Greeting others when we gather for worship may seem unimportant or a simple courtesy, but in truth it participates in the substance of who we are as God’s family. As a preaching minister, I feel a sense of responsibility for welcoming others into our worship gathering. It goes with the job and it is intimidating to think that I may discourage someone by unintentionally slighting them. That pressure does not help and has at times made me resentful and cynical about the formality of greeting. After all, if you presume that you will get it wrong then why bother?
A recent experience that put me on the other side of the greeting reaffirmed the power of this seemingly simple custom. Our family traveled to Waco, Texas, for vacation. That’s right, I said Waco. Ten years ago you could not have convinced me that Waco would ever be a destination for someone who was not connected with Baylor University, but then HGTV’s Fixer Upper show happened. Now people drive miles to visit Joanna Gaines’s Magnolia Marketplace. My wife chose this as one of her stops on our family road trip. Initially, I was there for the cupcakes at the bakery and devotion to my wife. Fixer Upper is not my kind of show. When you live in a 50-year-old house, every spare moment becomes a “fixer-upper” show, and I do not have a TV show budget. My wife is a fan and she even bought the #shiplap T-shirt. So while she was living the dream and happily finding bargains in the Magnolia Marketplace, I was shuffling along bored elsewhere in the store. I started to make mental notes as to what merchandise was made in China. The phrase “I can make that myself” passed through my thoughts more than once. (I assume that at this point I may have looked grumpy – and I look grumpy even when I am happy.) In the midst of my grumbly ambling, a cheerful woman named Mary Ann said, “Hello, tell me about your T-shirt!” Stunned out of my solitude and not grumpy enough to resist answering, I checked the woman’s credentials. She worked for Magnolia. She had the name tag and was carrying a notepad. I was fearful she wanted to put me on a mailing list, but she really just wanted to know about my T-Shirt. I was wearing a shirt that featured the Avengers as the faces on Mount Rushmore.
“Oh, this is just something my sons bought me for Christmas. It’s really comfortable,” I said as a sort of an apology for an old man wearing a T-shirt decorated with superheroes.
“Are your sons here?” asked Mary Ann.
“Yes. I think they are out front finishing off their cupcakes.”
Very quickly I realized that Mary Ann’s greeting was sincere and genuinely hospitable. Her role at Magnolia is to welcome people and to be friendly. I won’t dictate our entire conversation, but during our talk I asked her permission to relate this story, and I told her that she could teach churches how to be genuinely friendly. This was not about my shopping experience or bringing in sales for the Magnolia company. We have all been to other stores with “greeters” and while we appreciate it, we seriously do not have the need to feel welcomed when we are just running in to fill a prescription or get milk and eggs. This was different, and on this occasion I was being welcomed into the Magnolia Marketplace “home,” and they regarded it as an honor to show me hospitality. Mary Ann is part of the Magnolia organization and does what she does because they want to be a force for friendliness and goodwill in this world. They want to share the good news. This is who they are.
I don’t mind telling you that I was converted. I may even watch the show only because I feel like I now know something about the people who make up that business family. My grumpiness and cynicism certainly faded and that made my day much better. We would do well to regard our opportunity to greet one another as an occasion to show hospitality and share in a welcoming spirit of God’s goodwill. This is who we are.
You have bothered to read this far because you want some practical applications. Here you go:
- Make it someone’s job to be a greeter without making it “someone’s job.” This provocative contradiction means that we need to be intentional about the importance of showing hospitality and greeting without making it a chore for someone because they are on the roster. Imagine that you walk into a church gathering and someone says, “I’m a greeter. This is my job to tell you hello. Now here’s a sticker, and please fill out this card.” My grandmother would say that is pitiful. On the other hand, imagine that friendly people are simply being friendly people. Mary Ann obviously has a gift and is comfortable starting conversations with people. There is a certain level of giftedness and willingness on the part of those who make this their mission. However, those people can only be genuine in a community that makes friendliness a part of their culture.
- Cultivate customs of greeting. American culture is informal and inexact in its greeting customs. Anything from a hug to a shrug to indifference may be acceptable or expected. The one rule seems to be authenticity. I have experienced congregations that have a welcoming song and I have experienced congregations that “pass on the peace of Christ.” If you already have such customs, embrace them, but if you do not, find customs that fit with your people and cultivate them. Remember, the goal is to genuinely express the honor at welcoming others into your gathering.
- Connect the greeting to communion. I have heard it said that communion is the most important thing that we do on Sunday. What do we mean by communion? If it is only a ritual for individual benefit, then it may not be so important. However, if it is a fellowship with God and others and anticipates a future of peace and unity, then it is so important that it should saturate everything with meaning. If communion with God and one another is hovering in the center of worship, then the greeting and welcoming of old friends and new faces ought to anticipate this expression of God’s hospitality. Let’s encourage greeters and worship leaders to recognize the connection of the greeting and the Lord’s Table and let this inspire them. If you think that’s a stretch, then let me ask in the familiar words of Dr. Charles Siburt, “Why wouldn’t we?”