Parson to Person, July 2016

“Silence in the Sanctuary?”

Some months ago our Director of Religious Education, Leann Pomaville, reminded us that
“A church with no crying
is a church that is dying.”

That invited a lot of reflection on many people’s part. Some of us who were raised in a stricter era may remember a time when kids in church were taken out as soon as they made any noise at all; but child-raising methods have changed somewhat since then, and many of today’s parents are more lenient and tolerant of “kid noise” in public. We still of course hope that, when in the sanctuary, parents of children who are making long, loud, or continuous sounds will consider taking their child to the nursery. (And when our 2-service schedule resumes in September, we will be staffing the nursery at both services, rather than just the 9 a.m. one as in the past year – thanks to a generous offer by one of our newest members.)

However, we also know that not all parents will see the issue of kid sounds in the same way. Some of today’s parents frame the issue as: “This church isn’t family-friendly. When my kids make the slightest sound, all these older people glare at us. I don’t know whether they’ve forgotten what it’s like to have young children – or whether they simply dislike kids, period.”

The people who “glare” at parents with noisy children of course see the issue rather differently. Some no doubt say to themselves: “Don’t these parents see how allowing their children to make so much noise can disturb a moving piece by the choir or a thoughtful sermon by the minister? Even if the sounds aren’t disturbing to them, can’t they see how distracting they are for everyone else?” As for the question of whether they have forgotten what it was like to have young children, they would likely say, “I definitely remember what it was like, and I knew enough to take them out when they were interrupting the service for everyone else.”

Of course, not all newer parents are lenient with their children; and not all older parents (and nonparents) feel disturbed by kid sounds during the service. Still, though, it’s clear that there appear to be some generational differences in child-rearing from when I was a child to the present day.

So, what to do?

Well, we will never all agree with each other’s child-rearing techniques and discipline practices, but when it comes to other people’s children, I urge us to “err” on the side of tolerance. I have begun trying to do that myself by incorporating extraneous sounds into my sermons when possible. If a baby cries after I have stated what I consider an important theme, I might say, “See, that child agrees!” Or if what I’ve said is cut off by noise, I might simply repeat it. This is one way to acknowledge an interruption while getting us back on track (and perhaps lightening the mood). I know that some will argue that kid noises should be treated the way they generally would be at a concert, play, or movie. “We paid for a quality performance; not a family spectacle. We will take our business elsewhere.” However, when you come to church, you are not simply part of an audience – you are part of a congregation. And the church service, though it certainly shares some characteristics with concerts, plays, and poetry readings, is more than a performance. (Which is why
the singing at a service doesn’t have to be perfect or the readings and sermon flawless. The Sunday service is a participatory thing that transcends a “consumer experience.”)

Occasionally a distraction can even become a meaningful part of a service. I heard about a
minister who was preaching about heaven when all of a sudden a child started crying inconsolably because his mother had to leave him for a few moments. When she returned, the child stopped crying and seemed completely satisfied. Meanwhile, the whole congregation had tuned out the sermon. But the minister used that incident as a teaching moment, saying, “We yearn for heaven in the same way this child yearns for his mother – once we get there we’ll be completely satisfied, as that child is in his mother’s arms.”

Although I’m not likely to give a similar sermon, I can appreciate the way that minister took a distracting event and made it into a teachable moment. Most distractions won’t transform that easily into a meaningful part of the service, of course; still, our job as a church is not to put on a perfect performance but to create a caring community.

We won’t always agree on exactly how to do that. But if we have to err one way or the other, my vote is for the side of tolerance and acceptance.

With, of course, a little peace and unrest,
Tony Larsen

P.S. Since I will be on vacation for the month of July, I generally won’t be in town to answer phone calls very promptly. For most church business contact our Congregational Administrator, Brenda Trumbauer at 262/634-0659 x101 and be sure to leave a message with your phone number so your call can be returned, or you may contact our Board President, Addison Tower at 847/543-4327. As for email, well… remember what the prayer says: “Deliver us from email.”

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