“Okay, now let’s take a minute to greet your neighbors.”
Some people react to that statement with grim terror, while others dutifully shake hands with those around them. But does anyone really enjoy this time? Maybe a few, but not the majority. So why do we do it? There are lots of reasons—good, solid reasons—for this time. But maybe it’s time to revisit whether it’s necessary.
Or perhaps the better question to ask is this: How can we accomplish the same goals in a way that doesn’t put people on the spot?
It’s true that church should be a welcoming place. Jesus calls us to love one another and to gather together with other believers. The Bible is full of letters that begin with a heartfelt, enthusiastic greeting and stories of people running to greet their friends. The difference between the two is that one is natural and spontaneous, and the other is forced.
Read on for some common responses to this time and ways to address these issues.
Who are you and why are you talking to me now? I sat here, alone and feeling awkward, for 20 minutes before church began, and no one said a word to me.
Unfortunately, many people feel as though the church is full of cliques. And newcomers don’t want to interrupt a closed circle of laughing friends to introduce themselves. The same is true even for many long-term members. On top of that, many of us are introverts, so making small talk is excruciating, and being told to talk to others is akin to a wife telling her husband to buy her flowers. She might like the bouquet, but it doesn’t mean as much when it wasn’t his idea in the first place.
Keep in mind, though, that not everyone has a large social circle. Quite a few people live alone or their schedules and job situations contribute to a lonely life. They may be hungry for human contact.
If you’re an extrovert, help us out. When you arrive, greet everyone you pass. If you see someone sitting alone, stop and talk to them.
If you’re an introvert, ease yourself into it. Every week, say hi to a couple more people who are not your closest friends. Ask them about their week, follow up with questions about a prayer request they made recently, or compliment them in some way. If you still find that difficult, simply say, “It’s so good to see you today!”
If you’re in church leadership, consider designating some people as greeters or giving name badges or shirts to easily distinguish those whose primary role is to help others. Ask them to strike up conversations with people who are sitting alone or who do not seem to know others. Coming in to a new church (or your home church after a change like a divorce or death in the family) can be painful. First impressions of friendliness are important and can set the stage for an overall positive impression of the service.
It disrupts the flow of the service.
When this time comes in the middle of a service, it can be jarring. Just as you’re letting yourself sink into the worship music, suddenly everyone is standing up and perfunctorily shaking hands with those around them. You came to church to meet with God, so why do you have to talk to everyone else instead?
Our goal should be to make all the elements of our worship sincere and meaningful. Rather than asking everyone to greet those sitting around them, maybe we should encourage people to talk on their way out, or give them time for fellowship in an informal setting (like offering coffee and donuts before the service or between Sunday School and worship). Food tends to bring people together, so don’t overlook fun activities like carry-ins and cook-outs. In ladies’ meetings and Bible studies or other small group meetings, find ways to shake up the seating arrangements to put together those who might not normally sit together so that they can connect with them in deeper ways.
Then again, sometimes it’s helpful to break up the service and move around a little bit.
At these times, however, it may be a challenge to bring people back into one mind and one accord after they’ve walked around and hugged everyone they know. Even after the service resumes, the talking may continue. Two minutes just isn’t enough time for significant or meaningful conversation, and when it’s longer, it definitely halts the flow of the service.
“Greet your neighbor” time is meaningless.
As with many traditions, sometimes we continue a practice simply because we’ve always done it that way before. When you’re only given enough time to say hello, it feels unnatural and shallow. On the other hand, when people are given a lot of time, it makes it difficult for the leader to bring everyone’s attention back to the service in progress.
Some churches combat this superficial “hi, how are you” time with a prompt or question to ask each other. This can be helpful because it leads into a brief conversation and you don’t have to think of ways to make small talk. On the other hand, some people feel awkward repeating a cute phrase or being forced to exchange hugs. If your church offers this time, allow people to greet others in a way that is natural to them so it doesn’t feel forced.
That being said, if your church has “greet your neighbor” time, think of it as an opportunity to interact with different people. When you greet them with genuine warmth, they will respond with kindness and the time won’t feel meaningless, even if the time and conversations are brief.
Where’s my hand sanitizer?
Some people are natural huggers, but even so, there’s no denying that certain times of the year are filled with people sneezing, coughing, rubbing their noses, or other signs of contagious illness or allergies. I’ll be honest: If you just sneezed into your hands, I don’t exactly want to grasp your hand in a meaningful, sincere handshake. A formal time of greeting makes this feel obligatory and icky.
Once in awhile, there may be hygiene issues. There are also people whose immune systems are suppressed who don’t want to be exposed to a lot of germs.
Whatever the reasons someone might hesitate to make physical contact, watch for nonverbal clues. If a hand is not extended or arms aren’t opened wide, greet them with a nod or a smile instead. And germophobe or not, it doesn’t hurt to invest in a bottle of hand sanitizer.
Pray with me?
Dear Lord, help us to honor You and to love our neighbors, whether they’re long-time church members or newcomers we’ll only see once. Open our hearts to sincere, meaningful exchanges, and give us wisdom about the best way for each of our churches to provide those opportunities. Teach us true hospitality and widen our circles of friends. Let us love one another as You love us, whether we’re introverts or extroverts, and whether we set aside time for building relationships with Your people before church, during, or after. Because the truth is, You are present all around us—in our conversations, in the lives of people we interact with, in the hearts of our leaders, and we want to see You everywhere we look. Help us to provide opportunities to see more of You. In Jesus’ name I pray, amen.
Kelly O’Dell Stanley is the author of Praying Upside Down and Designed to Pray. A graphic designer who writes (or is it a writer who designs?), she’s also a redhead who’s pretty good at controlling her temper, a believer in doing everything to excess, and a professional wrestler of doubt and faith. She offers free prayer prompt calendars at kellyostanley.com and calls small-town Indiana her home.