I’ve rarely encountered such a culture shock as when I tried to explain the logic of an ‘A-frame hug’ to a French cell group we were visiting on a mission trip. Having greeted us with the classic French double cheek bisoux, they asked how we greet one another in England.
My answer was along the lines of “well, we try to be quite chummy and modern so we’d probably go for the hug; but if you don’t know a person, that much bodily contact is actually quite awkward so you might opt for the token hug gesture with the arms at the top while maintaining distance with the rest of the body, so it’s a sort of an A shape”.
A crowd of moustashioed faces stared blankly back at me.
and still no morsel of understanding entered their expressions.
They just didn’t get it.
…and to this day I’m not able to offer any satisfactory justification for why we feel the need to hug strangers in a bid to be very, very welcoming.
I suspect that it has something to do with trying to distance ourselves from the cold handshake and stiff-upper-lip stereotype which has carried over from 1950s church-going. Our new and trendier church culture seeks to throw off those ‘fusty traditions of Englishness’ which have been bound up with church practice.
Unfortunately, this has left us with a bit of a social culture vacuum which we often fill by importing its American parallel. Along with excessive hugging we’ve embraced singing worship songs with a Texan twang, and doing pastoral care in Starbucks. It’s certainly a far cry from 20th century Sunday-best Christianity but it’s also a far cry from usual British social behaviour; it’s not very ‘us’.
It’s not that I have anything against larger-than-life American Christian culture. If you’re American then it’s probably just the ticket, or even if you’re a Brit and that kind of thing just happens to be your cup of tea (or rather pumpkin latte) then, great. Go for it!
It just goes a bit wrong when you try to import it wholesale; starting our women’s ministry emails with ‘Hey there, girlfriend!’ and rattling off ‘how was your week, friend?’ with the sincerity of ‘Do you want fries with that?’.
We’ve learnt a lot from our friendly American counter-parts about how to be welcoming, but we seem to have also picked up how to be American.
Come along Britain.
Let’s sing Shine, Jesus Shine and nod excessively during ‘The Peace’ before a bring-and-share lunch in the carpet-tiled church hall. And for Pete’s sake, let’s not try to hug strangers.