In my ideal world, church services would be solitary affairs: we would stare into our Styrofoam coffee cups, worship quietly, and then go our separate ways, exchanging words with no one save for God above.
In reality, though, that paradise of introversion is not an option—Christianity is meant to be lived and experienced in community. Every Sunday, we gather with strangers, recite ancient creeds and confessions in unison, and sing aloud for all to hear. Worship is meant to be something we do together.
For many of those naturally drawn to reclusive expressions of faith, though, one moment of every service elicits more dread than any other: the Passing of the Peace, or “Greeting Time” (if you’re part of a less liturgical congregation). In theory, this is a moment to experience the joys of communing with fellow believers. In practice, it’s a minefield of faux pas and potentially catastrophic social interactions for the non-gregarious communicant.
Over the years, however, I’ve managed to survive the Passing of the Peace as an introverted visitor, regular attendee, and church staffer. Here are some tips I’ve picked up along the way:
1. Repeat after me: small talk is inevitable. Accept your fate. Take your medicine. Know also, however, that proper preparation can mitigate the suffering (I’m pretty sure that’s in Ecclesiastes somewhere). Keep your conversational armory well-stocked in order to stave off uncomfortable silences.
2. The gray-haired attendees have been around the longest, which means they’re a valuable source of sage wisdom and advice. More importantly, though, they have the best church gossip. Circle up with the aged members of your congregation and get the scandalous skinny on the pastor who let his middle schooler watch House of Cards.
3. Some questions and comments are strictly off-limits, because manners. ‘Tis better to bumble your way through the Greeting Time than to be the fool who asks two near-strangers when they’re finally going to pop out that baby.
4. Never ask your pewmates why you haven’t seen them at church lately. Despite what some Baptists may tell you, the meet and greet is neither the time nor the place for a spiritual guilt trip. That’s what potluck is for.
5. Make no assumptions. If you surmise that every face you don’t recognize is a visitor, you’ll soon find yourself handing a Romans Road tract to one of the deacons. Also, it’s never safe to presume an infant wearing a pastel pink smocked romper is a baby girl—especially in the South.
6. When you do encounter a first-time visitor, proceed with caution. If you open by asking them what God’s been convicting them of lately, don’t be surprised when they decide to spend next Sunday morning under their duvet binge-watching Gilmore Girls. Remember: their salvation is in your hands. (Unless, of course, you’re a Calvinist.)
7. Pastors: make it a priority to remember congregants’ names, lest you offend a reliable, valuable, and essential (i.e., generously tithing) church member.
8. Generally speaking, we should attempt to emulate Jesus’ actions. WWJD and all that. Greeting your neighbor with a holy kiss, however, is one of the rare exceptions when words might speak louder—and less awkwardly—than actions.
9. Two words: hand sanitizer. Use it. The man in front of you may have sneezed into his palm during the call to worship, but that’s not going to stop this virulent extrovert from extending the snot-speckled hand of Christian fellowship. A drop of sanitizer is your best defense against becoming a walking microbial culture of lymph node-enlarging bacteria bombs.
10. If the Passing of the Peace runs long, journals are the perfect shield to ward off unwanted fellowship—no one will interrupt you if it looks like you’re working out your salvation with fear and trembling. So go ahead . . . use that Moleskine to confess to the Holy Spirit that you spent the opening prayer resenting the young couple who stole your favorite spot in the fourth-row pew. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve earned it.
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