Occasionally, worship services proceed like they’re supposed to. The order of service is followed to the letter. The music is engaging and mistake-free. The sermon is interesting. The congregation is dutifully attentive for the duration. Ministers, especially, are pleased when services come off without a hitch.
It rarely works out that way.
Any minister will tell you that making worship services worshipful is an on-going struggle. People being people, you just cannot predict, nor control, what goes on in the congregation. I’m often a nervous wreck trying to keep my train of thought in the middle of the distractions, disturbances, noises and interruptions that make up a local congregation engaged in worship. I wonder sometimes how we find God at all.
In my first church out of seminary, one Sunday evening, I was preaching my heart out, figuring at any minute the fire of heaven was going to fall. Right in the middle of my sermon, an older guy down front sneezed. Now, this wasn’t a polite “A-choo” by a delicate lady. No, it was a loud, guttural, vocalized explosion that sounded more like a small hand grenade going off than a sneeze. It was so violent that I didn’t know exactly what had happened. I just heard this great noise over the sound of my own voice. My first thought was, “Oh no! Someone has started to speak in tongues. What am I supposed to do now?” Proper etiquette for charismatic practices is not taught in Baptist seminaries, so I was at a complete loss.I stopped dead in my tracks, and just stared at the people. They stared politely back, wondering, I’m sure, what on earth was going through my mind. After a minute, I collected myself and went on with the sermon. They never asked me about the incident, and I never volunteered my confusion.
Another time, I was leading a service of worship when an older man sitting in the middle of the congregation suddenly developed a problem with his hearing aid battery. It started emitting a high-pitched, keening sound that quickly deepened in tone and grew progressively louder. Just like an incoming mortar round.
I tried to continue preaching, but the noise got worse and worse. Finally, I had to stop. “What’s that sound?” I asked as kindly as possible. Everybody began looking around suspiciously, as though their friends might secretly be hiding ordnance.A man sitting near the offending hearing aid leaned over and whispered something to the older gentleman, who promptly blushed, reached up and turned off his hearing aid. Order restored, I finished the sermon.
We had a guy in my church in Charleston, S.C., who would clip his nails if the sermon got boring. Judging from the number of times he clipped them while I was preaching... well, you get the picture. I would lose my place in the sermon notes and start repeating myself, like preachers do. Then the dreaded sound would begin: “click, click, click.” Brother Ron, a deacon by the way, would pull out his fingernail clippers and go to work. His sweet wife would sit right there next to him, oblivious to it all. The congregation didn’t seem to mind too much. He had been doing it for years. The people probably considered the practice useful. If they heard the clippers, they knew the preacher wasn’t saying anything worth listening to, so they could go back to sleep.
And babies! Crying babies, God bless ’em, are a preacher’s particular challenge. In the middle of the most carefully developed sermon, just when a point is about to be driven home, a loud wail breaks out, the congregation’s attention is diverted at a critical moment and all spiritual momentum seems to be lost. I’ve had as many as three at a time going, with ushers scurrying back and forth like mice between the mothers, trying their best to get the babies out of the sanctuary and into the nursery without further damage.
Annie Dillard, in her wonderful little book, “Holy the Firm,” points out that we as a church have been doing worship for almost 2000 years. You’d think we would be better at it by now, she says.
I know how she feels. The best-laid plans of ministers somehow go astray when they collide with the people in the pews. It can be mightily frustrating.
Or not. As I’ve grown a little older, a little more patient, and maybe a little wiser, I’ve actually begun to cherish these experiences of worship and not get so bent out of shape by them. Churches are composed of people, and worship with those people includes all their idiosyncrasies and habits.If a young couple gets to hear the gospel message for the first time, I’m willing to try to preach over their baby’s crying. If an older saint is comforted in some small way by what I’ve got to say in a sermon, I can tolerate an occasional hearing aid malfunction.The so-called interruptions that characterize the worship services of all churches are reminders that church is in fact a real place full of real people with real needs. Are they distracting? Sure, sometimes they are. But a larger truth goes to the heart of what the church is trying to do, and the stuff we have to work with on a daily basis.
Meaningful services of worship, in the end, bring together the grace of God and the reality of human lives in ways we don’t always understand, and in ways that aren’t always comfortable. Worship takes place in the middle of people’s lives, not separate from them. Our churches must learn to live with that.