From the Pastor’s Desk:
January 26, 2020
Early in my ministry I was invited to visit a church that wanted me to consider applying for their youth pastor position. This was a young church, only a couple of years old and non-denominational. They were renting a building but starting to dream about building their own space. I was excited at the possibilities, so I agreed to go to a Sunday service and get the feel of the place.
I sat in the back corner. The point of this visit for me was to observe, see if the Spirit of God was calling me to this place, and not get in the way. But some churches cannot stand letting visitors blend in, so the pastor made me stand up and be recognized. Not only did he ask me (the only visitor to stand) but he also introduced me by name and said that he felt God was calling me to be their youth pastor.
People applauded. I was instantly uncomfortable and turned a few shades of red. Then the pastor set people loose for the “passing of the peace.” For some churches, that’s a handshake and a “peace be with you” with those immediately around you. For others it's a hug and a “good to see you.” And for some, the passing of the peace becomes a mini-fellowship hour right there in the middle of worship. None of those kinds of greetings would have surprised me. What did surprise me was the first person who came to shake my hand bypassed my hand completely, leaned in, and planted a kiss on my cheek. My first thought was she was just friendly. But when I turned to shake someone else’s hand it was bypassed again and an older gentleman wrapped me in a bear hug and planted a wet one just below my ear. At that point I started to get nervous.
As I looked around I saw EVERYONE was getting kissed on the cheek or neck just below the ear. And since I was the only visitor and the pastor had drawn attention to me, a line began to form of people wanting to “greet me with a holy kiss.” I was so uncomfortable; suffice to say I did not become that church’s youth pastor or ever attend another service.
At one point in the life of the Church, greetings were a very close and intimate thing. The ability to be able to walk up to another and greet each other with a kiss communicated love, forgiveness, and peace between you. This was important because one of the things Jesus told his followers was that we should not engage in worship if we have something against a brother or sister in the faith (Matthew 5:22-24).
This is (or should be) still an important aspect of worship. But for visitors in 2020 (and for the better part of the last two decades) even the handshake during worship has become as uncomfortable as those kisses on the cheek were for me. As a student of scripture I knew “why” those church members were doing it. As a visitor, who knew none of those people, it was too much of a presumed intimacy. It also felt like the ritual had become just what they did without remembering the peace and forgiveness it was supposed to represent. Even though we are reminded to greet one another in the peace of Christ, our church greetings can become rote, too. We might shake the hand of a visitor, but then in front of the same visitor, hug our friend and engage in a warm conversation, leaving the newcomer feeling like a third wheel, very left out.
Fellowship is important; however, the best time to have conversations with friends is before or after our worship service together. During the service, we need to be sure to focus our hearts and minds on Christ. In an effort to help us do that, for a time we are going to try simple verbal greetings. Not leaving our seats but simply turning to someone close to you and extending a blessing of peace and love. No kissing, hugs, or handshakes (do those greetings before or after the service). During our worship, our prayer is to do nothing that leaves others feeling left out or distracts any of us from the presence of God.
Don’t forget to check out the “Grace Cubed” podcast wherever you get your podcasts, or go to www.anchor.fm/gracecubed
Cherry Hill United Methodist Church