How to Behave in Church

I’ve been stressing lately over how we deal with the behavior of the youth in Sunday morning worship.  Sometimes they get a little rowdy.  It is not at all unusual for some of them to sleep through other’s rowdiness.

I occasionally am asked to “do something about” their attrocious behavior in worship.  More often than not this admonition or suggestion comes from the “this is God’s house, so you so act right” part of the brain of the adult who is telling me about the problem.

Here’s my problem with their problem.

We serve 200+ youth between ages 12 and 18 all of whom are labeled, for various reasons, “at-risk.” It is impossible to fairly stereotype them.  Our congregation each Sunday morning is a collection of mixed races and ethnicities, spans the socio-economic spectrum, and varies as widely as the general population in their past level and type of church involvement. (In other words, United Methodists, this does NOT look like your church!)

Sometimes adults have been known to throw in the “R” word in this context, meaning “reverence.”  We want to teach the youth to be reverent, so the thought goes.  This, of course, turns out to be the middle to upper-middle class Anglo version of “reverence,” which roughly translates to “sit down and shut up.”

Sure, I want the youth to pay attention to me when I am preaching, and, in fact, to the whole of the worship service we offer.  I want them to want to be there and want to listen and sing and participate appropriately.

I also want world peace.  And I want everyone else to want world peace, too.

I tend to think that telling them to behave “reverently” because “this is God’s house” tends to miss the point with these young people.  I think it tends to be one more way we adults who have established ourselves as in control of them and ourselves, hold “god” over their heads to try and get them to behave the way we want them to.

It works to our disadvantage, I believe, to set worship apart from every other activity in their lives in terms of behavior.  It is almost as if we are telling them, “It doesn’t matter how you act anywhere else, this place (referring to the chapel or sanctuary) is where we worship God, so here we behave.”

I think it more appropriate, and perhaps more effective, if we teach them that there are sets of behaviors that fits different times and spaces of our lives.  It is appropriate to act differently in PE class than in math class. It is appropriate to act differently at a basketball game than at a graduation. It is the social circumstances, rather than the expectation (or lack thereof) of God being there and recognized that I believe ought to set our expectations for how we behave when.

I appreciate your thoughts on this.

13 thoughts on “How to Behave in Church

  1. Didn’t Jesus say somewhere, “Go ye therefore and and pacify the youth?” Or was it something like, “The stones themselves will cry out?”

    In general, we’ve planned and structured our “worship services” in such a way that we don’t need God. We still do them in the name of God, and want people to respect God (and especially to respect those of us who stand in place of God). My guess is that until the leaders consistently model a true spirit-led worship, a random assemblage of teenagers will not usually figure it out. But as we in leadership model worship, maybe we can give God space to raise up worship in them.

    I don’t see how this is likely to start in such a large group (short of a special outpouring of the spirit). Are there any small group worship settings where they can learn more intimately?

  2. I suspect they aren’t worshipping because they don’t have a reason to worship. Specifically, because that real, personal relationship with Jesus isn’t there yet. Until that happens, what are they supposed to do? Pretend? Just sit there (which is what I did most of my teenage years)?

    It also beings up this point: what *is* acceptable behavior during worship for any of us? That sure varies between churches, doesn’t it? 🙂 Normal worship at one church might get you kicked out of another!

  3. LOVE IT!

    I know in our youth ministry, I often hear the phrase between teens (when certain words, jokes, etc., come out of someone’s mouth), “Don’t say that! You are at church!”, to which I usually say, “Ok…so does that mean it’s just fine-and-dandy to say those things outside these walls??? We should be the same people here as everywhere…the question is, which ‘person’ should permeate everything: the ‘church you’…or the ‘everywhere else’ you?”

  4. There are a couple of issues here.

    1) You rightly address that there are different time/space issues that necessitate different ways of behaving. When I was in Killeen it was harder to get kids to behave during worship as we worshipped on a basketball court. The space itself was screaming PLAY AND HAVE FUN!
    There is a need to teach all kids that sometimes whether we like it or not, we have to exihibit certain behavourial patterns due to social expectations. Now, even I recognise that fact even while pushing those boundaries sometimes. (ie wearing jeans to preach in).

    2) The idea of worship in general, and ‘reverence.’ I would change slightly what DT says, because you can have a personal relationship with Jesus and still ‘misbehave’ in worship. I have done that myself from time to time. The issue is one of meaning. I would say that I have sat through things that I didn’t agree with, but that I could behave properly before because they held meaning. I would suspect that 1950s Upper Middle Class white worship is nearly devoid of all meaningful content for the majority of those in the pews. I doubt that real issues that those kids are facing come up very often in the sermons. I bet the ‘otherness’ of God is preached much more than the ‘closeness’ of God.

    Just my 2 cents (and 2 points.)

  5. This may work in response to both of you: I have learned in my time here that part of the expectation for our department is to prepare youth for assimilation into churches when they leave here.

