Last winter, at the beginning of the Sunday church service, I glanced around the sanctuary.
A woman right beside me coughed into her hands. A pile of crumpled tissues and hard candies had piled up next to her. The nasal spray nestled against her purse was evidence of her seasonal cold. In front of us, a little boy picked his nose. And then I stopped paying attention to them because our pastor stepped up to the pulpit and started the service the way he starts every service: “Now, why don’t you all just take a minute…”
No, I thought. Please no. I willed away the words I knew were coming.
“…and say hi to the people around you.”
And there it was. The woman who had just coughed into her hands grabbed mine with fervor and no regard for germs. I am pretty sure the nose-picking boy wiped his hand on my arm. And to top it all off, a woman just down our row peered down at my husband and I, squeezed through to speak to us, and then grasped up firmly by the shoulders. “Welcome,” she said warmly. “Welcome.” She asked our names. “Is this your first time here?”
“No,” my husband informed her dryly. “We’ve been members for three years.”
She couldn’t help it, of course – our church is large with multiple services, and sitting anywhere other than your usual spot guarantees you’ll be in a row full of people you don’t know. Nor could the lady beside me help her cold. And the little boy was being a little boy. But that particular morning captured my struggle with five-minute welcome fellowship in general: it’s too brief, it forces people into awkward (and sometimes unwanted) contact, and it doesn’t always make people feel welcome.
There are exceptions to the rule, of course, and some saints who embrace those five minutes to make honest connections and reach out in love. My mother is a heat-seeking missile during those times; I’ve seen her rocket across the sanctuary to get the name of a person she hasn’t met before, or to follow up on a prayer request. And that’s good! That’s actually ideal. But more often, the exhortation to “welcome each other” results in a slew of awkward hugs and handshakes, a few cheerful “good morning”s, and conversations between people who already know each other and want to catch up on the weekend.
In addition to that, these encounters can create a disease bonanza. I remember one of my church’s pastors pleading with the congregation to do nothing more than “fist bump” one winter so that the few remaining healthy members might be spared the wicked flu going around. Additionally, some people – particularly victims of abuse or those accustomed to isolation – are not comfortable with physical touch. More to the point, the warmth of a “hi how are you” can feel bittersweet when those gestures don’t extend beyond the sanctuary. (A particularly piercing review of my church on Google both commended the congregation for being so friendly during worship and then voiced frustration that members seemed little interested in reaching out otherwise).
So what are some ways that we might improve that morning fellowship? Here are some suggestions:
- Don’t make the hug or handshake mandatory. Let people wave or smile and say hi without feeling weird.
- Rather than forcing fellowship into a five-minute break, why not allow for it after the service? At that point, some people might be needing prayer or comfort, or others might be inspired to reach out. This also allows people to fellowship as long or as little as they like.
- Rather than scurrying around greeting everyone within a five-row radius, focus on just a few people – preferably some you don’t know. Get to know them. Don’t drive-by-hello people; develop relationships.
- If you’re sick or struggling with something contagious, take pity on the healthy people. Don’t spread germs! God will understand.
- Don’t talk to the people you know and that you always talk to. Get to know someone new – either a longtime member or a visitor. But especially the visitors.
- Have a goal. Want to follow up on a prayer request? Want to introduce yourself to the new person? Want to invite a new couple to lunch? Go and do that.
Some of the warmest, most spontaneous fellowship moments I’ve experienced in church were small but profound: people bothered to learn our names, or they lingered long enough to find out where we were from and what we enjoyed. They followed up with us after the service or invited us to sit with them. One elderly couple even once surprised my husband and I by deciding to spontaneously give us money for lunch as a treat: we were a young couple in a predominately older church, and they wanted to make us feel welcome.
These are all ideas, of course. And you don’t need to do every one of them. Maybe, like my mom, you’re able to take advantage of those quick fellowship moments. But if not, it’s worth thinking out of the box a little bit so that we can truly “extend hospitality to strangers” (Romans 12:13).