Jump Into the Stream

Sic et Non

By Andrew Petiprin

On a rare Sunday away from my own parish, my family and I ventured out of town to visit another Episcopal church, a much larger one than our own. Unable to arrive early enough for a service intentionally styled for families, we came to a later service and immediately worried that we had entered a no-children zone. Being churchy people, we figured we could cope. We were thankful that as we moved from the Gloria to the Collect to the readings, our nearly four-year-old son remained a perfect angel, dipping into the enormous bag my wife had carefully prepared to keep him quietly occupied in this foreign environment.

Our two-year-old daughter began to fuss during the sermon, and I took her out to the narthex. The ushers were slightly awkward with me about her, but I kept her busy. “I think we have a nursery, don’t we?” they wondered to each other. “No thanks,” I assured them. “We’re fine. We like to have them with us.” I was not fazed.

But then the shock came. As the service finished, a neatly composed woman approached my wife and said, “It was very inconsiderate for you to bring your children in here. They don’t get anything out of it, and you’ve ruined worship for 200 adults.”

“Are you kidding?” my wife replied.

“No, you are incredibly rude,” the woman said.

Our initial reaction was one of surprise, but it quickly wore off. We knew it could have happened at many churches. This woman did not speak for anyone but herself, so at lunch our conversation became practical. We began talking with the parish clergy about how important it is to stress with our people that children are welcome in worship. Perhaps all it takes to hold back the hurtful comments of a grouch is a repeated reminder that we who stand up front really love to hear little voices. But then it occurred to me that the woman’s comment to my wife revealed a deeper problem with church culture that must be corrected if we have any hope of flourishing — indeed, any hope of being the Church at all.

The woman’s complaint exposed to me the deepest roots of a Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that is choking the life out of the Christian faith. The notion of “getting something” out of worship is often at perilous variance with the biblical cost of discipleship. Moreover, its adherents make strangely false assumptions. As it happens, for example, our very young children gain a lot from being in church. We were moved to tears one morning (I from behind the altar) to hear our son, then two years old, chime in with the Lord’s Prayer along with everyone else. The rhythm of prayer had been born within him, without our explanation or instruction.

But there is a more important critique: My children’s noise cannot ruin worship of Almighty God, because it is not about them or anyone else in the first place. It’s about God. The people’s sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving happened that Sunday morning regardless of distractions. Jesus was present. God was glorified. The intersection of heaven and earth had been revealed.

If children’s voices are not our particular pet peeve, then maybe it’s the hymn selection, the length of the sermon, or the kneeler that has not been fixed. Too much incense, or not enough. Maybe the old guy behind us is coughing the whole time. Maybe someone is in our favorite seat. These seem like petty criticisms, but they are perfectly natural things to be annoyed about. What of the person who cannot stomach a service without children, smiling faces, and long hugs at the Peace? We can all imagine what would ruin worship for us on a given Sunday.

From this perspective, it is not enough for clergy simply to reassure people that children are welcome in church — let alone disabled people or those who do not look or act a certain way. It is not a question of being nicer, more welcoming, or more evangelistic. We all need to ask ourselves a more fundamental question: Do we come to church primarily to participate in the work of God among and through his people, or to soothe and excite our individual souls? In the best-case scenario, we experience both, but we must never lose sight of our primary objective. It’s not about how we feel.

In fact, the second goal always flows from the first. We will be fulfilled in our worship experience — despite the unexpected presence of minors — if we walk through the doors desiring to jump into the cosmic, unending stream of praise and thanksgiving that is distilled each Sunday. This is the thing against which the gates of hell can never prevail and that, in fact, needs the screaming babies, coughing old men, slightly out of tune organs, and broken air conditioners to drown out our private protestations and lift the full voice of all creation to the throne of grace.

My family’s experience was an eye-opening challenge to remember what worship looks like. The alternative, I fear, is that on judgment day we should find our will badly out of sync with God’s and our whole experience “ruined” for eternity, left alone with nothing to worship but our own preferences.

The Rev. Andrew Petiprin is rector of St. Mary of the Angels Church in Orlando.

A Pastoral Challenge
By Daniel H. Martins

I am about to turn 63. Generously construed, I can be said to be in late middle age. Yet, as I make my weekly rounds among the congregations of the Diocese of Springfield, I often lower the average age when I walk into the room, so I can add a hearty amen to Fr. Petiprin’s observation that, from the perspective of the one standing at the altar or in the pulpit, the sound of young voices in the nave is a welcome balm, even when they are momentarily disruptive.

