Okay, it is not really an hour; but the hyperbole makes a point: the Greeting Time can be an uncomfortably L O N G period of time for a guest making a first visit in a church worship service.
Does that surprise you? It might! Many churches assume the Greeting Time to be a positive experience for the guest – demonstrating warmth and fellowship – that affirms the welcome and hospitality of the church. And so the whole congregation is invited to “greet your neighbor,” and “say hello to the people close to you,” or even initiate some movement up and down the aisles to hug, shake hands, and offer a hearty “good morning” to one and all.
But the good-natured “friendliness” can be a bit over-the-top for a first-time attender. While the regular attender may be at home with the Greeting Time process and people, remember the first-time guest doesn’t know anybody; and he is unknown by virtually everybody. When the guest is called upon by the platform personality to engage in the same general activity as the rest of the crowd, a rush of discomfort can flood over him for the following reasons. It is:
AWKWARD... The guest follows the instruction from the platform and stands with the crowd for the Greeting Time. He is likely wondering, “Now what? Greet or be greeted?” He wonders, “should I turn to the left, the right, the front, the back, or simply stand here watching everyone else.” For one odd and brief moment, he realizes that he is not doing what everyone else is doing among the people they already know and no one is doing it with him either -- confirming that he is a visitor among strangers. That moment serves to put an exclamation point behind the whole greeting experience as AWKWARD!
CONTRIVED... While the Greeting Time is intended to convey that the church is friendly, it may backfire on that good intention if friendliness was not happening before the service began. Imagine this real experience: a guest finds three sets of complete strangers sitting down within arm’s length of him in three separate directions; none of them say a word UNTIL the Greeting Time when, all of a sudden, church "friendliness" breaks out all across the congregation -- as with the push of a button, turned on by a platform introduction of the Greeting Time; THEN, just as quickly, "friendliness" is turned off. Contrived friendliness cloaked in the two minutes of the official Greeting Time does not necessarily score well for guests, especially when the friendliness is short-lived.
FORCED: A guest may feel put-upon by the Greeting Time, like he is made to be a participant whether he wants to be or not. It is not like singing, praying, or opening a Bible where the Guest can discreetly participate at his own level of comfort; in the Greeting Time, the whole congregation is made a participant; everyone is watching and, in many cases, first-time guests are targeted. So, whether he wants to or not, the guest is automatically included in the Greeting Time protocol. Under that strain, being expected to do what is outside of the guest’s comfort zone, he may conclude, a return trip to the church will not be likely.
PRETENTIOUS... “Did the platform speaker really say for me to turn the complete strangers sitting next to me and tell them, ‘how happy I am to see them’?” “Did he say for that complete stranger two seats down to turn to the person next to him, i.e., ‘me,’ and tell ‘me’ that he loves ‘me’?” A guest put in that situation will likely be looking for the door, to leave, not to return. The fact that in some church settings a congregation has words put in their mouths from the platform accentuates the underlying fact that the Greeting Time can be unnatural; it is made even more so by the addition of unnatural comments. A guest is not far behind in concluding whether a greeting is put on or genuine.
SURFACE... in the hurry up mode of the Greeting Time, nothing comparable to the before and after service conversations with guests can occur. The amount of time in the Greeting is limited, the sound levels (e.g. music backgrounds) are contrary, and the furniture is a barrier. Fruitful conversations occur when discoveries are made with people, personal information is shared, meaningful connections are formed.
Could it be that the Greeting Time in church is actually counterproductive with guests? It MAY be! Decide for yourself!
Successful alternatives are not as simplistic as announcing 2 minutes of hand shaking friendliness but they are worth the effort: 1) Creating a culture within the congregation where every member greets and meets the persons sitting within 3-5 feet of them. 2) Organizing sectional greeters to personally greet and engage any unfamiliar (or familiar person) within their section of seats in the worship space. 3) Insuring that guests are greeted by official greeters on entry and exit of the building. 4) Directing people into small groups where the real work of relationships will occur.
Make sure that what you are working WORKS!
(One more thing: beware that church members sometimes determine that they need not be friendly in a genuine, conversational way after the service if indeed they were expected to be “friendly” during the Greeting Time; they have done their friendly duty for the day).