7 Reasons Why We Shouldn’t Be Too Concerned if the “Handshake” is Gone

I suspect this post will unintentionally upset someone, but that’s not my goal. Having been a Christ-follower for 45+ years and a pastor/professor for almost 40 years, I’ve shaken a lot of hands. If, though, as some health experts have recommended after the COVID-19 crisis, the handshake disappears, I’m not sure we should worry much about that change. Here’s why:

  1. Many folks don’t shake hands anyway. Some stayed away from potential germs long before COVID. Others who are just shy shake hands only if someone else initiates it. Still others come to church with their hands so full that they almost can’t shake a hand anyway.
  2. Too many folks shake hands out of expectation and habit rather than genuine Christian fellowship. It’s just what we do—because that’s all we’ve ever known. Handshaking is just our cultural way of greeting, and I doubt it does much to strengthen Christian fellowship.
  3. Handshaking is often only superficial. We’re fine with shaking hands with people we already know, so we do what our practice expects us to do with them. Sometimes we also shake hands with people we don’t know, but we still don’t ask their names. We don’t really know them any better even after we’ve greeted them with a handshake.
  4. We can still greet people well, even from a social distance. That means we slow down long ago to actually talk with someone and honor him or her with our time even if only for a few short minutes. A wave, and smile, and an actual conversation can go a long way. We might not greet as many people as we would with only a handshake, but the greeting itself might “stick” longer.
  5. We probably have been unintentionally passing sickness through our congregations by our handshakes. Some folks come to church not feeling well, not thinking much about their spreading their sickness. Others simply don’t wash their hands very often. We likely have been inviting illness every time we shake another hand—especially one that has shaken many other hands that same day.
  6. Surveys have shown that many first-time guests don’t like the “stand and greet” time in a church service in the first place. Years before COVID-19, for example, Thom Rainer surveyed folks who were quite certain about their dislike for this “forced” practice. As a believer who’s also an introvert, it’s not my favorite time of the service, either.
  7. How we greet each other in church isn’t nearly as important as how we love each other the rest of the time. The friendliest handshake doesn’t mean that much if we never talk with each other from Sunday to Sunday. On the other hand, genuine Christ-centered, life-on-life friendships among brothers and sisters in Christ will be transforming even if we never shake hands again.

Just my thoughts. Let us know yours. 

 

10 Comments

  • Robin G. Jordan says:

    I am not sad to see the disappearance of the handshake. I have shaken hands with a number of people over the years and very few of the handshakes have conveyed to me that the person with whom I was shaking has was actually glad to see me. Handshakes have too often been perfunctory. In some instances the individual with whom I was shaking hands–typically male–appeared intent upon demonstrating that he was an alpha male or mistook the handshake for invitation to arm wrestle.It was clear that the individual in question used a handshake as a means of exerting dominance over the person with whom he was shaking hands. Some individuals–again typically male–pumped my arm as if they were trying to prime a dry well. Far too frequently what I was offered, however, was a limp hand, which was hastily withdrawn as soon as I shook it. Then there are those people who hang onto your hand too long. This can be very unnerving for women when the other person who is hanging onto their hand is a man. It also can be unnerving for men when the other person is a man. This kind of handshake goes beyond a greeting. It can be a not so subtle form of sexual harassment.

    A hand shake in which someone takes the other person’s hand in one hand and places the other hand over the other person’s hand and gently presses it has been a way of expressing reassurance or comfort. This and the reassuring or comforting hug I believe we will miss. Touch has been one of the ways that we have reassured or comforted others.

    In Asian countries (and in the West at one time) the practice is to bow when meeting someone for the first time. The depth of the bow depends upon the importance and social status of the person that one is meeting. It is a custom that we might consider adopting.

    For liturgical churches that customarily “pass the peace” during the service, typically with a handshake or a hug, I recommend this practice–placing one’s hands together in front of one’s chest, palm against palm and bowing to the other person while saying “The peace of the Lord be with you.”

  • Jon says:

    Years ago as a young pastor, there was a widow in the church who expressed to me that the hugs she got at church were the only hugs she ever received. Her children and grandchildren lives out of town.

    If we stop shaking hands, not just in church but altogether, it will be a loss for so many people. For many, it’ll mean they have little or no physical contact with another human being.

  • Joe Pastor says:

    NOOOOOO… I don’t think I’ve ever had disagreement with any article you’ve written – – until now. I couldn’t disagree more. Appropriate physical touch is very important. It’s a part of relationship. It’s an expression of love and bonding Many lonely people desperately need physical touch. Have you ever read any of the studies about the significance of physical touch for new babies? I do understand that not everyone is “touchy feely” and I do understand that some individuals overdo it, but foundationally, physical touch (including hand shaking) is needed and important. And Coronavirus or no coronavirus, my prediction is that after a brief hiatus, hand shaking and hugging will continue–because people really need to be touched.

  • Chuck Lawless says:

    I appreciate your honesty, Joe. You might well be right that the handshake won’t disappear. I would still argue that we can greet others while being sensitive to the issues at hand (no pun intended . . .). Thanks again.