    By this I don’t mean (but wish I did) that assimilation into church meant a relationship with God in the Body of Christ…

  6. Assimilation? Man, that word makes me shudder.

    (cue Pink Floyd music)

    “All in all you’re just another brick in the wall…”

  7. i get this one too, but our community in its short life has accepted youthful exuberance during worship and encourages audience participation.

    on another note, we are engaging in a message series regarding sex/intimacy (based on Rob Bell’s SEX GOD) and the first response i get is what will i do with the youth during this series b/c the worship service content may be too controversial for them? really!? worship would be a dangerous place for youth to hear honest, faithful dialogue and discussion about one of our fundamental directives from God (be fruitful and multiply) as well as healthy, responsible ways to share intimacy with others? worship is too dangerous for our youth?

    i liken my worship experience to seminary classes, sometimes lectures and class captured me, so much so that i never looked at the time once and in fact wanted the class to go OVER time to continue the awesome experience. there were other lectures (and classes) where i constantly watched the clock tick away so that it would end and i could get the hell out of there. worship, true worship, allows us to transcend time and forget what we are “supposed to be doing” to come in contact with the holy. worship allows us to let our guards down and come in contact with the lovingkindness of God. when we are allowed to do that, we will pay attention. to propose that our duty as youthworkers is to prepare youth for assimilation into devoting their undivided attention to something that they find little connection with is not only unhealthy but spiritually damaging. it is training them to set their expectations low spiritually and feign enthrallment with something that they may not feel any real connection to. Christ does not come to enthrall the masses or ensure people are acting correctly./”reverently” in worship, he comes to transform the world, to give life and give it abundantly. the only account we have of Christ in an actual worship service is from Luke, where he stands and reads the scroll, and we see where that gets him.

  8. Interesting question. Our church has a lot of refugees from diverse countries … and a new group from Nepal sits behind us and talks out loud during the whole service. A couple of them are kids but most are adults. Of course we want them there and appreciate the hardships they’ve been through and are going through, but it is really hard not to get aggravated with the constant chatter behind us. I don’t know what it’s about that they talk so much and so loudly … cultural differences, boredom, or what.

    In my opinion it’s perfectly OK to expect a certain amount of decorum in church. There’s a reason we behave differently in church than other places (and church is NOT the only place — in order to learn in the classroom they’re generally expected to behave themselves, too.) It’s hard to concentrate when people are loud and otherwise disruptive.

  9. I think this is right: “I think it more appropriate, and perhaps more effective, if we teach them that there are sets of behaviors that fit different times and spaces of our lives…. It is the social circumstances … that I believe ought to set our expectations for how we behave when.”

    Another question here is whose choice is it that they are there? If it is explained to them that the church service is a community function, and that there are certain behaviors that are acceptable and others that are not, for the good of the community (or for the successful carrying-out of this particular function of the community), then they should be given the choice: attend, with the expectation that they adhere to the behavior parameters, or don’t attend, in which case they don’t have to worry about it. And, if they attend but then don’t adhere to the behavior expectations, then there’s no reason to get angry at them. You just indicate that they’re having trouble sticking to the agreement, and excuse them until they’re ready to try again/re-commit.

    If it’s NOT their choice, then the community needs to either re-assess its expectations, or hunker down for a long, perhaps never-ending struggle.

  10. P.S. Is it right-headed to try to make a one-size-fits-all service to begin with? The services of my youth were geared toward small-town, non-intellectual octogenarians hoping to hedge their bets in the(ir) final days. Turned me off for life, pretty much.

    In these Twitter/FaceBook/text-messaging/YouTube/Web2 days, it’s hard for me to see how the traditional, “reverent” monologue model is gonna last — but, then again, I’m surprised it’s made it this far, so what do I know?

  11. How constricted are you to “have church” on Sunday morning? By that I mean to have everyone in one big room at one time doing the same thing and hopefully having a fruitful experience. If you are locked in to that by hierarchy that you can’t change, then you are stuck with trying to find a compromise of elements that will capture a majority of the kids. If you’ve got some freedom, then you can experiment with different approaches.

    One of the things we’ve had good success with in Sunday School (which sometimes has an element of forced compliance by parents) is to offer to divide the class based on talking or doing. We start off with a theme and scripture, then let the students decide if they want to explore further with: a deeper discussion, or: create an expression (skit, song, artistic whatever).

    While our kids haven’t been classified as “at risk,” they have plenty of distractions that keep them from living lives of reverence. Our traditional liturgical & choir-based worship certainly doesn’t seem to inspire the majority of them to discipleship. They are “reverent” in church on Sunday morning, but it’s not relevant to their lives.

    Our attempts to serve their spiritual needs (whether they can articulate what they think they need or not) is to create more connection points. We have between 40 to 50 or so students that regularly participate in something that I would say has some spiritual value. (I do love purely fun stuff with them, which is important for building relationships, but that’s not necessarily the real work of discipleship)

    Now we almost never see all 40-50 of those kids in the same room. But between Sunday School, Sunday worship, youth band, youth fellowship, youth choir, Tue small group, Wed small group, & Wed bible study I have opportunity. I have a chance or two almost every week to say or do something that I pray will draw them a bit closer to Christ. I don’t badger, I don’t beg, I don’t use guilt. I try to serve their spiritual needs rather than do things that are supposed to serve their needs.

    There is an incredible video on youtube called “Worst Worship Ever.” Looks like a big budget production in a big budget youth worship area. The youth leader dude with a faux-hawk finishes up a message about holy ground, asks everyone to kick off their shoes, & then somehow cranks into a version of “You Spin Me Right Round Jesus Right Round” that inexplicably morphs into the “Cotton Eyed Joe.” Looks like a great example of how far off things can go if we don’t concentrate on real relationships, real connections, and real discipleship.

  12. We tend to think of this kind of so-called inappropriate behavior during the sermon only. Is that the only part or the most important part of the worship experience? I thought that worship (liturgy) is not about trying to get people to “pay attention” or “to act reverently.” I thought liturgy is about teaching our people–even our younger folk–the practices of the xian faith; liturgy should be formational. Too often worship is unilateral (the clergy-type ‘leading’ and the people sitting there expected to soak it all in). No wonder–when done this way–do young people check out. My questions are: how do we do prayers in worship? how do we do confession? how do we have opportunities for giving? how do we allow people to be liturgists? Liturgy is “work of the people,” not “entertainment of the people.”

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