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:
- Visitors (or “seekers”) feel more welcome.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.