What’s Wrong With Worship,
Or, “The Four-Squaring of America,”
Part I: The Stand-and-Greet
Before I launch into this ambitious project, I’d like to say that this is not meant to be alarmist. I have resigned myself to the fact that this is the direction worship in the twenty-first-century evangelical church is taking, and there is little I can do about it. I have also considered the advantages to this New-Hoping of America (one of my many rejected subtitles for this project), and they are significant, and I will address them near the end. In the short-run, I think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, and I’ll be up-front about that (near the back of this treatise). So if you attend a Four-Square Gospel Church or any of the imitators, please do not be offended, and if you have been led to Jesus because of the work of one of these churches, please, please, please do not be offended. This is not meant to be a slam, but merely an expression of concern and dissatisfaction. It is not meant in any way to lessen the meaningfulness of your experience. Ultimately, nothing matters beyond your salvation and everything else is just stuff for grouches like me to dissect because that’s what we do, rather than get out there and feed the hungry and clothe the poor.
My church does it, and yours probably does it too. At my church, it’s called the “Stand and Greet,” at least by the people who plan and organize the worship services on Sunday mornings. “Now is the time,” the leader will say, “when we like to take a moment to stand and greet one another.” The praise band–which, if it’s anything like the one at my church, is made up of one keyboardist, three acoustic guitarists, one electric bassist, and three or four back-up singers, each with his or her own microphone–launches into some upbeat, rousing song, while everyone in the congregation stands and shakes hands with everyone in the immediate area. Some people get really salutatory and move into the aisle so as to greet even more people. It’s a time for newcomers or guests to get introduced to at least a few people, and it’s a time for people who already know each other to exchange a few words of greeting or even “what’s-going-on-with-me” stuff. Many people I’ve spoken to say it’s the best part of the service.
I hate it. Not because I have any problem with the procedure or the practice, but because I’m shy. I hate making smalltalk with people I don’t know, and I hate even more making smalltalk with people I do know. It makes me uncomfortable, and even though I’ve taught myself how to do it and can do it if I must, I still hate it. In fact, I’ve taught students in my speech classes how to do it and even why it’s a social necessity. But none of that changes the fact that I hate it for the very honest, very real, very subjective reason that I am shy.
Now, one could blame shyness on the person who’s shy, and I suspect non-shy people do this, even if they do it indirectly, as in “Poor Mitchell. He never did learn to get over his shyness,” as if the only reason I’m still shy is that I never learned better, like being unable to drive a stick-shift or to flip fried eggs without breaking the yolks. Still, even if it is my fault–and I’m not ruling out that it is–my sunburned back is my fault too, but people don’t think it’s okay to clap me soundly between the shoulder-blades in greeting when they know I’ve burnt myself.
If it was just me, I would suffer silently and maybe never say anything, but I know it’s not just me. I am not the only person who feels uncomfortable about this, though I may be the only one who makes such a big deal of it. I mentioned at a Bible study one night that I hate the stand-and-greet, and someone else, a friend who’s attended my church since her birth and is now in her thirties, said, “I come up just short of hating the stand-and-greet.” I once invited someone to attend worship service with me, and the someone asked, “Your church isn’t one of those that does the stand-and-greet, is it?”
So it’s clear that there’s a small minority of congregants, at least in my church, who dislikes the stand-and-greet, yet we are forced to endure endless handshakes and to exchange countless pleasantries that have no real meaning, just so others can feel they’ve made some kind of connection with someone on Sunday morning. I have suggested that maybe all the people who don’t like the stand-and-greet could sit in a roped-off section of pews and then everyone could very politely not stand and greet us, but of course that could never work. Having shyness in common with a bunch of other people does not mean I want to sit with them, or that they’d want to sit with me. And anyone who’s been a regular attendee of services knows how personal the choice of seats can be for some people.
Some friends have suggested to me that I should just not cave into social pressure, and choose not to participate. These people are well-intentioned, but they are morons. There’s just no way to pull that off. If I sit there, staring straight ahead or even burying my nose in a book, people are still going to stand and greet me, and there’s no way to ignore someone who’s standing right in front of me with a hand extended and a “Good morning! I’m Bill!” In fact, the very purpose of the stand-and-greet dictates that if someone is sitting there, not greeting or being greeted, that person is a target for the worshipper who takes the stand-and-greet seriously. Sitting there quietly and alone guarantees that someone will greet me.
I have tried physically surrounding myself with friends who understand my problem, but this presents two problems. First, I don’t have that many friends. Second, the friends I have are a lousy shield, because they like the stand-and-greet, and people will come over to greet them, so of course they take a moment to greet me, too.
A few weeks ago, I thought I had a brilliant plan. I sat in the seat right next to the side-exit, and when the praise band launched into some rousing praise song that sounded just like all the other rousing praise songs it plays, I pushed the door open and slid out, closing the door gently behind me. I could hear the band wonderfully from outside, and as the song wound down, I walked around to the main entrance, in the rear of the sanctuary, and tried to get back in. The usher passing out programs thought I was entering the building for the first time, so he handed me a program and stuck out his hand, saying, “Good morning! It’s good to see you!” Then, as I made my way back to my seat, I passed several others who offered a handshake and greeting.
Clearly, this is the one component of modern Sunday worship, at least in my church, that requires active participation. There are many reasons to come to worship, and for all of them but this one, a worshipper may choose to participate passively or not at all without fear of social judgment or just plain being a downer. We may choose to pass the offering plate without dropping anything into it; we may choose not to sing the songs or to recite the responsive passages; we may keep our eyes open and dream of the Oakland Raiders game that should still be on television upon our return home while everyone else is praying, if we wish; we may zone out during the message from the pulpit, if we so desire. It might not be ideal to mentally check-out during these portions of the service, but not everyone’s a singer or a reader; yet, not participating actively in these other portions does not result in people thinking you’re a grouch or not happy to be in church. The stand-and-greet, however, is mandatory and there’s no way around it.
So why do we do it? Until a few years ago, I’d never heard of this kind of thing taking place during Sunday worship. Of course, I’ve attended Southern Baptist churches since I was seven, so I would be among the last to hear of something new and different, but this practice has permeated evangelical worship and now it’s rare to find the worship service that doesn’t include the stand-and-greet.
We do it because we like the fellowship. A friend and I agreed a few years ago, while trying to figure out why we attend the churches we do, that any church we belonged to was going to have to have these four things:
- Meaningful worship,
- Active missions and adequate opportunities for participation in missions,
- Serious Bible instruction, and
- Healthy fellowship.
The trouble is that since most people nowadays only attend Sunday worship services, they try to get all four of these in just the ninety minutes or so between the call to worship and the benediction. Standing and greeting is a way for people to get the fellowship they’re not getting elsewhere.
You know, there’s nothing wrong with that, all by itself, but when a worship service tries to be every one of these, it can’t possibly succeed at them all when some of these purposes change the very setting and tone in a way that makes the other purposes impossible. The stand-and-greet does not signal the end of meaningful worship–not by a long shot–but it’s symptomatic of an unhealthy slide toward worship services that no longer challenge us, inspire us, or bring us to our knees in humility.
Stick around for Part II: Pass the Mic!