In many (not all) churches on Sunday mornings, there is a formal ‘welcome’/’greeting’ time in which people get up, and in my experience, generally say hello to the people sitting around them – who are generally always the same people. There’s about 30 seconds to a minute given to this moment in any given Sunday morning service. It’s a ritual. I call it that, because it’s an action devoid of meaning and purpose for most Christians.
In November of last year, I spent a Sunday morning with a group of conservative Lutherans…I was teaching and preaching in their Sunday morning service. Generally, when I am a guest speaker, I receive some sort of welcome from the congregation during that 30 second time slot…one person usually ventures up to the front to say hello. At this church, however, an eruption happened. Everyone was out of their seats, everyone was greeting everyone, and the whole procession took at least five minutes. I would say at least half of the congregation of about 200 people came up to me and said hello, since I awkwardly stood at the front waiting for people to greet me (like a good Baptist boy would).
That experience made an impact on me. Coupled with a similar experience at Zion Baptist Church in downtown Peoria, I decided something needed to change at my church. What we had become is a people who had resigned ourselves to 30 seconds of pithy “Hey, good mornings”, an empty ritual. We didn’t have a welcoming atmosphere. We were okay with it. We didn’t know any better. We filled our time with other things like singing songs “together” and then hearing a sermon and going home (not all of us, but many of us).
We decided to shake things up this year during the Lent season at Imago. Instead of allotting little time to greeting and welcoming one another, we decided that we would give 10% of the service to it – a full 7 minutes and 30 seconds of time. This would mean that other areas would need to be cut, like singing fewer songs and preaching fewer words, but, in the name of experimentation if anything else, we decided to give it a shot.
This morning was the first Sunday of Lent, and I reluctantly told our people that we would be spending seven and a half minutes during the service to just get to know and greet one another. The reason for this is explained better by Emmanuel Katolonge: “[The] greeting, which Christians receive and offer to one another during worship, is a witness to the fact that Christians are drawn beyond themselves into the story of God’s own life and self-sacrificing action in the world. It is by standing within this story that Christians learn to see themselves and others as gifts which, in their bodily differences, are called to be the visible Body of Christ. In the act of being greeted and of greeting one another in the name of the Trinity they bear witness to this story” (Katalonge, The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, 68).
When the time came, an eruption happened not unlike the eruption I experienced at the Lutheran church in November. It was like our church was waiting for permission to practice community in a real and purposeful way. Both services needed to be told to end the greeting time, even though we displayed a countdown during the greeting time. It was beautiful.
One anecdote: Two guys who have been a part of our church for over five years met each other for the first time this morning, all because of this challenge. I am hopeful that this continues to be a pattern for us as we move out of Lent and into the regular/ordinary time of the calendar.
We are never immune to change, adaptation, and renewal. That’s good news.