  • Robin G Jordan says:

    Babies do need physical touch but you cannot extrapolate from that need as you are attempting to do. How much touch adults need is culturally determined. In some cultures there is a lot touching; in others, very little. In some cultures touching is only acceptable between members of the family and then only particular kinds of touching. Different people react differently to touching. To some people it is a serious invasion of their space. This is why they shrink from the woman who hugs everybody at church and feel violated when she hugs them. In some cases unwanted physical touch can cause tremendous anxiety and even precipitate a psychotic episode. Handshaking and hugging may continue but not because everybody needs to be touched but because some people will continue disregard other people’s need for space as well as public health guidelines that warn against transmitting infectious diseases through unnecessary physical contact.

  • Robin G Jordan says:

    Before I retired, I worked in the fields of mental health, substance abuse, and child welfare as a counselor and a caseworker. We were taught not to touch a patient or client without their permission and then to limit our touch to parts of the body where a touch would be considered non-threatening. In group counseling sessions if it appeared that a person might benefit from a comforting or reassuring hug, we first asked that person if they would like a hug. We were taught that people who had experienced emotional and psychological trauma or who had strong familial or cultural inhibitions about touching and being touched might not perceive or experience touch as we had. They might perceive it as a threat and react violently and become withdrawn.

  • repierceiii says:

    In the midst of Covid-19, I told my church that they would never hear me, as their pastor, directly and intentionally contradict the Word of God. However, due to this pandemic, we will be ceasing with the Holy Kiss greeting!

  • Robin G. Jordan says:

    The last sentence in my previous post should have read “they might perceive it as a threat and react violently OR become withdrawn.” Child safety experts also warn that the touching behavior of some individuals, those who are always hugging other people, particularly children, and otherwise touching them can be a red flag. It is a not uncommon way that sexual abuse perpetrators groom their victims. Unwanted touching in the guise of being friendly is also a form of sexual harassment when adults are involved–either of the opposite sex or the same sex.

  • benj says:

    Dr. Lawless! I am thrilled that you are engaging this topic on your blog as I have been pondering this subject and having these same conversations recently with friends and colleagues. I also appreciate your positive outlook on this issue. Whether or not the handshake disappears after the world (and church) regathers, human to human interactions have already been affected and the ripple effect will continue for a long while.

    To shake or not to shake? The movement the away from the handshake is in full throttle and has been for years now. The fist bump “trend” was in the prime of its life cycle even pre-pandemic. I use the word trend because it indeed started as something hip and cool. Sammy Sosa made it famous during his 1998 record breaking homerun tirade and since it has emerged as the normal way men engage other men.

    I don’t love it. I did love it when it was cool and different but now that it has settled on us I have moved back to the traditional high five and handshakes. High fives when playing sports and being silly, and handshakes when greeting others. Why? Well, partly because I am moving on to the next trend, but mostly because there is something to be said about physical touch and the open hand.

    There is a different level of intimacy between two persons when hands shake. This is not a sexual intimacy, but an open handshake indeed carries many more non-verbals than a simple fist bump, head nod or even a smile alone can convey. Handshakes imply vulnerability when extended. The person extending his hand doesn’t know how the other will respond, but they are reaching out because they want to greet the other person. Handshakes encourage the downcast. They convey trust in business as well as friendships. Handshakes can be catalysts to bridging and breaking down social barriers. Handshakes exude confidence and can also expose insecurities. Handshakes are also a great starting point to a bro hug that is comforting in the family of God. Yes, these ideas can be communicated verbally, but let’s not be too quick to dismiss another form of expression God has given us just yet.

    Four times in scripture (Romans 16:16, 1 Cor. 16:20, 2 Cor. 13:12, and 1 Thess. 5:26) Paul tells the church to greet one another with a “holy kiss.” Quite honestly, I am totally fine that we no longer do this, but this is an act of physical touch (note that this is NOT sexual in any way) which shows affection for the body of Christ. I would feel weird doing this today, but again I think we will lose something if we stop shaking hands.

    Sure, in many Asian cultures, people do not greet each other with open hands and yes, these cultures have existed for thousands of years. It should be noted that the biggest of those countries (one that I dearly love and where I spent many years of my adult life) doesn’t exactly lead the world in giving personal relationship seminars. They leave a lot to be desired in the way of interpersonal skills and relationships. Just because other cultures exist without hugs and handshakes is not a reason to embrace (no pun intended) the idea. In fact, I have had many non-believers in Asia comment on the love that their Christian friends show each other as they witness the local brothers greeting one another with open arms and hugs. They see a difference in their lives and how they treat one another and they are attracted to that type of Christian brotherly love.

    In times of pandemic? Absolutely, let’s be safe, let’s be smart and stay socially distant. When things have settled a bit let’s don’t throw out the handshake with the hand washing water! Be smart. Wash your hands. Shake hands. Don’t touch your face. Wash your hands again. Shake hands again.

    I love the blog!

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