The Death of Churches’ “Hand Shaking Time”

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Photo:Redmond Creek Baptist Church, Galax, Virginia. Contributors: Owen, Blanton, 1949-1998 (Research team member) Eiler, Terry (Photographer). Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project collection, 1977-1981 (AFC 1982/009). American Folklife Center. Owen, Blanton, and Terry Eiler. Laurel Glenn Church service, Alleghany County, North Carolina; New Covenant Association meeting, Redmond Creek Baptist Church, Galax, Virginia. Alleghany County Galax North Carolina Sparta United States Virginia, 1978. Sparta, Alleghany County, North Carolina; Galax, Virginia. Photograph.
Photo:Redmond Creek Baptist Church, Galax, Virginia. Contributors: Owen, Blanton, 1949-1998 (Research team member)
Eiler, Terry (Photographer). Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project collection, 1977-1981 (AFC 1982/009). American Folklife Center. 1978.

I grew up in Appalachia and consequently, my only experience with religion was that found in the churches of the mountains of “down home.”

Whether Baptist, Pentecostal, Methodist or even Lutheran, one thing that I grew up seeing across all denominational lines was a two to five minute break in the early part of the services known as “hand-shake’n time”.

Typically, a mountain church will open with a prayer, a couple of hymns and then the pastor will admonish everyone to “stand up and turn to your neighbor and shake their hand” — the next five minutes will then be spent with those in the church shaking one another’s hands and sharing brief pleasantries before moving on to the next pew.  Generally, a sweet aging lady is in the corner of the auditorium happily playing some fast tune on the piano — heard by everyone but noticed by none.

In some churches, one’s outstretched hand is met by an overwhelming hug from a complete stranger, while in other churches this time is not nearly as personal and is a mere formality that has been practiced longer than anyone in the church can remember.

While the more sophisticated churches refer to this time as “passing the peace of Christ,” it is practiced around the world — especially in Appalachia.

The concept of “hand shake’n time” dates back to the early New Testament Church when the Apostle Paul ordered five separate times to “Greet ye one another with an holy kiss.”

The Roman Catholic Church first instituted the “kiss of peace” as a greeting of a peace from one wishing to extend good wishes and blessings to the recipient and the practice continued in many Protestant churches for centuries to come.

To guard against any abuse of this form of salutation, women and men were required to sit separately (a practice that, in itself, continued in many Appalachian churches well into the 1970s in some areas) and the kiss of peace was given only by women to women and by men to men.

As greeting one another with a kiss fell out of cultural norms it was routinely replaced with a handshake — symbolizing the same thing: A wish of peace and blessings to the recipient.  Thus the practice of “hand shake’n time” I, and so many others, came to know growing up was born and continued for many decades.

Thom Rainer, CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources who has studied many aspects of church statistics and trends, conducted a poll to ask first-time guests why they chose not to return to a particular church. Some of the responses he expected, but one in particular was surprising to him as well as many other pastors:

The number one reason people who were questioned stated that they did not return to a particular church was “Having a stand up and greet one another time in the worship service.”

Rainer said this response surprised him for two reasons. First, he was surprised at how uncomfortable visitors to a church really are during this time. And second, he was surprised because it was the most frequent response.

Interestingly, the second most-listed response was “unfriendly church members”.

It is because of this reason that many churches, seeking to be more visitor-friendly dropped this portion of the service; however, in many more traditional and conservative areas this tradition has endured.

While returning to visit a fundamental and conservative church in Appalachia last year, I was surprised when the preacher announced, “We’re going to suspend hand-shake’n time during flu season just so we don’t spread germs.”

The speaker’s remarks elicited a gasp from some of the members in the audience as the suspension of a century-plus old tradition had just occurred.

The church’s members seemed to have mixed emotions regarding the change, but as I returned a few other times during flu season what was for so long a part of the every service worship seemed to have been quickly forgotten.

Fast-forward to March 2020 and this church is closed; at least for the next thirty-days thanks to the virus that has brought American life to a standstill and will undoubtedly permanently change our day to day life in a thousand minor ways — I know I’ll never see a roll of toilet paper or a bottle of hand sanitizer the same!

As good of a job as the CDC and healthcare professionals have done in recent days making all of us so germ conscious, I just can’t imagine this once celebrated tradition in most every mountain church I’ve ever visited surviving after this fundamental shift in our psychology… but then again, after being away for more than a month, when churches gather again, they may be inclined to greet one another with a kiss!

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