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‘Secret handshakes’ can be un-Christian

With apologies to William Shakespeare, “To clap, or not to clap: Why is that the question?”

After a church choir sings, or someone offers special music, or first-time visitors are identified, should we clap or should we not clap?

In the broader scheme of life, this is not a very important question. But it can certainly spawn some intense discussion and awkward moments in a congregation.

It can be the rope in a foolish political tug-of-war between factions in a church. It can also promote a legitimate discussion.

Can silence show respect as much as clapping? Does clapping suggest more of a “performance” than church members are comfortable with? And on and on.

In the clap-or-not-clap moment, however, the awkwardness also points to another factor. It’s what I call the “secret handshake of ‘holiness.’ ”

Every church has its own set of secret handshakes – those unspoken rules of “how we do things here.” What makes the clapping dilemma an awkward moment is that not everyone knows what the secret handshake (hidden rule) is.

It is one thing to know what the handshakes in church are. You can agree or disagree with them. But to not know what the handshakes really are just sets you up for confusion and eventually resentment (if you don’t bail out before it sets in).

Every organization, every informal relationship has its rules of behavior. But if the rules stay hidden, those who don’t know the secret handshakes quickly know they aren’t welcome in that setting.

I may tolerate that more easily in a general social setting. But I am increasingly less tolerant about these secret handshakes within a church family where we should model God’s Radical Hospitality more fully. How genuinely hospitable can we be if we are not upfront with the expectations we have of each other?

Our secret handshakes go far beyond clapping in worship. They can include sitting in the “my” pew, wearing the “right” clothes, or even how to address your pastor. What’s on your secret handshake list?

Some handshakes are created by individuals. Others seem to be group-driven. Regardless, the result of secret handshakes is that an unfortunate game of one-upmanship is played.

Most players don’t even realize they are playing. They are less mean-spirited than unthinking. They learned the handshakes by trial and error, and assume others will do the same. But that doesn’t model what Christian hospitality is truly meant to be.

I call this practice “secret handshake ‘holiness’ ” for two reasons. One is sarcastic. I get weary of religious self-righteousness where our attitudes and behaviors strongly suggest “we have the answers, sorry that you don’t.”

My other reason is ironic. “Holy” is a word that means much more than my sarcastic tone suggests. Holy also means “different.”

It describes attitudes and behaviors that intend to be positively different from those around them. To be holy in the best sense is to live in such a way as to make a positive difference.

One result of keeping secret handshakes of holiness secret is that we learn either we act like everyone else or we are not very welcome. That is a sad, faithless contradiction of God’s Radical Hospitality – the ultimate “holiness,” the ultimate difference.

To model that deepest form of hospitality, let’s speak openly about the secret handshakes of holiness that exist in our own faith communities.

Some can be quite harmless. Others have nasty consequences. Either way, with fewer secret handshakes of holiness, we have a better chance of welcoming Jesus into our churches.

Do you think he claps or not?

The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, is founder of Elder Advocates, an elder care consulting ministry. He can be contacted via e-mail at


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