There are a few things I make a point not to mind during church services.
I don’t mind when babies start crying or little toddlers start singing: Jesus embraces the little ones in His presence, I’m not going to hinder them, and I know how difficult it can be for parents. I don’t intend to make it any harder.
I don’t mind people coughing. I mean, I hope that they’re covering their mouths and making every preventative effort not to infect the congregation, but sometimes you just have to cough! Can’t be helped.
I make a point not to mind these things because I have seen fellow believers cut the coughers and criers a sharp side-eye during the service, and I see the guilt and embarrassment that follows. I don’t want to be a part of that. I want to be compassionate. And I want to be welcoming. So I try to take interruptions or distractions during the service in stride.
With that said, I’ve become more and more frustrated lately with the amount of congregants talking or whispering right through worship or through the sermon or even through the quiet reflective moments that are meant for silent prayer or even that precede communion. I don’t mean the sorts of whispers between parents as they try to figure out who should escort little Junior to the bathroom; I mean whole whispered conversations about life in general.
I suspect some of this stems from a casual attitude that pervades many Protestant churches now: the same attitude that welcomes Starbucks cups and pajamas into the sanctuary, and encourages congregants to chat while prelude music plays. That’s all well and good, and I don’t have a problem with that general attitude. But when I can see an elderly woman three pews ahead of me struggle to hear the sermon over the whispered giggles and conversation of the girls sitting next to her, it hits me that this can be a distraction.
I don’t hold this sort of thing against non-believers, visitors, or guests who may not know better. I don’t hold it against anyone who, for one reason or another, might not be able to help it. But I struggle with long-time congregants who should know better than to use an entire church service as an extended conversation.
Nothing is as frustrating to me these days as communion, when I’m trying to get in the proper mindset to approach the moment only to find myself struggling to piece thoughts together over the whole conversations I can hear from behind me. A few weeks ago, my head bent in prayer, I tried desperately to draw close to God:
God, before I take communion today, I’d like to take time to–
“And then John, he said, ‘I’m not gonna do that,’ and so for dinner we were thinking of ribs, you know, even if it’s a little messy–”
–to seek your face, and to ask forgiveness for–
“…but Susan graduates this year, and so we wanted to have that for dinner instead of the usual–did I give you that recipe? No, the recipe for the macaroni and cheese–”
–to ask forgiveness for how irritated I feel toward these people right now, God, because I am really trying to just–
[laughter] “And then she told him and I said, ‘Oh, Lord, honey, don’t do that!”
It’s maddening. It’s distracting. It destroys any mood of reflection or reverence that might be building around me. And it keeps me from doing what I came to do, which is to draw close to God and to worship Him.
It’s possible that you’re guilty of this or you make a habit of this. If so, then here’s my plea: could you please put any non-necessary conversations on hold for another time? There are many opportunities: before the service and after, during the “greeting” section, maybe even during the offering. But in moments that are meant to be for solemn reflection and silence, let’s all do our best to exhibit some restraint.
Because what you may not realize is that you are being used as a distraction to the people around you. That you have become, with your conversation, a stumbling block to those who desperately want a word with God or whose hearts are reaching out. You may even be making it literally more difficult for others to hear.
There’s nothing wrong with good, warm, convivial conversation and laughter in a sanctuary. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, I want the spaces I’m in to be filled with the warmth and joy of Christian fellowship. But in the times where silence and solemnity is required, we’d all do each other a favor if we held back the urge and simply let God speak.
There are times when the best thing that we can do is learn to listen well.