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A biblical defense of the handshake chorus

OK, so I’m not really going to defend the handshake chorus as it’s practiced today. But I did want to address the importance and tradition of expressing fellowship among believers in the context of a worship service.

Those with a more God-centered philosophy of church services (as opposed to a seeker philosophy or one more centered on encouraging believers rather than God-focused worship) usually disparage the handshake chorus or “welcome time” practiced in many evangelical (usually Baptist) services today. I am one of these.

You know what these times are usually like: people are encouraged to leave their seats, find someone they don’t know or haven’t said “hi” to yet, and engage in a time of “fellowship” and welcoming visitors. Typically some sort of bouncy chorus is played (“There’s a welcome here!”), and at the end of this time the congregation joins in the chorus. The time is filled with a rush of enthusiastic sound, handshaking, and lots of “Hey!” and “How’s it going?”

My guess is that such times are usually conducted for a couple reasons:

  1. Visitors (or “seekers”) feel more welcome.
  2. This creates “energy” in the service (usually toward the beginning).

Critics (myself included) claim that these times are usually little more than what you might expect at a secular event, with talks of the football games of the day and the previous week’s activities. These times appear to be artificially-created times of country-club style socialization that distract from God-directed worship.

As I have indicated, I agree with this criticisms and have consistently discouraged churches from implementing such events.

However, I do want to note one aspect of such practices that is indeed biblical and has actually traditionally been part of historic liturgy, perhaps offering an alternative to the handshake chorus that fits a bit better with the goals of God-centered worship.

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I believe that a good worship service will proclaim the gospel–not necessarily in the content of the sermon or hymns, thought that it certainly a good thing–but in the shape of the service itself.

Following the pattern of Scripture (in the worship at Sinai, at the Temple dedication, and in Isaiah 6, for example), a worship service opens with an invitation from God himself to draw near to him, followed by a time of adoration and praise for his greatness and might. This leads the congregation to recognize their unworthiness to draw near, bringing them to a time of confession before God and assurance that they are pardoned through the blood of Christ. Thus enabled to truly draw near through Christ, the people respond with thanksgiving and open hearts to hear what he has to say to them from his Word, followed by commitment to follow his will.

This is the gospel–God calls us to himself, we are enabled to draw near through the sacrificial blood of Christ, and our response is one of thanks and willingness to do whatever he wills.

But this is not the complete gospel. Salvation is not simply obedience, although it certainly involved that. Salvation in Christ means that we can drawn near into full communion and fellowship with God. There are no barriers, no restrictions, no limits to our communion with him because of our union with Christ.

This is why the Table is the ultimate climax of any gospel-shaped worship service. In the Table, we are enabled to sit in full communion with our Sovereign Lord because of Christ. The Lord’s Table is the most beautiful picture of the complete fellowship made possible by our union with Christ.

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But the Table also pictures something else–it pictures our union and fellowship with other believers. We are all members of one body through Christ, and by sitting at the same Table with our Lord, we are expressing fellowship with one another as well.

This is why traditionally the Kiss of Peace was a part of the Table observance. Believers would offer this kiss one to another, usually accompanied a statement like, “The peace of Christ be with you.” What peace? The peace made possible because of Christ! We now have full communions and peace with Christ. This is the beauty of the Table!

This Kiss of Peace as part of observing the Table was a way to express communion with other believers that comes from our communion with God through Christ. Since unbelievers and unbaptized Christians were traditionally dismissed prior to the service of the Table, everyone in attendance at this service was a Christian, and thus the Kiss was shared throughout.

I would suggest that this Kiss of Peace is an element often missing from most evangelical worship services today, and perhaps this is what some have tried to replace with the handshake chorus.

But instead of the handshake chorus practice (which also has other less-admirable motivation and often dissolves into triviality), churches should return to expressing communion with one another in a similar kind of solemn act as the Kiss of Peace. I’m not suggesting that it be a kiss necessarily–today’s handshake or hug very well could be a cultural equivalent. But I believe that perhaps churches should reintroduce an act of solemn expressing communion with other believers as part of the Table service.

Of course, this implies a couple of things: First, since the Table is the climax of gospel-shaped worship as an expression of communion with God and other believers through Christ, the Table should be a regular part of weekly worship. I’m afraid that in evangelicalism’s (correct) reaction against the abuses of Rome, we’ve relegated the Table to a mundane monthly or quarterly necessity. Although I agree with Zwingli concerning the matter of Real Presence, I think his minimization of the Table was a travesty.

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Second, this expression of fellowship with one another should not be flippant or trivial, as many handshake chorus times tend to be. Instead, it should be a solemn expression, perhaps including words like “The peace of Christ be with you” or something of that nature to remove the trivial “How ’bout those Cowboys?”

