Keeping the attention of folks in the pews these days is not as easy as it once was.
As a priest and teacher, I communicate the message of the Church to basically two groups of people. First, there are those who regularly attend church services, know and pray the Badarak, read the Bible, and are serious to various degrees about their faith. Then there are those who attend Badarak occasionally or rarely, perhaps for Easter, Christmas, or a Requiem Service for a deceased family member, and that’s about it.
The attentiveness I and certainly other clergy devote to preaching has me questioning at times, “What am I really trying to achieve in offering these words and to what purpose?” Add to this the hopeful realization that somehow what I am saying is pleasing to God.
I am not the first to wrestle with this tension. St. Paul himself said that people often complained that his letters were weighty, full of meaning and passion, but that he was not so captivating in person. But Paul did not measure his preaching by his ability to keep everybody awake. He had bigger fish to fry.
He writes to his friend Timothy to say:
“Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” (II Tim.1:13).
If I am to be true to my priesthood, I am to communicate honestly and truthfully, using biblical precepts on every day issues that our faithful – young and old alike – are dealing with: issues of racism, kids being bullied, sexting, pornography, suicide of teens, the drug epidemic, homelessness, as well as society’s wavering views on ethical and moral issues that stand in contradiction to Church teachings.
In the Armenian Orthodox Church, contrary to the opinion of some, the primary criterion for the effectiveness of a church service or sermon is not holding the people’s attention. It’s not compliments after the service, or growth in attendance, or satisfying our staunchest critics, or increasing the contributions in the collection plate – much to the dismay of Parish Council members. It is not being a nationalistic, flag-waving preacher, trying to satisfy the dogmatic Armenian.
It is to be this: Is Christ being formed in those who hear and participate in the active spiritual life of the church or not?
To capture someone’s attention is to cause them to sit up and take notice. It is the waking of a sleeping conscience. It is the answer to a cry of hope to someone drowning in a sea of despair.
Beauty, pain, joy, and love are the great arresters of our attention, and the gospels are full of these. Sometimes this means we get creative in gaining peoples’ attention; and sometimes it means we are willing to risk losing it.
In the context of worship, amusement is a waste of time, a waste of life, and therefore a form of sin. A priest in the Armenian Orthodox Church is not here to entertain the person sitting in the pew like some of the evangelical characters we see and hear on television that can talk the bark off of a tree and the money out of your bank account. In our Armenian Church the supreme offering of the Badarak itself goes beyond any words of preaching.
I have been to a variety of churches – those of our neighbors and our own – and listened to sermons that were anything but informative. Many were ill prepared, lacked a focus, and at the end, I had difficulty understanding what message the preacher was trying to communicate, let alone teach.
We know that the sermon of a believing pastor can be tremendously inspiring, can remain on our minds having an affect on our daily lives. If you want to really hear a “preacher” in the truest sense of the word do yourself a favor, go online, find and listen to the preaching of Billy Graham.
However, at the very least, Badarak should never be boring or uninspiring. When choirs and altar servers sing or chant with little spirit or joy in their offerings, when words are mumbled without clarity resulting in the inability for the faithful to either understand or to pray them, such offerings are boredom in the least, ineffective at best, and sinful at worst.
But the singing of a faith-believing choir, or the instructional litanies of like-minded altar servers, can inspire the faithful to sing and respond with joy, strengthening their belief in what is being witnessed, having them return to their homes perhaps as changed people.
Our Badarak, our faith teachings, our Sacred Sacraments, all are in a sense like windows opening on the Kingdom of God. Windows are not what we are to notice. A window is not for looking at; it is for looking through. Windows, like icons and sacred paintings, even the words of a sermon, are designed to be openings that enable us to see something else — someone else.
Our attention can be arrested by deeply dramatic moments, but our character cannot be re-formed by dramatic events alone. That demands a longer, slower, less glamorous process. Like our habits, we have to be re-trained. Spiritual maturity is not the capacity to see God in the extraordinary: Spiritual maturity is the capacity to see God in the ordinary.
And if you receive that capacity, if you become someone with eyes that can see and ears that can hear, you have been given a gift. It is life beyond boredom; it is life beyond amusement; it is life beyond being attentive. It is resurrection.
Be resurrected to that life which is itself, life with Christ.