Many churches focus on providing a compelling worship experience. The desire is to attract people to an excellent production where they can sing, learn, and leave feeling renewed. For decades we’ve called this approach “seeker-sensitive.” But does that sensitivity have limits?
News reports broke last week about a 12-year-old boy with cerebral palsy being removed from Elevation Church for being a “distraction” during the Easter service. The boy’s mother said, “Easter Sunday he got all dressed up, got ready to go, no small feat with a kiddo like him.” But, according to the report, after the opening prayer inside the sanctuary the boy voiced his own kind of “Amen.”
“We were very abruptly escorted out,” the mother said.
Following the incident, the boy’s mother contact church leaders with an offer to start a ministry for special needs children. She told reporters that the idea was “rejected.”
After the story was broadcast on the local news (you can watch the video here), Elevation Church issued a statement in which they clarified that “…this young man and his family were not removed from our church. They were escorted to a nearby section of our church where they watched the service in its entirety.”
The church also said, “It is our goal at Elevation to offer a distraction free environment for all our guests. We look forward to resolving any misunderstanding that has occurred.”
We certainly don’t want to jump on the pile and criticize Elevation Church for what may be a simple misunderstanding. But this incident does raise larger questions about what may be conflicting values in our churches. Specifically, the values of entertainment and hospitality.
Elevation, which probably represents the views of many churches, says they want to “offer a distraction free environment.” I’m assuming this means avoiding distractions from among the congregation, because in my experience there is plenty that happens on the stage that keep me distracted from God. Smoke machines and lasers, really? But I digress.
In our desire to be distraction free, must we remove individuals from our corporate worship whom God has called to himself? What are we communicating about the church, God’s Kingdom, and the character of God himself, if people with special needs are not fully welcomed? And we don’t have to focus on these extreme examples like the boy with cerebral palsy. In many of our congregations we don’t even want non-special needs children in our worship gatherings.
I’m not advocating a disorderly and chaotic form of worship, but I’m not sure Paul was arguing in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 for an entirely distraction free gathering either. When I pay $10 at the cinema, I expect a distraction free experience. (I saw Super 8 this weekend…worth every penny.) When I shell out $100 to see a Broadway production, I expect a distraction free experience. But when I come freely to worship the Living God and gather with his people whom he describes as the foolish, weak, and despised in the world (1 Cor 1:26-28)–I do not expect a distraction free environment.
Remember blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10)? When Jesus came by he began shouting. The crowd wanted him to shut up. He was a distraction. But Jesus welcomed
the distraction of this blind beggar and healed him. Or what about the children in the marketplace found earlier in the same chapter? The disciple tried to stop people from bringing their children to Jesus. Again, they were a distraction. But Jesus said, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.”
Those whom our culture labels a distraction, Jesus calls recipients of his kingdom. That should make us pause.
A few years ago I helped our church launch a new congregation. We started out meeting in a community center. There were only about 50 adults and a whole lot of kids. One of them was severely disabled. Like the boy described at Elevation Church, he often made loud outbursts in worship…sometimes during my sermon or the prayer of a worship leader.
But our congregation began with a high value placed on hospitality. When this boy was in attendance a worship leader would often let the congregation know at the beginning our time together. And he’d inform visitors that, “If he makes any loud noises during our time, rather than allowing it to frustrate you, use it as an opportunity. His presence with us, and the noises, remind us that we are all welcomed by God no matter who we are.”
Some Sundays it was difficult. Some Sundays it was beautiful. Every Sunday it was the Church.