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?Posted by Chuck Neighbors | 15 comments
I don’t have a story to share, though there were many in my fifteen years of service in a Christian Theatre Company. I just want to say that I relate with your article and I do wish more time was spent on training ushers in the church. After all, they are trained for any and every auditorium style setting. I am thankful and blessed that the ushers in our church are trained (very well), and it has come in handy during the twenty plus years I spent as a worship leader. All Pastors (and church boards) should take this article to heart.
Great post Chuck. We once had an older gentleman walk on-stage in the middle of our Panic Squad show and call us “an abomination” and “blasphemy in the house of the Lord” because we were doing comedy in church. The pastor stepped in and explained why he had invited us there and how it fit into his teaching on Joy. The majority of the several hundred member audience applauded but a faction of about 50 older people shouted objections. After everyone calmed down, the objectors were led out of the sanctuary by their leader and paced in the foyer. We were asked to please continue. As you could imagine, It took a bit to get our momentum back.
I think the church has actually done such a great job of escorting kids out of the sanctuary that many of them, especially once they’re older, don’t return. Now THERE is a sure way to keep an audience quiet: when it has dwindled down to nobody! Is this a pleasant future for us to look forward to? How in the world did Jesus speak to thousands of people at a time, particularly when there was no microphone, no amplification system, and no nursery for noisy children? (Thank you, Andrew Bright, for the reminder that it isn’t only children who cause disruptions.)
Good point Cheryl… although I suspect the decline of children and youth in the church has very little to do with the issue addressed in this blog. I think it is possible to have programing suitable to all ages in the context of worship but at the same time have protocols in place to deal with distractions. As for how Jesus did it…well, he was Jesus after all… could have been a miracle! And I suspect there were cultural norms in play that might have stifled some types of audience involvement. He did address his detractors, however, in a pretty confrontational manner. Something I don’t have the guts to do.
Hey Chuck. Great blog entry and some interesting responses. I’m so used to people getting up and walking out of my performances that I thought it WAS protocal. HA! My good friend Chuck Wallington runs a Music Ministers Conference in South Carolina. He puts me in charge of lunch dismissals to help ease the flow of traffic out of the sanctuary. He uses me for that because I’m the only person he knows that is used to people getting up and walking out during my performance. Now, I realize I’m not alone. ha.
Hi Chuck. I did chapel services at a drop in center for homeless youth and the Juvenile Detention Hall once a month. It was three services in one evening. We were trained to expect short attention spans and walk outs. But, we were not trained for everything. Like the time one of our regulars came in after the service had started. It was summer time and a hot day. She sat down on the floor, dumped her purse and proceded to go through the items and taking time to talk about each of the photos she was carying all the while a message is being shared. Then she begins to untie her red bandana. She flips it off then says, “Ah ha, I fooled you!” Underneath was a string bikini top. The adults all let a whew….silently and their faces were bright red.
When I first started reading I was expecting a complete turn around of thoughts and was rather shocked to see you were not joking. Yes it is true that in the legitimate theater these distractions are not tolerated, but we pay money to be entertained, forget our troubles and enjoy time away from reality. Church is where we welcome anyone to enter and worship finding grace given by God. I think you have lost sight of your mission, it is not about you, it is about God. And I believe God works it ways we don’t understand and sometimes when we believe we have failed is when God’s grace is most apparent to others.
Mark 10:13-16 When the disciples complain about people bring their children and distracting others, Jesus was offended and said “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them”
If you are truly trying to spread the joy, peace and grace of God then please remember it is not about you! God does not need you to remove children from church in order to get his message across.
Patti, I agree that we as the church should be a welcoming place for children, but even in the church there are venues that are age appropriate. To suggest that this is “about me” misses the point. If a presentation is geared to an adult audience, which mine is–and most sermons are, then I think it is reasonable to exercise certain amount of courtesy to a speaker/performer. If my presentation were geared to children the expectation would be different. While it is not all about “me” is is also not all about enduring the temper tantrum that a 2-year-old is having in the 2nd pew. I can accept those things happening, but I don’t have to like it. What is harder to accept is the tantrum that continues with no effort to remove the child from the auditorium (and it happens a lot!). I might as well sit down. No one is listening. That is not being unwelcoming that’s just reality. And as a side note, I am an actor performing a script. A pastor giving a sermon might be able to flow with the distraction and even incorporate it into the speech. A bit of a different challenge for a performer in the middle of a scene.
Yes, Jesus took time out to interact with the children. A children’s sermon in a church service is a good comparison and appropriate. But I also think the disciples were being a good role model for ushers in this story. If a child were disrupting Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount, do you think he would have stopped his sermon to let the children take over? There is a time and place for everything.
Yes, let the children come, by all means. But let’s also teach them well, which includes learning to respect the time for teaching to adults. It really is not an issue with the children, it is an issue with the adults who are oblivious to the distraction their child is causing, by refusing to do anything about it. I am seldom frustrated with the actual child, it is the adult responsible for the child that needs training.
