I was recently at a conference where each day the Bible study was led by a performance artist/theologian who acted out the biblical story and gave some exegetical/theological insight to the Scriptures. The content was terrific: substantial and challenging. But on the second day, a baby began to jibber-jabber loudly in the audience.
After a few minutes of this, the performer stopped the show, looked in frustration at the baby and parent, and said, “I love children, but I’m getting really distracted.” The parent and child got up and left the room … followed by several other parents who went out in solidarity and in protest.
I talked later with the parent and made this claim: A crying baby is a test as to whether someone is preaching or performing.
A performance is about focus and transmission of content—a solo or group act is on-stage doing an activity (singing, dancing, speaking, painting, instrument performance, etc.)—and it is the audience’s job to receive the content and appreciate or engage it.
A sermon (and I tend to appreciate black preachers’ definitions of sermons and preaching) is “verbal and nonverbal communication of the inward manifestation of a command by the Holy Spirit to relate to others something about God’s presence, purpose and power in one’s life and in the life of all of humanity.” (Teresa Fry Brown, Delivering the Sermon, pp. 17).
Given these two definitions, I get how babies can be a distraction to a performance. As a parent of an 11-month-old, my crying baby seems to be about 10x louder for me than she is for other people. Her cries are amplified, and her running commentary on her dad’s sermon pierces through a crowd. So I get how a baby would interrupt a performance’s transmission of beauty or message because they interrupt that well-crafted focus.
But preaching is about naming and claiming God’s love present in the room. It’s about that Holy Spirit that isn’t given to the preacher and then transmitted to the people: that Spirit is in each one there and they communicate back and forth. Churches that have call-and-response to the preaching moment get this phenomenon, and to them, crying babies are just another “amen” section. The preacher is preaching if they connect with the congregation; calling out a crying baby and causing them to leave idolizes the spoken word as more important than the body of Christ fully present in the room.
There are practical considerations: Churches create “cry rooms” so that parents feel more comfortable (and, to be honest, some non-parents, as well). Other parishioners can help comfort the baby if the parent is OK with it. I’ve seen my share of church-fails such as when another parishioner took a baby out of the parents hands and walked with the baby out of the sanctuary—had I been a more fully aware preacher, that would have merited a call-out! Let’s be clear: Parents self-selecting to take a baby out is one thing; public shaming or pressure to send a baby out is wholly another.
It’s my belief that if I can’t preach over, above, through or alongside a crying baby, then I have no business preaching. And I should do serious reflection as to whether I am performing the Word of God or if I am allowing the Word to speak through and without me—and the latter will not be stopped by a crying baby, and indeed, it is incomplete without the presence of all who need to experience it.
What say you?