On the "stand up and greet time"

Thom Rainer recently produced a post on the top ten ways to drive guests from your church. He followed this up with a post here, after a slew of comments in relation to his inclusion of “having a stand up and greet time” in his original article. Tim Challies has responded to this with his own article: How I learned to Embrace the Stand and Greet Time. The following is my two-penneth.

In his original article, Thom Rainer highlights the extreme revulsion many guests have to the stand up and greet time in the service. His follow up article makes clear that many have, not only refused to come back to the church after such trauma, but left mid-service as a result.

In his response, Tim Challies honestly admits that he too finds it awkward and difficult. However, he argues in favour of a stand up and greet time, basing this on two key arguments. Firstly, he wants to argue church is not all about me and my comfort. Sometimes we have to do things that are uncomfortable in order for the church to fulfil its function. Secondly, he argues church is for the believer. Though unbelievers should factor in what we do, he says, their comfort shouldn’t take precedence. It is what builds up the believer that should be paramount.

So, what do these various articles present us with? Each makes valid points. When we work through them, we are left with three basic facts: (1) visitors – believers and unbelievers alike – despise stand up and greet times and will not return to a church if one exists; (2) church members should not make the church about their own preferences and comfort; (3) what happens in the church exists primarily to build up believers.

The question that remains is whether there is some way to hold these facts in tension. Some of us, I suspect, would be tempted to drop one of the assertions at this point. Most likely, if that’s our solution, we either deny the problem of (1) or we reject the assertion in (3). Personally, I subscribe to all three statements but I believe there is a simple solution.

Firstly, although (2) is undeniably correct, it rather misses the point. (2) is only relevant to the discussion if stand up and greet times (a) actively build up the church membership and (b) that what goes on in the church only exists to build up believers. As such, though (2) could be relevant to the discussion, it is only relevant once we have determined (a) and (b).

At this point, we must address (3). It is certainly true that what happens within the church is primarily for the upbuilding of the membership. However, that does not mean the upbuilding of the membership is the only priority of the church. Indeed, if the church is concerned with mission, how we relate to those outside (especially if they have been brave enough to cross the threshold into a foreign church culture) is surely more than a footnote on our service. It is certainly true, the comfort of the unbeliever isn’t paramount. Were it, there would likely be no real preaching of the gospel. But that isn’t to say their comfort doesn’t matter at all and we should ride roughshod over it because one element – indeed, one pretty small element – of the service might benefit believers but make unbelievers uncomfortable in the process.

That leads on to our answer to (a) – does a stand up and greet time actively build up the membership anyway? The sheer number of believing respondents – those who are sympathetic to the church – who seem to loathe stand up and greet times would suggest not. What is the purpose of the stand up and greet time? If it is to be welcoming – yet makes everyone uncomfortable – then it seems to have failed. If it is to build up believers, one is unclear how a forced handshake and contrived greeting (or, in worse cases, hugs and literal renderings of “holy kiss”) do anything of the sort. It also begs the question what the point of being greeted at the door (and, in some cases, over coffee pre-service by several others) if we’re all going to be forced to do it again mid-service.

On top of all this, there is a point that appears to have been missed in discussion. Are there any ways of welcoming unbelievers, building up believers and encouraging church members to look outside of themselves without making everyone uncomfortable or compromising the purposes of the church? It strikes me there are plenty of ways to do this.

Most churches do this over tea and coffee before or after the service and train their members in how to welcome guests. Not only does this achieve the same purpose as the stand up and greet time, it actually exceeds it. The greeting (both the timing and the nature of it) are not contrived and forced. It means visitors are not “on display” when being welcomed and are not pushed into meangingless conversations they (nor the other participant) particularly want. It also means church members are built up all the more. Shaking hands and smiling politely at a brother or sister at an enforced point mid-service does not build up in nearly the same way as an intentional approach for a genuine conversation that was taken by choice.

So can we hold all three comments in tension. Yes, I think we can. Though church is primarily for the building up of believers, if believers are rarely built up by a stand up and greet time, it is not doing anything to achieve that purpose. Though visitors hate stand up and greet times, if it does little to build up many believers it seems perverse to insist upon it when neither the church nor the visitors gain from it. Though church members are supposed to look outside of their own comfort in order to build up the church, that doesn’t mean we must persist with uncomfortable things simply because they are uncomfortable. Members need only be pushed outside their comfort zone when their comfort is stopping them doing something scripture suggests they should, or should not, do. If there is a way to build up other believers that makes us uncomfortable, we should certainly do that. However, it seems stand up and greet times are not one of them.

Church can build up believers without stand up and greet times. Visitors will feel more welcome without a stand up and greet time. Church members can be encouraged to build up the body over and against their own preferences without a stand up and greet time. Given all that, I’m unsure what is to be lost if we simply canned the practice. There seems to be much to gain by dropping it.

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