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Sermon Interruptions

What to do when emergencies and outbursts bring your message to a halt

When I closed my eyes to pray, I was alone on the platform. When I said amen, a man I did not know was standing beside me. He immediately stepped behind a microphone and started talking …

After his sermon, a friend stepped to the Communion table. To his surprise he was met there by a woman who immediately shoved all of the Communion elements onto the floor …

In the middle of the sermon, a young woman walked onstage, interrupted the pastor, and announced that she had a message from God. When the pastor declined her request to address the congregation, she refused to leave. As two male ushers stepped up to escort her away, she began screaming, "This is just like the church. A bunch of overbearing men oppressing women."

Guess what? None of these events was on the program. And it's just a matter of time before something like this happens to you. Maybe it won't be someone demanding to speak—it might be someone having a heart attack, or the electricity suddenly going out.

If we can keep our wits about us, the unexpected can be a great opportunity to model mature Christian living.

Interruptions happen without warning, but you can be prepared. The real question is: Are you ready? Even if the service comes to a temporary halt, you don't have to lose your ability to lead.

There are several things you can decide right now that will help you and your congregation survive your next unscripted moment.

Keep your cool

In the movie The Apostle, Robert Duvall plays the part of Sonny, a Pentecostal preacher who gets so mad at a member of his congregation that he ends up beating the guy unconscious. While there are moments when this sounds like a wonderful option, it's not the best choice—at least not if you want to keep your job.

While researching this article, I learned of several pastors who lost their composure and then their positions. The result was the same whether they got mad and spoke too hastily—sound technicians and mothers of crying infants are frequent targets—or if they simply panicked and walked around looking like Chicken Little.

Leadership means keeping your cool, especially if everyone around you is losing theirs. Yelling is never a good idea. Nor is inaction.

Take charge

Alexander Haig is remembered a bit derisively for stepping up to the microphone to claim control in the moments after President Ronald Reagan was shot. While he can be faulted for misconstruing the presidential line of succession, I believe his soldier's instincts were right on. In a crisis, someone needs to lead.

When a worship service spins out of control, the senior pastor or the worship leader needs to step in and assert leadership. The good news is that just about any reasonable and calm action you take will be accepted. When the woman screaming about male oppression was being led out, the senior pastor asked the ushers to let her return to the stage. He then dismissed the congregation so he could talk with her privately.

"All 1,000 people filed out," he said. "And it was the quickest exit I've ever seen." He then invited her to share with him what she wanted to share with everyone. When it turned out that her message was that Brad Pitt was the prophet of God, he was able to get help for her and then invite everyone back in. When he explained what happened, the congregation was accepting.

While asking everyone to leave a service is rarely necessary, the point is that his calm and decisive improvisation kept a bad situation from getting worse. He led.

Provide direction

Some simple coaching to others may be all that is needed. When a homeless man wandered down the center aisle midservice and stopped to kneel at the feet of the senior pastor, the pastor turned to an usher and said: "Could you please help our brother. Take him into the lobby and pray with him and see what he needs."

When a man suffered a massive coronary near the first pew of The Chapel in Akron, Ohio, the pastor stopped his message and said: "There obviously is a problem here in the front rows. If you are a doctor, we invite you to help. And we need an usher to call 911, but for the rest of us, let's do what we can, and what we can do is to pray."

By suggesting a calm and loving next step, you help others process what is going on, and you also prevent others from rushing in, which can make things worse.

At the end of a service several years ago, a disturbed man challenged me to a debate on the question of immortality. I said I'd be glad to talk with him about that afterward, but he wanted a public debate, and he wanted it now. He became increasingly agitated and started swearing at me.

I let him go on a bit too long before I realized that some of the men in the church were about to swoop in and remove him forcibly. Things were about to go from awkward to ugly when I finally escorted him away myself. I should have taken control of things earlier and not allowed so many people to grow uncomfortable.

A leadership vacuum during a crisis opens the door for anyone to step in. Either the senior pastor or the worship leader needs to be prepared to calmly reassert control before things get out of hand.

Learn from the moment

The real opportunity a crisis provides is the teachable moment that follows.

After the Communion elements were scattered on the floor and several ushers had led the woman away, my friend turned to the congregation and said, "Well, Jesus told us to love our enemies. We have an opportunity to do just that right now. This woman is obviously not well. As the ushers reset the table, let's pray for her."

At a church in Hawaii, a drunken man stumbled in a side door of the church and walked out on stage before anyone had the presence to stop him. He looked at the senior pastor, who had stopped his sermon, and then looked at the congregation and said, "Hello." The senior pastor greeted him and asked how he could help him. The discussion led to a spontaneous interview that the pastor was able to weave into his sermon. If we can keep our wits about us, the unexpected can be a great opportunity to model mature Christian living.

Prepare a crisis team

Finally, because it is a given that there will be medical emergencies, technical meltdowns, crying babies, or unruly adults, we should prepare a strategy today to deal with tomorrow's surprises.

Talk through how you might handle the exceptional cases.

The first step is to be certain that the ushers are aware that their responsibilities extend far beyond handing out bulletins at the door. They need to help monitor what is going on in the service and be willing to help step in and calmly handle any emergency that presents itself.

Planning for the Unplanned

Fire crews, medical staff, and military personnel drill over and over to prepare for an emergency. We don't need to dedicate hours to prepare for the occasional surprises we face in church life, but it is prudent to set aside thirty minutes at your next staff meeting and/or usher training session to talk through the following scenarios.

Medical emergencies: How would you respond to a heart attack in row one or a seizure in the balcony? Do you have the medical equipment you need? A stretcher? A first aid kit? One of the new defibrillators? Is there an easy way to identify the doctors in the congregation? Who's ready to call 911?

Technical meltdowns: If the power suddenly goes out on a Sunday morning, will there be people trapped in total darkness somewhere in the building? If so, are flashlights and batteries readily available? Candles? Where will they be stored? Where do you keep extra cables and overhead projector bulbs? Should you buy a generator?

Crying babies and out-of-control adolescents: Do you have a process to direct parents with infants to a quiet room or seat them in a spot where they can easily slip out if they need to? Is someone responsible for graciously asking the parents of a screaming child, "May I help you take your child to the nursery?"

Is someone watching the balcony to be sure that the nudging and bumping among the middle-school group is stopped before it distracts everyone in the sanctuary?

Fire: What happens if a fire breaks out in the building? Who takes control of the sanctuary? Who makes sure the entire church is evacuated? Are your fire escape routes clear?

Insurrections: Are the ushers aware that it is their job to stop the obvious drunk from sitting in the front of the church? Are they prepared to help escort out someone who becomes deliberately disruptive? Are they able to do so in a loving manner?

Threats: Finally, it is not unheard of for sermons on controversial topics to draw a planned hostile response. Pastors are sometimes personally threatened. Churches have handled this by recruiting off-duty police officers to sit in the front (in civilian clothes) and monitor the service.

Mike Woodruff is senior pastor of Christ Church Lake Forest in Lake Forest, Illinois.

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