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How Should the Church Handle Distractions in Worship?

For centuries upon centuries, Christians have been asking questions and venturing answers about the substance of our worship gatherings.

What should worship look like? What should our worship sound like? In what order and in what measure should we preach, read, sing, and pray? Collection boxes, baskets, or plates?

I suppose this makes sense — we’re a people predisposed toward rightness. None of us wants to pervert or distort something as important as corporate worship, so we ask questions.

As difficult as it is to honestly and accurately evaluate ourselves, there’s one question in particular we ought to ask of our worship services: What are we elevating?

A recent incident at Elevation Church reveals the important nature of this question and our answers, but more on that later.

Decisions, Decisions
As we plan and facilitate our worship services, we’re making a lot of choices. In fact, we’re making more choices than we realize because we carry over several choices from weeks, years, and decades past. At the risk of overkill, consider the decisions that go into a typical American weekend worship service:

Where does it meet? What time does it start? How long does it go? How light or dark is the room? How drab or elaborate is the decor? What is on the screen(s)? Where are the screen(s)? Who’s on stage? Is there a pulpit, a podium, a table, or none of the above? Where is it located? Who leads the music? How many people are involved? What are they wearing? How emotive are they? Where are they positioned? What direction are they facing? How many songs do they lead? What songs do they lead? How loud are the songs? Where does the congregation find the lyrics? Are there corporate prayers, readings, or rituals? How is communion administered? How often is communion administered? Who delivers the sermon? How is that person dressed? How long does that person speak? What version of the Bible does that person read from? Is the sermon inspired by the text or is the choice of text inspired by the sermon? What happens at the end of the sermon?

That list isn’t necessarily exhaustive, and yet it’s exhausting. Sorry about that. My point is that church leaders have decisions to make every week. As we make those decisions and execute them (using resources such as time, personnel, and money in the process), we elevate specific elements of a worship gathering and demote others.

Perhaps the music set only requires a hasty rehearsal while the sermon requires 30 hours to prepare. Perhaps the sermon is a weekly fixture but communion is a quarterly affair. Perhaps the five-minute drama gets cut in a time crunch while the hymn of response is preserved. Perhaps the music leader has five minutes of leeway but the person giving the announcements and saying the prayer is instructed to stick to the script and watch the clock. Whatever the case, decisions are made, elements are elevated, and priorities are revealed.

Easter at Elevation
I bring this up because of a story I read Monday on Skye Jethani’s blog involving Elevation Church (you can read more reaction here and watch a local news report here). As I understand it, here’s what happened: When a 12-year-old boy with Cerebral Palsy attended an Easter service at Elevation with his family, he happened to voice his unique version of “amen” following a prayer. Shortly thereafter, the boy and his mother were escorted from their seats in the worship center to an overflow room where they could watch the remainder of the service. Presumably, the overflow room would prevent the boy from being a distraction in the main worship center. The mother was upset by the incident, and thus we have a news story.

That’s the story as I understand it, though I readily admit the likelihood of details, circumstances, and later developments escaping my view.

Jethani frames the incident in a broader conversation about the mission and practices of the Church and its worship gatherings:

Elevation, which probably represents the views of many churches, says they want to “offer a distraction free environment.” I’m assuming this means avoiding distractions from among the congregation, because in my experience there is plenty that happens on the stage that keep me distracted from God. Smoke machines and lasers, really?

Many of the commenters on his blog are indignant on behalf of the boy’s family, and it’s difficult to contend with Jethani’s position that perhaps we’ve lost our way when a special needs child is quickly removed from a worship service. It appears Elevation Church may have elevated a “distraction free environment” above an all-inclusive environment.

I’ll be honest — the story bothers me. Part of me wonders how on earth a church could let this happen. Another part of me wonders if there is more to the story. Either way, I’m not here to denounce or rebuke Elevation Church. I’m confident that the leadership of the church is taking a hard look at what happened, how to respond, and how to engage similar situations in the future.

However the preceding story makes you feel, I think we owe it to ourselves to consider our priorities and values for worship services. After all, there isn’t much we can do about changing a large church in North Carolina, right? If there’s a speck in Elevation Church’s eye, and I’m not saying there is, let us first examine the logs in our respective eyes.

For Your Consideration
Consider the structure of your worship services. Consider the rhythms. Consider the allocation of resources. Consider the bright spots and the dark corners. Consider what is hollered and what is whispered.

Now, what do each of these of these elements say about what you elevate and why?

Think back to when you first took an active role in shaping worship services? How have the services changed since then? What aspects have been elevated? What aspects have been demoted?

Now, what do these differences say about you, the changing face of church culture, and the changing face of culture at large?

Whether we like the implication or not, we make decisions that shape the way our congregations worship together. We elevate this, we demote that. We rob Peter, we pay Paul.

Personally, I think it’s fine if different churches elevate different things. I welcome unique expressions of the Body of Christ and the unique values found therein. The different subcultures, traditions, contexts, histories, and gifts of a congregation will certainly shape its worship. Hopefully, this diverse reality serves as a means by which we challenge, encourage, inspire, and complement one another.

And when we feel a local church has overstepped the bounds of “permissible and beneficial” in its elevations and demotions, well, we ought to speak the truth in love. Hopefully, we can navigate incidents such as what happened at Elevation Church as brothers and sisters in Christ — with grace, patience, and a commitment to unity. Those are good qualities to elevate, right?