Baby Talk

It happened again… in yet another church service…. this time it was just as I was setting up a comedic bit in my newest presentation, Truth Be Told… from a Guy Who Makes Stuff Up. One of the funniest lines in the whole presentation, wouldn’t be so funny without the set-up.  The sound came from the back of the room—a baby just discovering her voice decided to try it out with some of the most adorable gibberish I have heard, rivaling anything I have seen on YouTube. The audience heads turn almost in unison to catch a glimpse of the little wonder, and I even heard an audible “awww” from a few in the crowd. (Probably similar to what you feel when you watch this popular YouTube video.)

My inner voice is screaming some not so adorable words at “Her Cuteness.”  I am not a child hater, really I’m not.  But this child just did what is referred to in the acting business as “upstaging”—taking attention away from where it is supposed to be directed. The fact that the noises are adorable makes it even worse than if the baby were crying—at least if she were crying the distraction would irritate everyone, not just me. By adding her unscripted voice to my show, she has taken my audience away from me.  It will be hard to get it back, if the distraction continues without intervention, which is too often the case.

When a child cries out it takes the attention away from the speaker/performer and sometimes at the worst possible times—the punchline of a joke, the most important key line in a scene, or the main point of a sermon. Being on stage you can feel the loss. One minute you have the audience right where you want them and the next minute they’re gone. It is not just babies, it could be someone getting up to go to the bathroom, a cell phone, or a sneeze. Obviously some distractions are inevitable and cannot be avoided—I once had a man have a heart attack in the middle of a performance—but others are easily avoided. I don’t mind children in my audience—in fact I love kids! But when they start to make noise and continue to make noise–then just like a New Year’s resolution… they should be carried out!

In the legitimate theater these distractions are not tolerated. An usher will escort the source of the distraction out of the auditorium. In the church we have to be much more forgiving and gracious. I have no control over those instances in my week to week travels, although I do have a standard intro that includes encouraging  parents to take out noisy babies and to tell the audience to turn off their cell phones (See our video No Call To Worship).

I know the arguments: “this is church and this is for family” and “this is how we train up a child to learn appropriate behavior” and “if I can’t have the child with me then I have to miss the service.” I can agree with those arguments…up to a point. I do wish however that people would, just for a moment, put themselves in the performer’s shoes and see it for what it is and does to them.

I am convinced that most people really don’t want to upstage a speaker—but in a church setting we are often afraid to set an expectation or enforce a standard, for fear of offending. However, if people are informed from the start what the expectations are, it can greatly reduce the instances of disruption. Here are a few suggestions on how to accomplish this:

  • Nursery Service – Obvious, of course. But in many churches I think it is presented more as an option rather than the expected thing. Promote the nursery as THE place for the very young to hang out!
  • Designated Seating – If parents insist on having babies and young children with them in the program, have a designated area near a door for them to sit.  Post a sign or instruct ushers to explain that crying or noisy children should be removed from the a auditorium. Even a parent who is sensitive to this issue compounds the problem if they are seated in the middle  or front of the room.  Not only do we have the issue of the crying baby but also the visibility of the parent removing the child in front of most of the audience.  And then there is the issue of them returning to the original seat after the child has been dealt with—an additional distraction!
  • Usher Power– A few years ago we produced a video titled Blessed Usherance (out of circulation), designed to train ushers and greeters for service in the church. We discovered that very few churches actually train ushers and tell them what to do in certain situations.  I have seen the look on so many pastors’ faces when there is a distraction and the pastor is desperately wishing and praying that an usher would handle it.  Empower the usher with the authority to go to the source of the distraction and politely offer to help them out of the room.  Believe me—95% of the audience is wishing for the same thing!

To be in front of an audience as a actor, teacher, preacher or singer is a hard enough job. Taking steps to minimize distractions will make a better performance/worship experience for everyone!

Do you have a story to tell about being upstaged?  Have a tip you can share to help prevent these things from happening?