“I Couldn’t Hear a Thing”

Child(Creative Commons Image by Vladimir Pustovit on Flickr)

A very elderly gentleman greeted me at the end of the service with a smile and a compliment. “Wonderful, wonderful sermon, pastor!”

We had just installed a state-of-the art T-coil hearing system in our church. Knowing this man was extremely hard of hearing, I assumed from his comment that our upgrade had accomplished what we had hoped. “So the new hearing system worked well?” I asked.

“No, not at all,” he replied. “I couldn’t hear a thing.” He was dead serious.

Along with bemused bafflement over what to make of this exchange and the dubious compliment, I began to wonder, is it possible to have a positive experience in worship if you can’t hear a thing?

That very week, another woman emerged from a service beaming with more joy than I had ever seen in her. She had not come to services for many months, due to the fact that she could no longer hear what was being said or sung. She had badly missed the corporate worship experience.

The new technology was like a miracle to her. She could hear; she could participate in worship once again. I have always maintained that a good sound system is priority one on the church property list. There’s no point in crafting a sermon or a service if no one can hear what is being said. At last I had dramatic proof of that.

While this sounds basic, it bleeds into a more volatile issue having to do with children. What do we do about wailing children who make it impossible for people to hear, impossible to worship? I know it’s such a sensitive subject that even bringing it up can cause you to get your head handed to you amid furious threats of “I’m taking my children somewhere else if they are not welcome here.”

But as one who parented four children through this minefield, I’ve thought about it for a long time, and see no reason why the issue cannot be discussed in an open, rational way.

I’m not suggesting that we, as one pastor I know has done, stop in the middle of a sermon and instruct the parents to remove the screaming child from the worship area. I do not advocate glares at parents whose children are making noise. And I am vehemently opposed to what one parishioner advocated, that children should not be allowed in church until they are confirmed.

I want children in worship and I want them to feel welcome. Worship is a healthy habit, and the sooner that habit is internalized the better. So we do everything we can to make children feel welcome in worship. It’s one reason we always have a children’s time, and invite them to the communion rail.

Welcoming children also means giving them an out. When our oldest was baptized, he was having a bad day. Young children do; it’s no reflection on anyone. We had to battle the poor kid throughout the whole service until we finally reached the baptism, which did not come until after the sermon. Afterwards, my exhausted wife said to me, “If you ever have anything to say about it, put the baptism at the start of the service.”

At the time, I had no intention of going into ministry. Now that I have, though, I’ve never forgotten her sensible request. Our baptisms always go first in the service so that if the child is having a bad day, they and their parents have an escape early in the service. That, to me, is welcoming.

I am also baffled by the idea that torturing small, distraught children by forcing them to remain in a situation that so upsets them is somehow welcoming to kids. A well-equipped and staffed nursery for them to retreat to when they can no longer cope with an adult situation seems far more welcoming and compassionate.

Finally, as a parent, it was important to me that my children learn to be respectful of others. This meant being respectful of those who came to church hungering to hear the Word of God, people who absolutely needed to hear the Word that day, and whose ability to hear is fragile. Children are bright and they are compassionate; they can learn this.

Being welcoming means not judging parents for their children’s behavior but offering a sympathetic smile and encouragement when the wheels start to come off. Being welcoming means not enforcing a church policy concerning children but allowing parents to parent and providing options for when the worship thing isn’t working so well.

I don’t view my concern as a “Bah, humbug!” attitude at all. Some of the most precious sounds I have heard in a worship service are of a child softly and contentedly humming, week after week, in a place where he feels safe; a person who stands up during the final blessing and raises his arms and makes the sign of the cross along with me; a child asking a question about what is happening, a child loudly expressing pleasure at something going on in the service.

Children are eagerly welcomed but that doesn’t mean we have to set up children, their parents, and those seeking to hear a word of hope, to fail.

I hope this article is viewed not as a throwing down of the gauntlet, but rather as opening a much-needed dialogue on how, together, we can help all of our congregation members, from the very smallest to most ancient, encounter the love of God in our worship services.