Welcoming the Stranger

In my retirement I have made an important discovery. A Christian ritual meant to affirm community, love and unity among believers, can also be exclusive, awkward and off-putting to people who are not part of the community.

I have never been a fan of Passing the Peace for that reason. It served an important purpose historically when the church was under siege, meeting in secret, members holding onto one another literally for dear life. It intends to serve an important function today when Christians gather for worship, although, I think, what actually happens during the Passing of the Peace happens better, and without liturgical coercion, at the coffee hour after worship.

I have become a church visitor on Sunday morning and have returned several times to two small congregations for worship. Both pay attention to liturgy, the music of the faith and are mission oriented. Both include the Passing of the Peace in Sunday worship. I have come to dread it. Here is what happens. The presiding clergy announces that it is time for the Passing of the Peace and invites worshippers to greet one another with a hand shake and the words “Peace be with you”. Parenthetically, why not “the Peace of Christ”? It is what we mean; not the generic “peace” the aging 60’s folksinger signs off with accompanied by the raised two-finger peace sign. Why not say it: “The Peace of Jesus Christ be with you”?

Having instructed us the clergy person says, “The Peace of Jesus Christ be with you” and we respond “And also with you”. And then all hell breaks loose. People really get into it. Everyone leaves the pew and walks around, greeting everyone else in the congregation, robust conversations ensue. There is laughter, sometime raucous, as two members share an inside joke. People discuss the weather, the results of the local Friday night football game, yesterday’s storm. I shake the hands of the people immediately around me: “The Peace of Christ”, and then venture tentatively out into the aisle only to encounter a barrier as palpable as a sign announcing “Members Only”. There follows an awkward few moments that seem like an eternity during which I’m not sure what to do. It feels for all the world like I have just intruded, uninvited, on a happy family reunion. So I slink back to my pew, sit down and pick up the hymnal and read a few verses. As I look around I notice one or two other worshippers, obviously visitors as well, in the same boat.

The ritual intended to affirm community does anything but if you happen to be a visitor.

We have enough problems in the Mainline Church without telegraphing to strangers who happen to wander into our weekly gathering that it is, essentially, a closed corporation.

To be fair, in both congregations a single individual seemed to understand what was happening and greeted me warmly, asking my name. But for the rest, most were were too engaged and far too busy moving about, laughing, renewing their relationships to notice a visitor.

I have also noticed over the years the same dynamic happening at the traditional post worship coffee hour. Good friends, long time members of the congregation, are so happy to see one another, so glad for their friendship, that the one-time visitor stands alone, balancing a coffee cup and cookie, trying to look happy, reduced to carefully examining the pattern of the tiles in the Fellowship Hall ceiling.

Welcoming the stranger is deeply a part of the faith. Hospitality is not only good manners but also Christian spiritual practice. I do understand the intent of Passing the Peace. But it seems to me that when it becomes a liturgical social hour, for members only, we need to reevaluate.


  1. Ellen Cunningham says:

    I totally agree – in my home church I obviously feel included. As a visitor I have experienced exactly the same feeling of isolation. In addition, from another angle, this past spring my husband underwent intensive chemotherapy and radiotherapy. When we felt it safe to return to public venues, we located ourselves in the back pew (in itself isolating) so we could decline and explain (why should we have to explain?) to fewer people. I am no germaphobic but the sound of someone blowing their nose just prior to Passing the Peace puts me into defensive mode as well!

  2. Amen. Well said, John. Having moved around quite a bit before landing in Chicago, we were often ‘new’ (and maybe also ‘strange’, who knows), so I completely agree that seeking out the visitor and not just socializing with friends is a critical element of coffee hour — as one who has erred in that regard in the past.

  3. Karen Johnson says:

    I really agree with you John! I so disliked the Passing of the Peace at our church in CA, even though I knew many people. And it is so true about coffee hour. I man a table after Coffee hour and really notice how groups of friends talk and do not pay any attention to people who are standing around. I know I was very uncomfortable at the coffee hours the first couple of years and so just skipped the coffee hours.

  4. Pat Curtner says:

    Oh, how wise you are! My husband (raised Catholic but pretty thoroughly disaffected these days by his church) and I alternate between our two congregations, On “his” Sundays, I dread what I think of as the artificial conviviality of the handshaking and peace-be-with-youing. He reminds me that we Presbyterians are the frozen people since we clearly can’t be the chosen people, and I always him that being directed to shake hands with a stranger with a wish s/he experience some form of peace (inner? outer?) is roughly akin to being told by the driver to hug my seatmate on the 151 bus. We also have a little problem about the kneeling, but that’s for another blog post from you. How we miss you on Sunday mornings!


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