Passing the Peace

Help Your Congregation Embrace a Communal Way of Life

Post-game handshakes are a time-honored tradition. Little League baseball players, traveling soccer teams, and NCAA athletes never miss this ritual of sportsmanship. During the game they “fight,” engage in “battle,” “conquer,” or suffer “defeat.” But at the end of the day athletes are not at war. By a simple hand gesture, athletes declare that they are at peace.

Communal practices like post-game handshakes are simple but profound in meaning and significance. They are actions that speak louder than words, actions that reinforce our values (such as sportsmanship). Although we usually devote little thought to these actions, we are shocked when they are abandoned or perverted (as in the case of a school district that banned the practice because it had degenerated into spitting, cursing, and fistfights).

Christian worship is filled with profound actions: heads bowed in prayer, arms raised in praise, standing in reverence during a Scripture reading, coming forward to give an offering. One ancient and significant gesture in worship is the passing of the peace. Passing the peace is a tradition rooted in Scripture that embodies our identity as peacemakers (Matt. 5:9; 2 Cor. 5:20) and trains ours hearts, hands, and tongues in the ways of peace.

From the beginning Christians have exercised this practice. “Peace be with you” is a greeting Jesus himself used with his disciples (Luke 24:36; John 20:19, 26). The apostle Paul opened each of his letters with the words “Grace and peace be with you” (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2).

Today in many congregations we may pass the peace during a mutual greeting, after words of assurance, prior to celebrating the Lord’s Supper, or at the conclusion of a worship service. At these times we leave the comfort of our seat, turn to our neighbors, grasp their hands, and speak the words, “The peace of the Lord be with you” and receive the words in turn, “And also with you.”

The gesture is simple, but the meaning is profound. When we extend our hand to another, we identify with Jesus, who extended his life to the point of death to make peace with humanity (Col. 1:20-21). What’s more, in the midst of divisions we symbolize our unity through handshakes and hugs (Eph. 2:14-21). Likewise, when we regularly pass the peace we practice God’s call to make every effort to maintain the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3).

Admittedly, passing the peace lasts only a moment, and it’s possible to participate without intention. Some may question the sincerity of our words and doubt the value of such a humble gesture. This concern prompts us to be attentive and creative in our practice. For example, one pastor I know always introduces the gesture by including a Scripture passage that calls us to peace. Similarly, a leader might invite the congregation to give an especially firm handshake or to be sure to look others in the eye.

It’s important at the same time to recognize the cumulative impact of weekly passing of the peace. By regularly practicing this gesture, our hearts are shaped in the form of the words. Consider the daily practice of training toddlers to say “please” and “thank you.” Though at the beginning the toddler mechanically repeats the words, eventually her heart fills the words with grace and gratitude; indeed, her heart is shaped in the form of “please” and “thank you.” In the same way, passing the peace gives us the vocabulary for expressing peace as we mature in faith and, in fact, shapes our hearts and minds in the form of peace.

Still, passing the peace feels strange to many Reformed and evangelical Christians. The phrase rolls clumsily from our tongues. It seems to wear better on Catholics, Episcopalians, or “liturgical types.” It’s not surprising then, that many churches have abandoned the practice, opting instead for a more colloquial, “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine, thanks.”

But might we lose something by switching to this pedestrian greeting? Fred Edie, a youth ministry specialist, thinks so. “One exchange,” he writes, “intends and practices a communal way of life framed by Christ’s peace. . . .
The other intends and practices a life framed by bounded individuals wishing to retain these boundaries while being nice to each other” (Fred P. Edie, Book, Bath, Table, and Time: Christian Worship as Source and Resource for Youth Ministry,The Pilgrim Press, 2007, p. 24). In other words, passing the peace challenges us to be more than polite. We might say that it dares us to move beyond ourselves—our interests, our concerns—and create Christ-like community with others. It is the practicing of “a communal way of life framed by Christ’s peace” that makes this gesture so significant.

It’s understandable, though, that passing the peace still might make some of us nervous. Protestants are often skeptical of worship practices that place words in our mouths or enjoin us to obligatory gestures. (Of course, raising arms in praise, standing for a Scripture reading, or walking forward for an offering might make them equally uncomfortable.)

But I find it curious that similar practices in culture make us less nervous. Since September 11, I’ve noticed a resurgence at sporting events of the corporate singing of the American national anthem while simultaneously placing a hand over one’s heart (a gesture of deep and formative patriotic significance). Moreover, consider again the practice of after-game handshakes. From Little Leagues to the majors, athletes engage in this ritual of sportsmanship. We never question this gesture when it’s introduced to our children, and most of us are uneasy when it’s neglected or perverted.

All things considered, perhaps, our anxiety over passing the peace is simply embarrassment. It’s kind of weird. We fumble the words. It moves us outside our comfort zone. In that case, what may be needed most when passing the peace is generous hospitality. When introducing the practice, we ought to acknowledge that it might feel strange. We ought to give people permission to feel awkward and allow them time to ease their way into it. We might also consider using disarming humor: “Today as we greet one another we are all free from having to make small talk!”

But we might also make it a normal practice whenever we gather—not just during worship. Pass the peace at the conclusion of a council meeting. Begin fellowship meals and potlucks by passing the peace. Encourage the youth to pass the peace at their group meetings. In these various settings encourage innovation and variation. Perhaps youth groups will greet one another fist to fist or elbow to elbow. Let children run over to their Sunday school teacher or find Grandma or Grandpa. And let all express the words in a way that is most natural, everything from “The peace of the Lord be with you” to “God’s peace” or simply, “Peace.” Mostly, take time and let the community make the gesture its own.

As we practice passing the peace, it’s hard to imagine that a simple handshake could ever degrade into a fist fight. How could the same hand that embraces the frail hand of the elderly, the shaking hand of the sick, the tentative hand of the introvert, the rough hand of a laborer, or the soft hand of a little child be considered a weapon? How could the hand that is regularly trained in worship to extend peace become a cause of division? This is the possibility that a simple gesture on Sunday gives us.

The peace of the Lord be with you.


Prayer of Peace

Peace before us,
Peace behind us,
Peace under our feet.

Peace within us,
Peace over us,
Let all around us be peace.

Christ before us,
Christ behind us,
Christ under our feet.

Christ within us,
Christ over us,
Let all around us be Christ.

—based on a Navaho prayer, David Haas
© 1987 GIA Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. Contact for permission to reprint.

Rev. Paul Ryan has mentored emerging worship leaders for twenty years at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he is the worship pastor overseeing daily chapels. He also is a resource development specialist with the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Paul is married to Sheila, is father to two high school boys, and is coach to dozens of middle school track and cross-country kids.

Reformed Worship 99 © March 2011, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.