The “Right Hand of Christian Fellowship”

In many fundamentalist churches somewhere between “Good Morning Everybody!” and “Please Stand out of Respect For the Word of God” lies a phenomenon known as  the “Right-Hand of Christian Fellowship.”

Although it’s more common in the Bible Belt, it has been observed as far north as the frozen chosen of New England and out in the Midwest as well. The Bible Belt version involves more spit, slobber, and little old lady hugs. The Northern version involves more nodding and friendly grunting. But whatever the execution, the basic formula is the same…

The song leader intones “While the piano plays that last verse one more time, let’s all shake hands with our neighbor and greet our guests!”

Pandemonium ensues as people begin turning around and greeting people around them with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Jonah The Eager Preacher Boy runs from his spot in the front pew up to the platform to be the first one to shake the pastor’s hand. The pastor sees it coming and braces for impact. Handshaking over, Jonah runs for the back to find the Youth Pastor and repeat.

Mr. Jackson The Hairy-Armed Mechanic who smells of equal parts motor oil and Old Spice tramps through the rows doling out painful squeezes and cheery hellos to all in his path. Knuckles can be heard cracking from afar.

Mrs.  Sterlingson The Widow stuffs her slightly used handkerchief in her sleeve,  sniffs with vigor and latches a moist hand on to any one who comes near. The wary and fleet of foot escape untouched. Others meet a less kind fate and glance about for the hand sanitizer.

The piano player finishes the verse and first time and knowingly keeps on playing without even looking at the music.  She breathes a silent prayer of thanks for the chance to keep her hands germ free.

Somewhere in the third row a couple of teenage boys with sweaty palms take this one opportunity per week to briefly touch the hand of a real live girl. It’s awkward, nerve wracking, and joy unspeakable.  The stuff of chaste daydreams and scribbled prayer journals.

“Lets all return to our seats and sing that chorus one more time” bawls the song leader over the din. The pianist hits the intro chords fortissimo and people get in their last words, smiles, and moments of avuncular fondling before jogging back to their places.

The Passing Of the…er…The Right-Hand of Christian Fellowship is complete for another week.

Please pass the wet wipes.

70 thoughts on “The “Right Hand of Christian Fellowship””

  1. My brother used to ask about the left handed people. Are they allowed to give the “Left Hand of Christian Fellowship?”

  2. OOooooo this had me rolling!!!! I remember when I was 16, this was the part of the service me and my crush always looked forward to. Extra loooong handshakes. LMAO!!!

  3. My former fundie church did this every Sunday, my PCUSA church at school did this sometimes, and my current Baptist church does this every Sunday, though none of them call it the Right Hand of Christian Fellowship. However, my current church does use that phrase to describe the long line that they form after the service to shake the hands of people who have just become members.

  4. I horribly offended some guy when I asked him to not crush my hand.

    Another time I pulled my hand up my sleeve, yelled “aaahh” and pretended my hand had been cut off so I didn’t have to shake hands with the preacher.

    There’s also the “refusal to move your bible out of your right hand” move. You simply hold out your left hand, grab a few fingers, and shake.

    I have very small hands and play the piano. Getting my fingers needlessy crushed by macho men who don’t care if they hurt me isn’t good for my career.

  5. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been a visitor at a “handshaking” church and found myself the only one without a hand to shake while all the church members around me were chatting it up with each other.

  6. Ahh, I love greeting time. The phrase “right-hand of fellowship” does need to go, but lets keep the handshaking =)

  7. Ah…this feels like dejavu…or maybe it’s a dejavu of a dejavu! Who knows!
    But I’ll admit, I actually looked forward to this time. I honestly enjoyed saying a friendly “Hey” to whomever I could.

  8. @Lizzy F: ha! yup- the measure of a fundy man is the tightness of his grip. we would always talk about the handshakes on the way home: about the good Christian men with a strong grip and the weak creeps with their limp-wristed shakes.

    turns out that there are creeps with firm handshakes too. who knew?

  9. You left out “the hugger.” The Hugger is typically a little old lady who wears buckets of whatever perfume she happened to get at the dollar store in a 5 gallon bucket. There is no escaping her.

    I always took a bottle of hand sanitizer to use after welcome time. You never know where those hands have been…

  10. @Lizzy

    I’ve found that a Kleenex or handkerchief conveniently held in the dominant hand, frequently brought to the nose, and combined with occasional sniffling sounds, works wonders!

  11. @beth is right; you must include the hugger.

    True Tales of the MK:

    My mother and I were shopping for suit jackets. I asked the salesmen how the suit I was looking at would handle makeup on the shoulders. Imagine the look on his face if you will, but this was a real concern, as I usually ended up with a lot of little old lady makeup on me, frequently from women who would announce they used to change my diapers in the nursery.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love little old ladies. For one thing, if I deadpanned, “Well, I’m dry now, but I’ll keep you in mind if I need a change,” the little old lady will laugh. The youth pastor’s wife not so much.

