4 Practices That Reduce Distractions in Worship Services

In his biography on Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Iain Murray writes about the seriousness and attentiveness that surrounded the preaching at Westminster Chapel in London during Lloyd-Jones’ ministry:

Silence prevailed in the large congregation. The stillness generally deepened as the service proceeded… There were certain arrangements designed to encourage quietness. For the first part of the service ushers always stood at the doors and no one was allowed to enter while prayer or the reading of Scripture was in progress. A crèche was provided for babies and infants. From about the age of three, children were usually in the church for the whole service, but if they could not be quiet the parent and child were expected to remove speedily to a rear hall where the service could be heard by relay. Any failure to depart could earn an intimidating look from the pulpit!

Some preachers are really good at preaching through distractions, while others really struggle to keep focus. Sadly, I am clearly in the second category and have many times struggled through portions of a sermon due to distractions in the congregation. In those moments, I hate that about myself and pray for grace—but I have not yet been delivered from the struggle.

Some of the more extreme distractions have been being told there is a woman in the balcony who has taken her shirt off (just before stepping on stage), seeing someone pass out in the middle of an aisle, a self-proclaimed prophetess standing up and debating a point of mine, a Spanish soap opera suddenly playing on the screens behind me, a man with a megaphone outside predicting a tsunami would strike Miami, and the sound system making sounds that can only be compared to someone passing gas. It is hard to plan for those. And policies should not be developed around the extreme.

The most common distractions are crying kids, cell phones ringing, and people moving around—particularly people moving in and out of the front sections.

Of course, distractions do not merely impact the one speaking. They also pull people’s attention away from the message at a critical moment and may disrupt the focus on the Word. Because it takes time for attention to be regained, even small distractions are not a small matter.

I have noticed, as I have spoken in different places, that some churches, like Westminster Chapel, do a great job of creating a culture or an expectation of listening and focus and thus minimizing distractions. As the speaker/preacher, the difference is quite noticeable. Here are four common practices I have observed in those churches:

1) Ushers seat people after the sermon begins

After the message begins, people can’t just walk in at any moment and to any part of the congregation. Ushers seat people in a specific location—particularly the back of the room so that there is less movement to distract the people.

2)People who need to leave are seated in the back when they return

Sometimes people need to leave during the sermon. The nursery sends a text to the mother. The bathroom calls. It happens. But when the people return, they don’t walk all the way to the front or to the center; they quietly take a seat in the rear of the room.

3) Provisions are made for babies

Churches who create the expectation of focus and listening know and can communicate how they handle crying babies. Some churches have rooms, as Lloyd-Jones did, where the sermon can be viewed so that parents with a small child can still watch the message without distracting others. Other churches don’t allow children under a certain age into the worship gathering. In other places, ushers will approach the family if a child begins to make too much noise. Every context is different, and this must be handled gently and with love by graceful and caring people, but it is clear which churches have a plan.

4) A culture is created where cell phones seem to go off less

In some church services people are asked to silence their phones. In others there are instructions given on slides or signs. But I can’t say that happens in each church that has a sense of attentiveness during the sermon because that is not the case. I have just noticed that in some congregations cell phones seem to ring much less compared to other congregations. I think it is about the overall culture created. If people sense that “this church really takes this moment seriously,” they are much more likely to quiet their cell phones.

My wife and I recently went to the musical Wicked. In a crowd of 2,000 people I did not hear one cell phone ring. Was it because of the signage or announcements? Those were present, but they may have merely helped to reinforce the mind-set that “this is an environment where people listen and pay attention.” I am embarrassed to say that we were a few minutes late for the performance. Ushers held us from entering and waited until a particular moment in the show to guide us to our seats. They didn’t want distractions to take away from the musical. The moment was protected because it was deemed sacred and significant. The preaching of God’s Word is much more so.

The extreme and uncommon distractions will take place. They make for great stories one day… even the guy with the megaphone warning about the tsunami that never struck. But the common distractions can be planned for. And church leaders are wise to get on the same page about how to handle the common distractions that threaten to disrupt the listening to God’s Word.

Comments

  1. TJ says

    “Other churches don’t allow children under a certain age into the worship gathering. In other places, ushers will approach the family if a child begins to make too much noise”

    I know churches do these things but these are both terrible solutions. One is blatantly unbiblical and the other is a quick way to make sure a family never comes again. The question, then, is what option do you have if you have a facility that doesn’t allow for a “cry” room?

