Right off the bat, I feel the need for full disclosure: The subject that I am about to discuss doesn’t qualify — or even come close to qualifying — as being among the most pressing issues that our churches are presently facing.
Indeed, as good Southern Baptists, we have much bigger chicken to fry.
All the same, I do feel this topic merits some discussion. And in all seriousness, some prayer.
The subject matter that I am examining today is the “handshaking time” or “fellowship time” that often occurs in the first few minutes of a worship service.
This practice is a long-standing, time-honored Baptist tradition that has become as much a part of the Baptist fabric as lapel stickers for visitors. Perhaps it was even mentioned in the original documents of the Baptist charter, although I can’t say that for sure.
In any event, the tradition changed dramatically (like most everything else in the world) in the spring of 2020, when COVID-19 came along.
At that point, handshaking of any kind — in church or elsewhere — was essentially outlawed. (It is, after all, very difficult to shake someone’s hand when you’re standing six feet apart). And even after many of the pandemic protocols began to ease, most churches continued to forego the fellowship time.
This development created mixed reviews. On one hand (pardon the pun), the outgoing, effervescent churchgoers truly missed the interaction. On the other hand, the introverts in the congregation secretly rejoiced.
Moving forward, it will be interesting to see which direction we go. If the spread of COVID-19 continues to trend downward, it seems logical to believe that more and more churches will once again start to incorporate (or reincorporate) a time of fellowship during the service.
But my question is — should they?
Perhaps the answer is not as cut and dried as many pastors and church staffers might think. My suggestion is that we use this time to reevaluate this whole practice.
But, for argument’s sake, let’s dig a little deeper here. Let’s look at this from the perspective of a visitor, especially a visitor who happens to be on the shy side. The idea of having a forced conversation with a series of strangers — no matter how brief it might be — is probably not appealing. In fact, it might be enough to prevent them from returning to our church.
Being at a new church, where everyone else seems to know each other, can be intimidating enough, and the “meet-and-greet” can be especially awkward and uncomfortable.
Taking it a step further, there is also a high number of church members — not just visitors — who do not enjoy the fellowship time. It simply doesn’t feel natural to them.
Even though they love their fellow congregation members, they don’t enjoy being put on the spot and feeling “obligated” to make conversation. They would rather it occur organically, perhaps before or after church or maybe over the phone or by text or maybe even with a wave as they are leaving the parking lot.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I certainly understand the flip side of the argument: What happens if a guest attends a service at our church and then leaves the premises without a single person even speaking to them? Will they view our church as cold and uncaring? For many pastors, this is an ever-present (and legitimate) point of concern.
Also, let’s keep in mind that some church members look forward to the fellowship time. It’s part of the reason they attend church — to feel the bond with other believers.
So, the big question is: Where does this leave us? Well, hopefully, it leaves us at the same place that every dilemma should take us: Seeking God’s direction, and asking for wisdom.
Simply put, I believe we should pray about this — church leaders, church members, all of us.
My hope is that we will take some time to truly consider ALL the different personalities of those who might be visiting (or perhaps even regularly attending) our church. We want them to come back. We want them to be fed. We want them to feel welcomed — on their terms, not ours.
Thus, we need to spend some real time considering our options. What can we do to ensure both our members and visitors feel the warmth of our church without feeling added pressure or anxiety? How does God want us to use our resources to reach others?
Does this mean putting “greeters” and “good-byers” at every door? Maybe so. Or maybe there are other outside-the-box solutions that haven’t yet surfaced.
My hope is that churches won’t dismiss this discussion. This deserves more than just a casual mention during a staff meeting. Let’s dive into the pros and cons, the benefits and consequences. Let’s look for middle ground.
Above all else, please, let’s pray about it. Let’s seek wisdom from the One who provides it.
Can we agree to do that? Let’s shake on it. B&R