  12. The good MK’s develop a patter like car salesmen or telemarketers. You know the top 10 common questions and have canned responses, you have the same ritual greetings for people who knew you back when you were small, and you have extra charm you can turn on for 1)the pastor 2)the family in who’s house you’re staying 3)the people who run the missionary closet.

    Those are real life skills, btw. People wonder where I learned to be so patient with customers having computer problems. I learned that at the display table.

  13. We do this at our church. The awkward part for me as a pianist is when someone comes over to greet me and wants to chat because I don’t play by ear; I need to look at my music, and it’s REALLY hard to talk and play at the same time! And then a few completely clueless people have sometimes wanted to shake MY hand!

    Since we’re a small church, I can usually see visitors and I can see if they’re being left awkwardly alone while church members chit chat amongst themselves. I always want to leave the piano and go greet them myself!

    BTW, in the churches I’ve been part of, the “right hand of fellowship” was for people who’d joined the church and were being welcomed by the membership (at the back door at the end of the service as everyone filed out.)

  14. Yeah what Pastor’s wife said: It was distinct from the run of the mill Sunday Social Club meet and greet. You know put on the mask and show the others bunker dwellers how wonderful your life is. A mask and syrup does wonders for the “fellowship.”
    “Alright that’s enough fellowship, now sit down.”
    “yes, master… we hear and obey…”
    Is that what the Scripture means fellowship to be? Is that all there is to it?

    A true Right-Hand of fellowship is a type of innoculation for admittance into the Bunker. Soon afterward you will be unable to think for yourself and your journey to the Dark Side will be complete.

  15. The good MK’s develop a patter like car salesmen or telemarketers. You know the top 10 common questions and have canned responses, you have the same ritual greetings for people who knew you back when you were small, and you have extra charm you can turn on for 1)the pastor 2)the family in who’s house you’re staying 3)the people who run the missionary closet.

    They always creeped me out. (No offense meant Darrell!!) They were so robotically perfect that they didn’t seem human.

  16. As a widow, I find your use of a stereotype disheartening. Now, I’m guessing you didn’t actually intend to minimize the grief and pain experienced by those who’ve lost their significant other to death, but I urge you to reexamine the associations you have with the word “widow.” The Bible makes clear that widows are to be cared for, not labeled and minimized. And in my experience, widows (many that I know–not just me) are incredibly strong: We have survived and are still surviving the loss of the one we loved most in the world; we’re soldiering on while carrying a load of grief bigger and more painful than those who’ve not experienced it can begin to imagine.

  17. My first fundy church called this Howdy Time. Every week, “It’s Howdy Time.” It never failed to get a laugh from the fundy followers. Every single week.

  18. @Connie Satire necessitates a certain amount of stereotyping. I’m truly sorry for your loss and certainly don’t mean to denigrate either widows or widowers just as I don’t mean to denigrate all mechanics or pianists. But of necessity the brush here paints in large strokes.

  19. @Several Ah, yes I do recall hearing the “right hand of fellowship” being used as a “greet the new members” thing. There could be entire books written on the origins of uses of these phrases.

  20. At our church, we postponed the hand-shaking time for a few weeks while everyone was becoming infected with swine flu. Once the pandemic was over, we carried on as usual.
    And our piano players stops playing so people can hear each other talk, and sits quietly at the piano, hoping no one notices his/her free hands.

  21. I was always happy that I was the pianist. 🙂 I could play some songs from memory, and would always have at least two people come up to try to shake my hand; when I wouldn’t offer it, they would usually give me a backslap so hard I’d have the wind knocked out…

  22. We Anglicans “pass the peace.” Our handshakes are accompanied by “The peace of the Lord.” Of course, we also have a communal chalice we all drink from, too.

  23. I used to hate this growing up. . .mostly because without fail the person coughing and blowing their nose a few pews over would be sure to shake my hand.

  24. Does anyone remember singing “There’s welcome here! There’s a welcome here! There’s
    a Christian welcome here! Hallelujah!” while you were shaking hands? Or “Heavenly Sunshine”? I always found it interesting that this mob scene was so entrenched in fundy liturgy that neglecting it would get the pastor in big trouble.

  25. @Ron I’ve heard both of those as well as this song:

    Smile awhile and give your face a rest;
    Raise your hand to the one that you love best.
    Then shake hands with those near by And give to them a smile.

  26. I always hated the hand-shaking part of the service. If my church decides to start doing one regularly (they have a couple times) I will suddenly start “running late” every single Sunday.

    @Susan: I find passing the peace just as awkward. While I am strongly attracted to Anglicanism that one is a major turn-off for me.

  27. It’s time to do a “Fundy Liturgy” redux. Include the Welcome Song, The Birthday Song (with birthday bank-a penny for every years and the “dollar club”), The Anniversary Song, and the variations of “Ways to Embarrass Visitors” practices.

  28. At the fundie churches I used to attend, the pastor would always announce while the choir members were returning to their seats, “Please stand while we have a time of fellowship.” Everyone says ” ‘preciate ya” and “glad to have you with us.”

    I’m so glad the church I’m attending now doesn’t do that!