I (we) feel for you! One time David was performing the book of Philippians at a church in Illinois for “combined SS” meaning mostly adults, and it was an ADULT this time who upstaged David while he was speaking the Word! She, in her very clickity high heels, walked up and down every aisle passing out “The Outlook” weekly magazine DURING the performance.
Then there was the time he was again doing straight scripture (John 13-17) at a church in the Midwest and all of a sudden I see a older-than-toddler, probably 3 or 4(!) little boy climbing up the carpeted steps to the stage and just lying there, rolling around… didn’t get mad at the child but the momma who didn’t come get him. The other time was again, not a baby crying, but a little girl of about age 6 who literally went up, stood next to David while he performed “Jonah” and she lifted up a dollar bill and dropped it, lifted it up and dropped it again…repeat… I don’t recall how, but somehow David managed to manage until the mother FIN.AL.LY came up and got her! My beef is more with the parents who refuse to consider that an interruption in a dramatic piece can also interrupt the very moment someone’s heart is tendered toward the Holy Spirit. By all means, children have many times over been the best audience but it’s the crying, screaming or running around that should never be permitted by ushers/pastors.
Spoken like a true professional. The baby didn’t do it on purpose, but I think parents need to take some sort of responsiblity for the actions…what’s that saying?
“To be forewarned, is to be forearmed”?
We learn from the past experinces..perhaps someday you’ll have a play that starts off as ‘Truth Be Told’, but when the audience starts to make noises, you ‘play off’ that. That would be cool.
See? The baby was simply giving you “ideas”..
I have been reading the comments with interest. I see pretty much what I expected. There will always be people who don’t see the difference between coming to church for a worship service vs. an acting performance. However, I can say from great personal experience that people don’t do much better with their kids in legitimate theater. I like that people want to expose their children to the arts but when I’m in a play and a kid is crying or running around, it’s so hard to focus. Plus, you are right, the focus of the show has moved to the audience. The only time it was a plus was in Hairspray when we could see kids dancing in the aisles during You Can’t Stop the Beat. That was awesome! The only solution to the distracting noise that has ever worked for me is to improvise and include it in the show as best you can with a joke. Usually, the script doesn’t lend itself to that most of the time. I typically ignore it and hope to get the focus back where it belongs. Grrrr…
My younger child was difficult for the first few years of her life. I wouldn’t even stay in a McDonald’s if she started screaming. She and I would go to the car while her brother had fun for a bit with the other kids in the Play Place. Why spoil everyone’s fun by letting my daughter scream in their presence?
By the way, I also taught my kids not to crinkle up candy wrappers, programs, etc. during movies, plays and orchestra concerts. Quiet doesn’t just mean no talking.
Chuck – it’s so funny you should mention this. Just a few weeks after the date you wrote it, I was filling the ‘sermon time’ with my testimony, at our small church, which feels more like a family, and even meets in a re-modeled home. The kitchen is just off of the ‘sanctuary’ (former dining, living, and one bedroom, remodeled into one room) and just as I was building up to my main point we started to hear a commotion in the kitchen. Which built to the point of someone bursting through one of the two doors into the sanctuary from there, and landing on the floor in the isle. She was helped up, and out, by men in uniforms, hollaring and yelling the whole time. Something about “Jesus, get away from me Jesus!” and then “Jesus! Help me Jesus!” I stopped, we had prayer, someone suggested we sing. I sat down during the song, and someone else lead. I couldn’t leave the story where I had left it, so I had to get up and finish, but I left out so much! Things were completely de-railed. It was SO frustrating, but at the same time, I had to leave it in God’s hands and know that what He needed to have said, hopefully got said. We sent out an e-mail, suggesting that if they wanted the rest of the story, people could read my blog. The lady, who was having a psychological ‘incident’ and was transported to the hospital, where she spent several days, getting back on an even keel, and discovering that she is bi-polar, and needs daily mediation for that, now. She is feeling much better now days and came back to church the very next week. I thought that was particularly brave of her.
I should have known something was up, the gal who was supposed to ‘introduce’ me was tapped on the shoulder, and followed someone out just before she was supposed to introduce me. She came back, just in time, and tapped another elder on the shoulder, whispered in his ear, and he left, as she proceeded to the front.
I don’t envy you the position of being so vulnerable to interruptions so often. And you know that since Satan knows that your message is powerful, he will work to throw them at you on a regular basis. May God use them to His glory, and give you the clear mind you need to work them into your act when possible and give the usher’s the grace to handle the ‘asking to leave’ with tact and warmth of fellowship!
Thanks for sharing that story. Just re-enforces why public speaking is so feared!
actually the speaking wasn’t too bad. I wasn’t that nervous because certain key people who WOULD have made me nervous were not there that week! (We are next to an Adventist university so have some professors here, who are VERY professional about what they do – i was glad they were elsewhere that particular week. Love them dearly, just glad they didn’t come that particular Sabbath!) That made it MUCH more relaxing. We have a great family feel to our church. I felt right at home. Just sharing my story.
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