The title of this article was a revelation to me of some folks’ feelings about fellowship time during worship services. I heard a staff member talking about a person in their church who said they didn’t care for the “hugging and mugging” during the fellowship song. I don’t think that person was being mean. I would point out that he/she was being creative in observing an oftentimes enjoyable experience in many if not most of our churches.
It is not unusual to be in a worship service or other Baptist gathering and hear someone from the podium say, “Would you take just a moment and shake hands with the folks around you and welcome them?” accompanied by a song or just a time of organized, expressive chaos to let everybody know we’re so glad they’ve come to church.
However, I have occasionally met someone in churches where I was preaching or maybe just visiting who wasn’t particularly happy about doing that. Basically, it’s a fellowship time and can be a happy, meaningful, positive experience, but for some it’s not always that way. For those of us who enjoy that two-to-four-minute opportunity to shake everybody’s hand, we need to be aware of the people who may not be into the moment like we are.
This act of close fellowship is built on the idea from Scripture about how we ought to greet one another and the visitors who are in our midst during church times. The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Timothy 3:2 that a bishop or pastor is a person who should be “given to hospitality.” Paul repeats that same insightful truth in Titus 1:8, where he writes that the pastor should be someone who is a “lover of hospitality.”
The Apostle Peter also refers to this in 1 Peter 4:9 where he writes, “Use hospitality one to another without grudging.” In other words, if you’re going to have hospitality toward folks don’t do it with your genuine emotional care throttled down.
Truthfully, it is not unusual to run into people who find it a little bit awkward when this type of fellowship time takes place. New members and visitors may not know exactly the protocol for those events so when we turn around and do it to them, they may not quite know to respond. They aren’t mad at anybody or fussing about it; they’ve maybe never been exposed to hugging and mugging.
I can’t advise you and your church on this but looking at Scripture and what we’re supposed to be, we’re not really instructed to make people feel uneasy. This type of fellowship is really directed at making them feel welcome and comfortable. I would be honest with you, though, that I believe we sometimes go overboard.
Someone suggested that in some churches people get so involved during the fellowship time that others could think they are exchanging recipes. It can be overdone for sure, and for sure it can be under-done. I have seen people who come into a service as far removed from anyone else as they can be. They don’t want to be greeted or have a handshake or a hug and may prefer not even a smile towards them. Some have the attitude that they’ve come to worship God and not to meet all you people — and there is something to be said for that during certain times in life when people come to church out of some great need or are carrying a burden about which you don’t know anything. They’re struggling just to be there and don’t need the added layer of how we interact with them during fellowship times.
Why some people are hesitant about this event is worth thinking about. For one thing, there are people who have health reasons for not wanting to participate. Health reasons? Absolutely. There may be people who are going through chemotherapy or some other medical procedure that lowers their immune system, maybe a recent surgery that makes the person susceptible to infection, and yet they come to church because they need to worship the living God. It’s the same health considerations that cause some people in our society today not to shake hands or hug or desire any other personal contact. An explanation from them is not required, but what is required is sensitivity on your part to just speak or nod and allow them to have their space.
On the other hand, there are people who knowingly or unknowingly have some contagious disease that you could catch. Either of these things carried to the extreme will put most of us in a class on germophobia, so obsessed by it that we don’t want to touch anything, open a door, or shake hands with a person, and would almost prefer living in a glass bubble separated from anybody and everything.
Sometimes people are resistant for hospitality reasons. A person may come from another background or culture, visiting church for the first time, and have no idea what is going on. There are cultures in which men are not supposed to speak to women. There are cultures where people have a larger personal space around them than we typically do in America, so when they walk into such situations it is shocking to them.
I have been in a number of countries with Christian people where the practice is to do what Peter suggests in 1 Peter 5:14, and greet the brethren with a holy kiss. I must tell you those times have been awkward for me. I have never been a part of that and don’t feel at ease doing that. I have been in those settings where greeting the brethren with a holy kiss is kind of a hug and an air kiss on each cheek, but then there are times when somebody comes up and gives you a smack. It was for Paul a cultural act that continues to this day, but it’s not a cultural act with which most American Christians are familiar or have ever seen, and they don’t care to participate. Others coming into our cultural environment and trying to adapt or understand Southern hospitality don’t have a point of reference, either. We need to be sensitive enough to recognize we are putting them in an awkward position.
Another consideration is important to keep in mind: there are hidden reasons why some people don’t like and really feel awkward even in shaking hands and smiling at each other. You may not know that the person sitting just down the row from you grew up in a truly abusive home situation, maybe abused physically or sexually or encountered someone who crossed the line in some other way and deeply hurt them. There can be emotional scars from those situations that radiate toward anyone who comes close to them. If nothing like that has ever happened to you, give thanks. If it has, you understand why people can sometimes be a little standoffish. The truth is that all of us carry things in our mental and emotional memory banks that make us feel comfortable in some settings and uncomfortable in other settings.
The next time the pastor or staff person at your church leads you into the hugging and mugging moment, do so with genuine Christian care and equal amounts of genuine Christian love and sensitivity.
The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.