Apparently it’s a hot topic of late on church blogs and elsewhere where churchy things are discussed: whether or not to have a time during worship for what most call ‘meet and greet’, but what in the church I serve we call the exchange of the peace of Christ.
Checking in to one of those blogs, I read this comment: Once the service of worship of the Triune God has begun, that is my purpose for being there. Not to fellowship with others. . . Once worship begins, that should stop.
I was, I have to admit, stunned at the idea that fellowship could be seen as something having no place in worship. After all, I reasoned, what is communion? Is Jesus our only boyfriend when we come to the communion table? In my tradition the answer is as simple as it is clear: no. Thus there is never a time when someone has communion alone – not even just them and the pastor. An elder is always in attendance, for example when serving to the home-bound, as a representative of the entire body. In our way of understanding, communion is, by definition, a communal event we participate in with the whole body of Christ across time and space.
Thus the very idea of a collection of islands, each alone and surrounded by their own particular sea, seems odd indeed to me when thinking of worship.
And then I remember how I was when I first started attending church. I went church shopping. And just like Goldilocks (without the larcenous intent), I had a difficult time finding a place where they got it ‘just right’ (meaning to suit me).
One church never greeted me. Another church-stalked me (with the best of intentions, I know) at work with a plate of cookies. The church where I finally landed, however, taught me by example and I returned, in substantial part, not because of how they greeted me, but because of how they greeted each other.
I didn’t think about it that clearly at the time, but the fact is that I was an outsider as someone new to their community. How could I not be? And that’s not about cliques. Or about being welcoming or unwelcoming. All of those things can matter. But even when a church gets it ‘just right’, as a newcomer, I am exactly that – new to the experience.
It’s just not realistic for me as newcomer to expect that I’ll experience worship like I’ve been there all my life, for the simple reason that I haven’t.
It is realistic to hope and expect that I will be treated like what I am: a visitor, a guest; that I’ll receive hospitality; that ‘they’ will be good hosts. Of course, it’s also reasonable to expect from myself that I act as a good guest. And that includes being open to the experience of what they have to offer me, whether it’s what I’m used to or not.
Being a good guest is how I learned that I actually do like asparagus. I’m a very picky eater. Always have been. Probably always will be. But my mother did teach me that when at another’s home, I eat what’s before me. So there came the day at a friend’s house when they had asparagus as their vegetable. And it was a small enough gathering that what I ate (or didn’t) would definitely be noticed, even with all my usual tricks. So I swallowed my distaste and took a bite. And turns out it was good. It was fresh (rather than the canned I had known as a child) garden asparagus and it was delightful to my palate.
Now it could have turned out that I still didn’t like it. My eating really didn’t have expectations, for I was doing the part of being a good guest and partaking of what was on offer. The bonus for me was that I actually did like it, which I would have never known had my mother not taught me the good guest rule.
So to the folks visiting a church that meets and greets far outside your comfort zone, you might consider a few possibilities for what’s happening, rather than presuming that it’s done in disregard of your feelings as an introvert, or done thoughtlessly, or as an interruption to worship rather than as a part of worship:
1. Some people – as a pastor, I would say lots of people – in church on Sunday morning (or whenever their usual time is) are lonely. They live alone. They may not get out as much as they used to. Their families may have moved away or died. And they are lonely. Fellowship before and after worship matter, but does nothing to alleviate the loneliness of sitting by one’s self alone again during worship. The passing of the peace of Christ offers a unique point of contact, done in the context of the worship of God, serving as a physical reminder of the real and comforting presence of Christ in our midst. It is a comfort. And the Gospel promises us God’s comfort.
2. Some people are carrying burdens of resentment against others, at least some of whom are in the room with them on Sunday during worship. Jesus’ call to reconciliation was so strong that he enjoined us to actually leave worship to go and work out our differences with others before coming before God’s altar. Passing the peace can and does operate as a place, a space, within which to mend those relationships with something as simple as a handshake. I know it works because I’ve witnessed it with my own eyes.
3. The peace of Christ is that thing which, while true, surpasses human understanding. The Word is conveyed by preaching, but proclamation comes from our actions as well as our words. We proclaim Christ’s peace with our greeting of one another in Christ’s name (whether we say it literally or not) whenever we pass the peace. And in the doing, something holy happens. It may not always ‘feel’ like it. But Christ is present in the exchange. And we could all use a little bit more of the real presence of Christ. Or so I’m thinking.
4. We worship God in the act of caring for one another. When it comes to passing the peace of Christ, as in all other human endeavors, we will never, all of us, do it perfectly all the time. So some may be too enthusiastic in their greeting. Some may wander off task. Some may feel their particular cocoon of safety threatened because some of those coming to them have less pastoral awareness than others. There may be days when we simply cannot find it in our hearts to be at peace with anyone. I am one who believes that Christ’s peace is big enough for all of our shortcomings and so much more.
5. As part of a church’s liturgy, passing the peace of Christ is a public work of the people and as with all worship, is an offering to God. Thus do we offer to God not only our time, our attention and our resources, but also our relationships with other people.
6. In the words of Paul Ryan, passing the peace “trains ours hearts, hands, and tongues in the ways of peace. . . [There is a] cumulative impact of weekly passing of the peace. By regularly practicing this gesture, our hearts are shaped in the form of the words. Consider the daily practice of training toddlers to say “please” and “thank you.” Though at the beginning the toddler mechanically repeats the words, eventually her heart fills the words with grace and gratitude; indeed, her heart is shaped in the form of “please” and “thank you.” In the same way, passing the peace gives us the vocabulary for expressing peace as we mature in faith and, in fact, shapes our hearts and minds in the form of peace.” Reformed Worship In other words, over time, we become what we do. Becoming Christ’s peace is a call in the life of every believer.
To the gentleman writing that worship does not include what he conceives as fellowship, my own take is that fellowship (as in a body of believers worshiping together) is actually a part – an integral part – of worship. Worship is not something we do alone, but in community.
In the order of worship in the congregation I serve, we exchange the peace of Christ immediately following the prayer of confession and assurance of pardon – I understand this in the movement of worship as a way of extending to others that which we have ourselves received - the very peace of Christ himself.
I have always understood worship to be participatory rather than observatory. The passing of the peace is an obvious aspect of participation in the work of the church that we call worship.
On a less liturgical note, I often imagine worship as I'm planning it as a conversation around the kitchen table – focused on the topic/purpose at hand, but open enough to allow for the comings and goings we humans do when in our kitchens, with children a part of the family as opposed to strangers to the process, helping and participating as they can.
When a visitor comes into my kitchen, they're usually given a task to do – it's a form of welcome, as in 'can I help?'; 'sure, cut this onion for me, would you?'
The idea of standing and moving around as disruptive of worship, it seems to me, conceives worship as only possible in quietude, in orderliness, in structure. All of those can and often are part of worship.
But for me, envisioning the whole, the ebb and flow from sound to silence and back to sound, from standing to sitting to standing again, from moving to stillness to back again, is integral to worship, which I understand more as a movement (think symphonic here) as opposed to a singular event.
And may the peace of Christ, which surpasses all human understanding, be with you all, now and evermore. Amen.