Preaching to Distraction

People walk in late.  They sneeze in funny ways.  At least five people stroll out to find the restroom.  A bee buzzes around an elderly woman’s head.  Her husband comes to her aid and then takes a little bow.  Teenagers laugh.  A cougher unwraps his lozenge.  He continues to cough.  The microphone performs its weekly feedback recital.  A Jay-Z ringtone blasts from the fourth row.

All the while, we preach.

If the distractions are too great, we might begin to feel like the musicians on the deck of the Titanic, providing background noise while everyone else is captivated by a more enthralling drama.  True, in-service distractions are usually not life and death issues.

But they just might sink a sermon.

As long as we preach to people, there will be distractions.  And it is futile to pretend that they don’t bother us from time to time.  That is not vanity.  Distractions bother us because what we are preaching is not a time-filler.  It is vitally important.

I view the Sunday morning sermon as central to the life of the church.  It is a weekly opportunity to have the entire body focused on one passage of Scripture together.  Distractions undermine that moment.  The sermon is also the culmination of a week’s worth of study, prayer and writing for the pastor.  That effort should not be wasted.

So how can we process the distractions* without alienating people or scrapping the sermon?

Pray against them

Beat distractions to the punch.  As I lead the congregation in prayer before the message I pray for the Lord to give us minds centered on his word.  I often acknowledge that distractions will come, but I pray that the Christ who is set before us would overcome the unfolding drama around us.

Provide a counter-distraction

It is helpful to teach listeners what to do with distractions. This is best done before Lady Antebellum’s latest heart-sick power ballad squawks from a ringer on full blast.  But we can’t always see that coming. However, we also can’t just hope that the congregation will recover from a diversion on its own.

When an obvious disturbance comes, I will often say in stride, “Everyone take your Bibles and look …”  It calls us to action and reminds us of where our attention should be without saying, “Hey, pay attention!”  That’s not a gimmick.  After all, the Bible is where our attention should be.

Preach Better

Boring sermons are brutal.  Don’t be brutal to your listeners.  Have you ever been droned to death by an ill-prepared message that leaves you begging for something exciting to happen?  Anything will do.  In that context distractions can be a delight for us.  When the “drone attack” is beaten back by something unexpected from the crowd, faces break into broad smiles as bodies return to life.

They were desperate for rescue and Old Man Sweeney’s bee execution provided it.

Now, when I say “preach better” I don’t mean “song and dance.”  I don’t mean better graphics or mindless jokes.  I mean to work harder to make the content more gripping than any interruption could be.  Preach with an intensity that matches the reality we proclaim. Be fueled by the wonder of the Gospel and the majesty of God.  People are not easily distracted when they are watching something on fire.

Also, think about the flow of the message and allow for “on-ramps” — places for people to rejoin you after a more difficult section.  For example, maybe use an easily accessible illustration after launching a syntactical missile.  If they are not with you, then they are hunting for distractions.  And they will find them.

Preach as a pastor to real people 

We preach to people, not sermon-receptors.  People are imperfect and have attention spans that are not what they could be.  We love them anyway.  We want to help our listeners understand the word, and that process involves understanding them, distractions and all.

Above all else, let us believe that what we are preaching is the most important thing in the world, because it is.  Let’s preach it well, trusting the Holy Spirit to empower our preaching and their listening.

And give Old Man Sweeney a high five.  Those were some mad bee-killing skills.


* Minor distractions are in view.  If the building catches fire, promptly stop preaching and identify the exits.

4 thoughts on “Preaching to Distraction

  1. Hi John,

    If something major happens that requires care, like someone passing out or having chest pains, I have paused and called on appropriate people to help them (deacons or ushers). Depending on the conditions, I have called the congregation to pray as we care for the person in need. I can only remember this happening twice, to be honest. Recovering from that moment is a judgment call. It all depends on how serious the situation is. Say, if people are openly weeping over the episode, it calls for a drastic change in plans, to be sure.

  2. I once had this situation where someone collapsed seriously ill.

    We stopped. I prayed audibly for the person who was ill. We then all prayed silently.

    Eventually the person was taken out of the auditorium.

    I then said, “I know this is difficult, but I believe God has important things to say through His Word to us this morning. By God’s grace we’re going to try and carry on…”

  3. Thanks Tim and Colin. That’s how I have handled it myself. There are some situations where there’s no point in trying to press on because everyone is so distracted until the situation is resolved. Great post.

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