A Theology of Greeting People
If you want to be inspired in one minute, watch this:
I’ll never forget spending a month in Peru in 2007 and having to kiss “hello” several times a day. Having lived in Chicago for a few years at that point I was aware of the cultural greeting but I had never been obliged to participate in it so much. I wasn’t one to give intimate greetings to people I didn’t know and I especially did not seek out physical contact but down there I figured it was prudent to conform. It was quite a month.
And for years I have considered exuberant greetings a cultural thing. Some people kiss or hug, others shake hands, others just nod. And while I still believe that is true, I have begun to wonder if my culture has devalued the impact greetings can have on others. No doubt there are things my culture does well, but this is one where I have been convicted to learn from others. Not just because I live in a predominantly Hispano neighborhood in Chicago, but also because there are clues in the Bible about how important greetings can be.
Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about:
First, in the book of Ruth when Boaz approached his workers, he greeted them with a sort of Gospel phrase: “The Lord be with you!” And they responded in kind, “The Lord bless you!“
In the book of Luke, we read that just the “sound of [Mary’s] greeting” caused John the Baptist to leap for joy in Elizabeth’s womb.
In Colossians 4:18, Paul says he writes the greeting “with my own hand“. Of all things he could have written himself, it’s the greeting.
In several of his books, he makes greetings a huge deal, as in Romans 16 and Colossians 4, taking almost entire chapters of our Bible to simply greet people.
And more than once he gave the command to “greet with a holy kiss“. Which, again, I realize the form is cultural but I think the significance of a meaningful, intimate greeting transcends time.
This is something I perceive a new wave of church planting has figured out. When I see pictures of thriving church plants, I see energetic, smiling people outside with huge signs that say “We’re glad you’re here!” and like things. Some go so far as to cheer as people enter the building, which is something my church does for each child that enters during our yearly VBS. I think we know that people can and do form opinions very quickly when encountering someone or something for the first time. In fact, while I am not saying I am convinced this is true always, consider the following from Malcom Gladwell’s book Blink:
Research over the past two decades has confirmed that…a handshake may be all it takes to create a memorable first impression. But what we also know now is just how significant the first few moments of an encounter can be, and to what extent they determine the friends we’ll make, the career path we’ll pursue and the people we’ll fall in love with.
Tricia Prickett, a psychology student, collected a series of videotaped job interviews to test whether it was possible to guess the outcome simply from observing the interaction between the interviewer and interviewee. She found that an observer could predict whether or not the interviewee would be offered the job from watching just the first 15 seconds of the tape – the handshake, the “hello” and very little else. What happened in those few, brief moments was enough to determine the candidate’s future.Malcolm Gladwell, Blink, 87
There are a handful of reasons why I think the Bible’s emphasis on greeting well coincides with this research.
One is that I think the way we greet can be (though doesn’t necessarily have to be) an issue of character. If you knew nothing about that teacher in the video above, do you think from the minute clip you saw of him that you can glean what kind of teacher he is? Probably. For me, I do not like to look people in the eye and I am not a big hugger but since I have been learning this, the number of men I hug as I greet them on Sunday mornings has more than doubled. Because I am convinced this is important enough that in my context I need to be stretched.
Once when we talked about this in our Spanish Bible study, as soon as the topic came up I could feel an energy enter the room in a way I do not think would have occurred in most English studies I have been in. Some expressed that when they moved to the U.S., getting accustomed to less enthusiastic greetings was difficult because in the countries where they come from, greeting is a huge deal. Not just in the hug and kiss, but in the eyes, the smile, the joy, and the whole of nonverbal communication. In fact, the Spanish verb that literally means “to greet” (saludar) seems to have much more potency than its English translation.
It is extremely common for someone to arrive late to our Spanish study and go around the table and greet every single person, even if it pauses the study for a few seconds. This is not something practiced often in my culture and I am learning that it is worth losing a few seconds of study to participate in something that can also be an issue of theology, as Boaz modeled. For me, it is an issue of character.
Secondly, I think greeting people well is a way to communicate to them “I see you. You matter.” In some cases it can communicate, “Whatever I was doing when you arrived is not as important as you are so I will pause and express that enthusiastically.” Any time I go to somewhere for the first time, I absolutely want someone there to help make it less confusing about where I am supposed to be. I want someone to see me and to make me feel secure and taken care of. As a result, every Sunday I am able, I go and stand at the door of my church and greet people as they enter. I think it matters to morale.
Perhaps nowhere is this more important than how I respond to my wife when she comes home. While I will not say all husbands everywhere must greet their wives well to be good husbands, for me I know it is one of the intentional little things that is a big thing (and, in full disclosure, some days I do not practice this well).
Similarly, a greeting can be a means of building intimacy and encouragement. One of the best friends I have had in my time in Chicago was one of my roommates years ago before we both got married. Our landlord at the time had a hard time remembering our names. He at one point called my friend “Tiger” and at a later point called me “Slugger”. To this day we greet each other with those names instead of our real ones. It manifests a depth to our friendship few other things do. There’s another young man at our church, a star basketball player, with whom I share a “Cleveland Cavaliers” type handshake, as seen below. Because it means something to him. (The Cavs were the inspiration for the teacher in the opening clip, by the way.)
Also, there have been many times I have shown up to church in a terrible mood and the greetings of one of the other members will be so exuberant, it melts my attitude a little. That is a huge benefit of church community.
I do not want to over-spiritualize this but as I think the Bible and greetings, I cannot help but think of the Prodigal son. The story details the reaction of the Father to the son coming home:
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
How soon from the moment their eyes met do you think the son knew the Father forgave him? To what extent do you think he understood just from that verse above? Is it possible to preach the Gospel in a greeting? I think it is. My favorite professor at Moody, Dr. Wong Loi Sing, taught us that every gesture we make, from a smile to holding a door to kissing hello, can communicate grace. I think Luke 15 proves this is the most glorious way possible.
What do you think? How important are greetings to you? Let us know your thoughts below, even if you disagree.
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4 thoughts on “A Theology of Greeting People”
Excellent article and thoughts. Although I would have left the cleveland reference out of it… 😉
My bad! And thanks!
Great article. This is something I have done a lot of thinking about over the last few years. In my context among French and North Africans greetings are huge and though I largely embrace these greetings sometimes they can be tough for me. On thought I often have is that the French must think Americans aren’t very friendly or that we are at least a bit snobby at least when it comes to greetings. When I get to my church, I kiss most of the people in the congregation, one by one asking how they are and trying to connect, but when I see an American or even a Brit I typically give a head nod or at most a handshake. I am sure that my French and North African friends do not think I like my American friends very much because I don’t greet them in the same way they are used too. And though that is not 100% true, I agree there is much we can learn here.
Great thoughts. I know not everyone should be like the cultures that do extensive hugging and kissing and even with the changes I’ve made I still don’t kiss hello to other women because of my culture. And maybe for some people, especially introverts, a nod and a smile is a significant greeting (a few people I have known in my time here have told me they like the half bow as a greeting – no hug or kiss, just a humble gesture in their culture). But the article is just to say some of this is something to consider. Much of this to me is just a portion of the distracted generation we live in where we don’t see people as we could and greeting is like a huge beginning point to changing that. My ESL students want to be greeted warmly and I’m often running around, getting things ready or checking Facebook and I don’t “see” them when they come in. Little things like that are what I want to change. For others it may look very different.