    • says

      Nehemiah call for all who could hear with understanding to come to the assembly to hear the reading of the law. While it should be handled graciously, there is nothing unbiblical about preserving an attentive atmosphere. Sometimes children can hinder this. Especially if parents are untrained themselves and don’t know how to train a child. The focus of the service is not the family or the child. It is God and his Word.

      • TJ says

        I think any church that “doesn’t allow” children absolutely is unbiblical. Jesus was rather upset with his disciples when they tried the same practice. To disallow young children from worship is to prevent both them and their mothers or fathers who often care for them from coming to the word of the Lord. It’s one thing to encourage and help them in minimizing the distraction they can be. It’s a very different thing to refuse to allow them present because they might distract the adults. After all, Paul does command the more mature to sacrifice for the good of the weak and ignorant, not the other way around. This principle is clear in every one of the pastoral epistles. The mature and wise in the church are to help guide the immature in being a part of the fellowship of the church. Banning them because they might be a distraction to the mature is contrary to the mission of the church.

  2. says

    Interesting problem – certainly not a new one. With the current worship practice in most protestant/evangelical churches, It is closer to the OT, medieval or Roman Catholic church in which the “audience” comes to listen and be quiet while the pros do their business. That is the way it is in our church. They do an excellent job, too, but I have this sneaking suspicion that Jesus would not be pleased when he sees such perfect order, hierarchical control.

    I doubt that the synagogues and the gatherings of the early church would be anything like what we have evolved into. There seemed to be so much interaction, dialogue. We are so used to our traditions that children, noise, interactions, dialogue, participation all seem out of place. I have a sneaking suspicion that both Jesus and Paul would not be comfortable with our arrangements. I have to admit, I am — but I wonder.

  3. eric says

    TJ — It really must be handled with grace and compassion, which I have seen. Those churches don’t view having small children in the worship gathering as unloving — but as a way to ensure the hearts of the mothers and fathers are ministered to with the Word so that they can better shepherd their children.

    Russell — thanks for the reminder from Nehemiah… great example

    Noel — Folks sometimes debate if the sermon should be monologue or dialogue. I believe the New Testament gives us images of both: dialogue in community (Colossians 3:16 for example) and monologue when a pastor/teacher edifies the body with teaching (Eph 4:11-12, 1 Cor 12:29). Believing a sermon is given by one the Lord has set apart to teach does not mean the teacher is any “better or more gifted” than others in the body. It is a different gift. All in the body are priests and ministers.

    • TJ says

      Eric, if the desire of a church is to minister to the hearts of the mothers and fathers of children, that’s a wonderful thing. I don’t think a blanket rule against young children in church is a good way to do that, however. Many parents are particularly unwilling to leave small children (or especially children with disabilities or delayed development) in a nursery or in the care of someone they do not know. And all too often, in my experience, the prohibition against children is driven by the fact that they bother the older people in the church. They are seen as a nuisance and not as people who need to be raised in the Gospel and the worship of God just as much as anyone else. In so many cases, removing them from worship is the easy way out of the problem and frees the more mature in the church from the commands Paul gives us in Timothy and Titus for them to help instruct these young families in being a part of the worship of God. I’m not suggesting every church has this intention. But I think the unintended consequences of such a policy are much deeper than we realize. What message does it send about God, about the Gospel and about the value of church and worship to our children? Is God’s work in us really undone by a crying child? Is there really no place for the weak and helpless in the worship of God? If not, then we should all go home. I think Martin Luther was right about this when he said that a crying child in church ought to remind us that we all come to God just as weak and helpless as a baby.

  4. JC says

    I would say, it is important to create an environment of attention and expectation in our services. It is important that we understand that there are things out of our control, but also as preachers and communicators of the word of Godwe have to pray that Romans 8:28, becomes true even when we preach. Use those distraction to your advantage and with Gods help, remember that those crying, annoying and distracting kids could be your replacement or your opposition one day.
    In the other hand this recommendations apply only to stablished congregations.
    I love when in church there is interaction, and someone can ask a question or make a comment and as they learn these are going to be less and less.

  5. eric says

    TJ — Thanks for your thoughtful response. I would listen to Luther amidst of crying babies any day :) My point is/was that churches should know how they handle the common distractions. If the church wants to make the sound of crying an invitation to remember our weakness — and not view it as a distraction — then I commend the theology and the thinking beneath the practice. At the same time, I commend the theology and the thinking beneath the practice of Lloyd Jones. My main point is these churches know what they think on these issues and communicate them.

    Those who have other environments for kids, at the same time as the adult service, are often teaching those kids with great care and intentionality and not simply “moving them out of the adult service.” In other words, they view it as the best teaching for both the kids and the adults.

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