Distractions in worship are a problem—the little kid who won’t sit still, the little kid who continues to bounce around after the initial fidgeting, the little kid’s parents who won’t attend to the bouncing toddler fast enough, the teenager two aisles ahead who looks back to see when if the parents are attending to the little kid. Incidents like these are what lead congregations to create nurseries or designate seating for families with young children. Of course, these “solutions” don’t remove distractions. Loud children are still a distraction even if they sit at the back of the meeting space or don’t wind up in the nursery. And that leads to the post-worship distraction of wondering about whether to talk to the parents and calculating the good that may come for peaceful services over against the antagonism that such an intervention may produce.
And then come the distractions beyond the control of parents or the progress of covenant children’s self-control. During a recent service, elders went forward to sit in the front pew nearest the communion table to receive and distribute the elements of the Lord’s Supper. One of the elders noticed a bee flying around the front of the room. When it landed on the table, the elder thought the pastor would also notice the insect and take proper action. But the minister did not since he was in the middle of instructions about the sacrament. The elder tried to concentrate on the words of institution but could not because the bee had crawled from the table into the napkins that enfolded the loaf of bread about to be broken by the pastor before being distributed to the congregation. The pastor went ahead, seemingly oblivious to the danger.
The elder did not know what to do. He considered intervening, which would have meant standing up, walking to the table, picking up the tray, and provoking the bee to fly somewhere else. But this would turn the elder’s distraction into a complete disruption of the sacrament. On the other hand, the elder also considered what kind of distraction would ensue if the pastor went ahead, opened the napkin, alarmed the bee, which then inflicted its stinger on an exposed part of the pastor’s body. And if the pastor were allergic to bee stings and started to swell up, the disruption would have been disproportionately much greater than if the elder had intervened.
As it turned out, the service went ahead, the pastor removed the napkin, the bee flew away, the pastor broke the bread, and the elders took the pieces to the congregation. Whether the elder had actually examined himself properly or heeded the pastor’s exhortation is not hard to say since he had not. But he had avoided acting in a way that would have distracted everyone else.
The greatest commandment—to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind—is a challenge any day of the week. But it takes on dimensions not sufficiently appreciated when Christians gather together to embody such love in corporate worship. I may be prepared to give my whole being (as much as possible, anyway) to the worship of God on a given Sunday morning, but the presence of other people can ruin that effort to give up my entire self. What other people wear, how they smell, what noises they make can throw any worshiper off. If I worshiped God all by myself—in the proverbial prayer closet—I could conceivably approach God without any distraction, though everyone would likely admit to having thoughts during prayer or Bible reading that make us less than single-minded.
The challenge of distractions is arguably greater for pastors. A fairly easy example is the challenge a minister faces when he sees one of his adolescent children—no longer seated with and policed by his mother—whispering and laughing too frequently during the service. Should he call out his child by name—even during a sermon or administration of a sacrament—or should he wait to discipline the child at home? Either way—the child making noise or the pastor calling attention to the child—the pastor distracts the congregation.
But the duty of not diverting attention away from worship falls to ministers and officers in more subtle ways than the obvious ones that come with fractious children. Leading in worship requires a pastor to function as a kind of moderator. Whether he announces every element or calls on the congregation to rise or sit, the pastor has a duty to monitor the time (when to begin, how long the service is going), observe the actions of the people and ensure they occur in good order (such as allowing people taking the offering to complete their rounds before the congregation rises to sing a hymn), and to follow the order of service printed in the bulletin (admittedly some Presbyterian communions frown on bulletins but Orthodox Presbyterians generally do not). If a minister forgets a part of the service that has been listed in the bulletin—and this can happen any time a guest minister leads worship—congregants will likely take notice and wonder, for instance, whether the pastor will simply skip the Lord’s Prayer entirely (because he forgot to say it at the designated time) or make up for his mistake and insert it at another point in the service.
A similar calculation extends to how much a minister inserts his own personality into the way he conducts a service. Of course, voice modulation, pronunciation, volume, cadence – in other words, the simple manner in which a pastor speaks is part of his personality and will be part of the way he leads a service, not to mention facial expressions and body language. But pastors can insert more of themselves than they realize in distracting ways. A joke in a sermon, an illustration, even the way he makes announcements can take members of the congregation’s thoughts away from the elements of worship to wonder about the propriety of the example or to consider the illustration more than the sermon’s biblical text. Some have argued that the minister needs to “get out of the way” when he preaches so that the people will give their due attention to God’s word. This is no less true for the rest of the service where the pastor leads in such a way that worshipers do not notice him as they offer up praise and prayer to God.
The danger in our time of a subdued minister who goes out of his way not to draw attention to himself is that he will not be attractive to would-be members who evaluate a pastor by his likeableness. Pastoral restraint, of course, need not govern interactions after a service or other forums. But pastoral moderation for the sake of congregational participation is not a recipe for displaying a minister’s charisma. And if people are going to look for a church on the basis of a pastor’s personal charms, looks, or demeanor, a “get-out-of-the-way” approach to leading in worship could harm the appeal of a local congregation.
In the end, whether something in a service appeals to people or distracts from worship is impossible to control. God’s people come in all shapes, sizes, and personalities, and that means that what some believers find disruptive, others will not even notice, or what some find attractive will put others off. The lesson, then, may have less to do with each Christian’s temperamental idiosyncrasies and more with the corporate nature of the Christian life. If Christianity is less about me, my needs, my criteria for a good pastor, my pet peeves with unruly children, and more about what I share in common with all believers—from a common confession to sitting under the oversight of the same elders—then perhaps we as a body will have fewer distractions in worship and in the life of a congregation. If that is so, then maybe the Greatest Commandment needs to be understood not simply as a directive for me to be all consumed, but for Christians corporately to worship with all of their collective heart, soul, strength, and mind. In which case, I end up giving up of myself for the good of the body just as little Johnny does as he tries to sit still and stay quiet for seventy minutes.
Ordained Servant Online, January 2014.