someone near us that they are good looking. I couldn’t find anyone who fit that description, so I left and didn’t go back.”
7. Not only do some guests dread the stand and greet time, so do some members. “I visited the church and went through the ritual of standing and greeting, but many of the members looked just as uncomfortable as I was. We were all doing a required activity that none of us liked.”
Rainer admits that there were strong feelings on both sides of the question about the practice’s helpfulness in reaching guests. He summed it up by saying churches must considering its place in their local context.
I decided to do my own informal poll on Facebook and found a similar mix of responses. From germaphobes to introverts, a few tried to avoid it. It saddened me to hear from one that said it was partly the reason she stopped coming to church. Curiously, those who most vehemently objected to the exercise came from outside our region of the country. Those associated with our church who are not members left comments like:
I like to meet and greet and sure it can be a little intimidating at first but it helps you to get out there and get to know those around you. Otherwise we’d all be caught in our own little shells.
I like it! When your new to the church, people notice and make you feel welcome.
- The church is all about creating healthy relationships – with God and others. When people see a church that has genuine care and concern for others, it is appealing. I have had multiple conversations with people who were considering coming to our church and I’ve stepped them through the “what to expect” list. When I mention the greeting time, they’ve not been put off and have even mentioned that their own church was so cold that no one spoke to them AT ALL! I would much rather err on the side of a friendly greeting time.
- We must be considerate of those who are uncomfortable and not expect everyone to fit our mold. We have several in our body who don’t like hugs. I respect that and don’t force myself on them.
- I shake hands with more people than anyone else on Sunday…I am germ conscious and have probably gotten a few colds through this practice. But, we encourage “fist bumps” in flu season and keep a large jug of sanitizer at the welcome center.
- A forced and contrived greeting time (except on Easter – “He has risen…He has risen, indeed”) has never been our practice. I object to being told to repeat something and insincere greetings are obvious.
- It saddens me to hear that people would not come because of the “howdy-do” time. However, as one respondent related, it may be the most affirming moment some have during their week. As Christians, we are called to move beyond our own wants and needs and consider the needs of others (Philippians 2:4 – Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.). A widow in my last church said the thing she missed most after the death of her husband was no longer having hugs. We made sure she got those hugs after hearing that. Even if you don’t like the “stand and greet” time, someone around you may need that greeting, hand shake, hug, fist bump…think about what someone else may need in the moment.
I believe churches must always evaluate their methods of conveying the love of God in their context. In rural Iowa, despite some who are uncomfortable with the practice, it still seems to work.