  29. @Lizzy, I did not figure out that I had a powerful handshake until I out-squeezed a ripped professional plumber. After that I backed off considerably. I pretty much just touch palms now. I was ignorant not mean. The fitness center tested me last year and I scored 95% of all males for hand grip. I wish I could ask forgiveness from all I shook hands with but I can’t.

    BTW, as soon as hand cleanser came out in purse size containers, my wife made the whole family sanitize after the “shake hands” event.

  30. I heard the perfect term for this part of the service from Mike Monte (twin to Marc of the recent Prohibition post). Their mother referred to any time folks were shaking hands and conversing at church as “bullshipping.”

  31. You know what it’s really all about, right? It’s the seventh inning stretch because you know the game is going to go overtime.

  32. “howdy time” may not be in the Bible, but the right hand of christian fellowship is scriptural (Gal 2:9)

  33. @Darrell count me in on that one, and I’d even be glad to do the “pass the peace” thing too, even w/ disease riddled families in our church.

  34. Oh wow, more more memories! Well, I can say this practice stretched out to the west coast too, in Southern California. The two churches I attended growing up both did this. It didn’t have a name, but boy, it sure sounds the same! The hand-crusher was always there, as were the little old ladies with the buckets of perfume. It was also an excuse for any kids in the service to run around a little.

  35. @JimE,

    It wasn’t my intention to say that ALL men who did this are creeps.

    I’m a short woman with extremely small, weak hands. (Sometimes I even have trouble opening soda bottles.) The obvious physical differences and my requests should have made them stop. They did NOT. I’ve gone to other churches, and the men there have done the same things.

    One man took my request quite personally, like I’d insulted his manhood. Reader Mo is right, if a man’s handshake is limp-wristed then he’s considered a whimp.

  36. Actually, a kiss on the cheek spreads a lot fewer diseases than a handshake.

  37. Say at my catholic church we pass the greeting every mass with “peace be with you”. THe Bishop did put a stop to it during the swine flu problem but it is on again and I like it. As the Anglcan lady said earlier we also drink from the same cup during communion. No one seems to ever get sick.

  38. After the handshaking, for a brief second, I consider not pulling out the hand sanitizer: will those around me whose hands I just shook be offended? But I always do.

  39. A holy kiss, hmmmm, I forget is that with tongue or without? 🙂
    Oh yeah, male/male or female/female without right??

  40. @Don I’m assuming it’s no tongue, when I eagerly signed up. May have to re-think it if we are going that route. 🙂

  41. No tongue involved in the holy kiss. Trust me- I grew up Mennonite- I know. You basically just lean in and touch cheeks and barely peck. But yes, male/male and female/female.
    I used to get quite a kick out of how, after my husband grew a beard (against the rules, of course), the bishop would no longer return the kiss.

  42. What?? there’s no male/female holy smooching goings on? Well that don’t seem at all friendly to me. 🙂

    Course now it’s all ok if’n the preecher saves all his holy kissin for deacon’s daughters just like dear ol’ Dr. Bob. Dr. Bob should have preached this message: op=2&view=global&subj=35429320847&pid=31039361&id=1536561043&oid=35429320847
    …and that’s why we don’t have smoochie fests in church….

    ‘Whatever it is I’m agin’ it!”

  43. I used to have an older gentleman in our church who used to give me (not everyone else) a “holy kiss” on the cheek…he was very sincere in doing this…I was uncomfortable with at first, because that type of thing is not part of our western culture. However a hand shake is.

  44. I truly, truly loathed this part of the service. I know — I’m a hermit by nature. I hated the fake-ity-fake-fake part. We had to make polite conversation with people we had just been talking with at length before the service. In the South, you as a lady can get away with not shaking hands because most people do know that the lady is supposed to offer her hand first. And if you don’t wanna, you don’t wanna! But That doesn’t always work. And when it does, you still have to be extra friendly nonverbally with your face and all.

    After it’s all over I need a nap.

  45. @Camille: Have you read Introverts in the Church? Based on your comment I think you’d enjoy it. I, too, have always hated the “meet and greet” part of the service. Small talk in general wears me out and I have to take a 20-30 minute nap every Sunday after church before I can muster the energy to eat lunch.

  46. This is the first time that I have heard of Introverts in the Church, but it sounds like something that I would very much like to read. I always hated these “fellowship times” in church. I always stood still and held my ground. If anyone wanted to shake my hand and/or hug my neck they had to come to me. If they chose not to greet me that generally made (makes) me happy. I believe in being at peace with people, I just don’t necessarily want to express that peace so publicly. It angers me when some folks in the church try to make me and other timid types feel that we are somehow “less christian” because we don’t enjoy these fellowship times.

  47. In my grandparents church during the handshaking time they sang:

    “Heaven is better than this;
    Praise God, what joy and bliss!
    Walking down the streets of purest gold,
    Way up yonder where we’ll never grow old!
    Heaven is better than this,
    Praise God, what joy and bliss!
    I love Baptist Temple down here,
    But heaven is better than this!”

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