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A Guide to the Christian Handshake

Churches are obsessed with shaking hands. I don’t know where this came from — if it’s is a leftover cultural practice from some bygone era or a modern faith equivalent of snake handling (hello germs), but don’t expect to go to church and not shake hands. In fact, if no one extends a hand, I would be highly suspect that the people you’re with are actually Christians: you should be greeted with a handshake by at least one person at the door and you should be invited into some kind of “greet your neighbor” time during the service where you shake hands with strangers.

I have not ever found in the Bible where this practice was instructed at the gatherings of those who follow Jesus, but I have observed it with everyone from Baptists to Episcopalians to Pentecostals — and I’m pretty sure none of them talk to each other — so it has to be in there somewhere.

Yes. The classic, firm handshake is still widely accepted as a common greeting courtesy in American culture. But church is the only place where it is normal to shake hands with a stranger without introducing yourself or to shake hands with people you see regularly or are familiar with. This is not a thing anywhere else.

The church my family attends has what we refer to as “The Greeter Gauntlet.” If you are courageous enough to pass through a small mob of people all smiling and extending their hand, then you are worthy of attending that congregation. Probably it was the extroverts that came up with this idea (they should’ve added karaoke machines, paparazzi and laser lights while they were at it) and I know they mean well, but it is a mildly traumatic experience for some of us. I do not always have the fortitude to face numerous strangers smiling at me and expecting physical contact.

At some point, we sort of developed this game — a challenge to see if we get through the doors without shaking anyone’s hand. We’ve gotten quite good at it, actually, and it is as much a part of our Sunday experience as praise songs and offering. Here are some of the covert strategies we’ve tested — these can, obviously, be employed simultaneously:

“Red Rover”

One way to avoid the gauntlet is by rushing your way through. One Sunday we were approaching the door and my youngest suddenly dashed off in front of me. She disappeared into the building and I couldn’t see where she went. Once I got inside, she was safely 20 feet from the door and grinning at me: “I made it!” So that is one way to do it. Now adults, ones that don’t want negative social stigmas, might have to be a bit more strategic than simply running through the doors. But I’ve found a focused, forward-facing gaze and quick walk  — as if it’s really important that I find someone — works wonders. We even team up and have one kids run through while I “chase” after, looking for them.

“Smile and Wave, Just Smile and Wave”

You can initiate what I consider normal human contact by just smiling and waving to those who are greeting at the door. There are a lot of variables though. You have to initiate the interaction — to employ the strategy after they hold out their hand may be considered rude — and it also helps if you are some distance from the person, where a wave might be more natural than a handshake. And you do have to wave. A smile invites an extended hand, which you are socially obligated to respond to.

“Sorry, I’ve Got My Hands Full”

A person who is carrying something with both hands is exempt from handshakes. Use this to your advantage. One week my daughter brought her Bible AND bag with her — not because she needed them at church, but because then she’d be unavailable for handshakes. Hands in the pocket count on cold days — shiver for effect.

“Busy, Busy, Busy”

This one is related to the adult version of “Red Rover” except that instead of hurrying through with forward focus, you turn your focus to something else. We have feigned emotional conversations, checked our phones/watches and fussed with fashion details for the sole purpose of avoiding eye contact and the ensuing handshake.

“Pandemic”

You can minimize the likelihood of a hand being extended to you by appearing to carry an infectious disease. Have a “disease-infested” tissue in one hand and perfect the dramatics of a wet, mucousy cough, sneeze or nose blow. Executed at close range, right before the hand extension will earn you one “get in free” card. I tried it once when we all had a cold. It works. I mean there’s a cool-ness price to pay, but it works.

Once you’re through the doors you can wave, smile or even hug people you know before the service — all culturally appropriate greetings — and if you meet new people, you can shake hands as you exchange names — also entirely appropriate. Just know that during the service you’ll likely be asked to revert to abnormal handshake behavior during “Greet Your Neighbor” time.

I don’t know who invented “Greet Your Neighbor” time, but I am pretty sure it wasn’t Jesus because it is weird. “Greet Your Neighbor” time looks like a coordinated visiting time so that everyone feels sufficiently welcomed (niceness, of course, is next to godliness) but it is actually more likely to be a “transition” that allows musicians to enter or exit the stage, or to mix things up so you don’t get too comfortable. And that’s why it has special unwritten rules and rituals.

It is a short one-or-two-minute segment, during which you are to shake hands with as many people as possible and be seated in a timely manner. Don’t ask people their name, it will make them uncomfortable. Don’t converse, it will be cut short. Don’t greet friends, it’s awkward to shake hands with people you know. Just shake hands with everyone in your seating radius — smile if you must — and sit down or turn your attention back to the stage. Because, somehow, nothing says “welcome, you belong here” like making physical contact with strangers who might have just coughed into their hand or wiped their nose with a soggy pocket tissue.

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