But he is also right on the mark in the deeper issue that he names — what might be called the “getting it” deficit among too many church people. The values of individualism, subjectivism, and relativism that define our postmodern culture, values that were already deeply embedded in the American psyche, form the default mental map — indeed, arguably, an entire intellectual grammar and symbolism — that many (most?) practicing Christians unreflectively lay over their participation in liturgy, their interaction with Scripture, and their experience of Christian community.

Indeed, this often devolves into a mere ethical theism — believe that God exists and try your best to be a “good person” — rather than a full-bodied understanding of the paschal mystery, the grand sweep of redemption through which God is restoring the torn fabric of the universe. Such an attenuated theological vision leads, in turn, to a highly individual perception of the Eucharist that is vulnerable to being “ruined” by the exuberance of a toddler.

Of course, the challenge is catechetical and pastoral. People like the woman who attempted to scold and shame Petiprin’s wife for bringing her children to church cannot be scolded or shamed into a more mature understanding of the gospel and the liturgy. We do well to be patiently indefatigable in lifting up Christ, that he may draw all to himself — even those who are already his own.

The Rt. Rev. Daniel H. Martins is Bishop of Springfield and serves on the Living Church Foundation’s board.

Practice Holy Silence
By Douglas LeBlanc

A serious Christian or congregation should not even consider excluding children from worship. But Fr. Petiprin’s reflection neglects another important concern: how we and our loved ones behave during a service can indeed distract our fellow worshipers. It is not sub-Christian to notice this reality, or to change our behavior accordingly.

I see Moral Therapeutic Deism in the self-absorption that treats every public space as one’s own home. People shout into cell phones about their private lives, send constant texts in darkened theaters, snap smartphone pictures from hundreds of feet away during concerts, and jabber away even as fellow Christians partake of the body and blood of Christ.

Recently I attended a service in which a brain-damaged young man repeatedly chimed in during worship. “God bless you,” he said every time someone sneezed. He yawned loudly. He belched loudly.

A congregation is a healthy place when it welcomes anyone with such struggles. It’s a still healthier place when even a brain-damaged young man eventually grasps that there is such a thing as holy silence. Cultivating holy silence does not mean pandering to irritable people. It means shutting down our tendency to speak about ourselves, or about other people’s failure to love what we love. It helps all of us better hear the Spirit of God, who tends not to shout (1 Kgs. 19:11-13).

Douglas LeBlanc is associate editor of The Living Church.

Discipline of Place
By Dave Sims

The offended busybody in Fr. Petiprin’s essay is an annoying figure, to be sure, not to mention out of step with the times. But I could not help but be slightly endeared to her as well. Maybe it’s because she’s like a classic character from my childhood spent in church pews as a poster child for ADHD.

It could be that I’ve put too much nostalgic value in those episodes, being shushed by fussy finger-waggers and stern-faced elders on either side of a long plush bench, and I’m sure my parents did not enjoy being told, as they were many times, “David sure was active today!” Nevertheless, the fact that stuck-up Freelance Parenting Consultants still haunt narthexes comforts me somehow.

In his 2003 essay for re:generation Quarterly, “Practicing the Discipline of Place,” Caleb Stegall also criticized the modern subjective sense of entitlement that is in many ways the underpinning of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Stegall described a “rootless self” pursuing an “infinite expanse of possible desires.” The antidote, writes Stegall, “is the temperament, or discipline, of place. And this discipline brings with it a concrete way of thinking. Instead of seeing through things, those who embrace the discipline of place see out from within them.”

These chiding Yentas, these Harriet Olesons defending some imagined right to an unencumbered, subjectively pure worship experience, should indeed embrace a discipline of place that can meld the sounds of crying, crumpling paper, spilled crayons, and the Prayer of Humble Access into the harmonious whole that they already are. Rather than setting aside these noises as a distraction in order to see through them, those same noises are better brought with us into the experience, as an awareness of the rich, messy chorus of worship whose very identity and meaning is corporate and concrete, rather than isolated, abstract minds on a quest for self-improvement.

By the same light, those self-same busybodies are recurring figures in church communities, I would venture to guess, from the earliest days of the Patristic Era. A church without them would be — okay, it would be a lot less frustrating. But outsized characters will populate the chaotic narrative that genuine community always has been. A patient discipline of place and worship should endure misguided confrontations and comic arrogance as well as it tolerates the murmur of child-rearing. We would wait a long time indeed for Worship without Distraction, or a Church without Tongue-clucking Fussbudgets.

Dave Sims attends St. David’s Church in Denton, Texas, with his wife and their five children.

Image by ariadna, via morgueFile

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