Worship is possible only because of the gospel, and thus our corporate worship should proclaim the gospel. My deepest hope is that our churches will recover some of these missing elements so that we can truly display the greatness of God in his plan to restore communion with his people.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

11 Responses to A biblical defense of the handshake chorus

  1. How does the Kiss of Peace fit with the Regulative Principle?

    Historically, it has roots in the command to "greet one another with a holy kiss" (although there was quite a convoluted journey from the NT "kiss" texts to the current practice of the Kiss of Peace); are you suggesting that incorporating something like the Kiss of Peace implements such texts?

    CB

  2. Scott,

    Delighted to see you advocate the weekly observance of the Table. It's sad that so many people oppose the practice.

    "Familiarity does not breed contempt except for contemptible things or in contemptible people." – Phillips Brooks, 1877

  3. Absolutely. The service is incomplete without it, I think. Chuck, great point. I don't know that I would call this a separate element, but even if it is, I think there appears to be biblical precedent. I would actually call this a form of the biblically-prescribed practice of expressing fellowship one to another that falls within the general examples and practices of the NT.

    What do you think?

  4. There is obviously justification for Communion, and I think by extension certainly something like the KoP. I think you make a jump, though, when you argue that it virtually necessitates weekly observance, and that less regular observance equates it to a relegated necessity. The Scriptures simply say "as often as you will," and go no further. There is no reason to conclude that less frequency lessens the significance any more than one could argue weekly observance makes it a thoughtless ritual. Is baptism any less significant because it is not practiced weekly? Obviously not- it is a prescribed worship act filled with significance. There may be reasons to consider weekly observance, but your case as stated does not make it an obvious conclusion.

    The unity of the congregation, however, is something just as important in the other prescribed activities. Communion does picture it beautifully, but no less than congregation united in song. A kiss of peace could be a wonderful gesture, but no more potentially significant than God's people collectively giving cheerfully together.

  5. Some considerations:

    1) The way that Paul and Peter close letters with instruction on greeting other believers with a kiss doesn't seem to point toward its use as a liturgical element, IMO, and I don't see any formal connection with the Supper, although you are certainly correct to note the traditional juxtaposition of those two items.

    2) In that same vein, I observe that believers are to "greet" one another with a holy kiss / kiss of love; in my thinking, greeting has to do with when you see someone after having not seen them for some time. If the same idea held true for Paul / Peter, it would seem odd to incorporate a "greeting" into the middle of a service when the congregants would have presumably seen each other already upon arrival at the service.

    3) Not that holiness, love, and peace are unrelated, but I find it interesting that the NT references the "holy kiss" (4x) and the "kiss of love" (1x) but not the kiss of peace.

    Now, those three things do not directly speak against the practice of expressing fellowship / peace as part of the church service; they do, however, make me hesitate to see the NT "kiss" commands as providing a ground for the practice. Not that you are explicitly making that connection, but just thinking out loud here.

    As an extension of those three observations, however, I note that if the kiss the apostles were encouraging was not a formal part of the service, but a characteristic way of greeting each other (i.e., as reunited family, which is, I think, what the kiss of greeting would have indicated in that culture), then we already have some indication of where that expression of fellowship / family is to occur: as a sort of entree to the formal gathering to worship as a whole. It would act as a grounding acknowledgement as soon as they arrive that they are family in Christ, gesturing toward their true fellowship in Jesus as the context in which they meet and worship. So I don't know that it would be wrong to express some similar indication of fellowship at the observance of the Supper, but if I'm reading between the lines correctly, that expression might be better placed as an informal (vs. liturgical) "pre-service" affirmation that sets the stage for all that is to follow in the worship of Christ.

  6. Scott, I noticed you said "This is why the Table is the ultimate climax of any gospel-shaped worship service." What comes to mind when I read that is the distinction that I've heard made between Roman Catholic services and Protestant services in that the former center on the Eucharist and the latter on the Word. Would you say something like the Word is central but the Table climactic? Or would you relate Word and Table in some other way?

  7. Scott, I don't find it a justification. I find it ambiguous to the frequency. One simply cannot find clear justification for any frequency. I have no inherent problem with weekly frequency, or daily frequency, if indeed a given church decides to do that, but I don't think that one can argue that obedience hinges on a particular frequency.

  8. I agree with you, Greg. I think there is strong THEOLOGICAL reason to encourage observance of the Table as part of every worship service, but I do not think it is a biblical mandate. I plan to fully explain what I mean tomorrow. Stay tuned! :)

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