How one handles a crying baby is a test of whether you are preaching or performing.
A Crying Baby…or Two?
By now, many folks would have read the reports of an exchange between the Republican nominee for President, Donald Trump, and a tiny baby.
It seems a baby began to cry at Trump’s rally within earshot of the nominee. First, Mr. Trump addressed the situation charitably:
“Don’t worry about that baby. I love babies,” Trump said after hearing the baby crying during an aside about the trade imbalance. “Don’t worry about it. I love babies. I hear that baby crying, I like it. What a baby. What a beautiful baby. Don’t worry, don’t worry. The mom’s running around like—don’t worry about it, you know. It’s young and beautiful and healthy and that’s what we want.”
But then after two minutes of crying, Trump called for the woman and child to be ejected from the speech:
“Actually, I was only kidding, you can get the baby out of here,” the Republican nominee said to laughter and applause. “That’s all right. Don’t worry. I, I think she really believed me that I love having a baby crying while I’m speaking. That’s OK. People don’t understand. That’s OK.”
For the Republican nominee, Trump wasn’t able to speak over a crying baby. And that made me realize that these speeches–at least for Mr. Trump–are more about his performance than they are about his connection to the rest of the crowd.
For preachers, a crying baby also tests whether one is preaching…or performing.
A few years ago, I was 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 I 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 a toddler and a 10-month-old, my crying baby seems to be about 10x louder for me than she is for other people. Her cries are amplified, 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 those practical considerations do not overwhelm my theology of the moment: Preaching is about naming and claiming God’s love present in the room. The Holy Spirit isn’t given to the preacher and then transmitted to the people: that Spirit is in each one there communicating back and forth from pulpit to pew. 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.
Engaging the Crying Baby Test
I think you can tell a lot about a preacher by how they handle the distractions and especially the babies in the preaching moment.
There are practical ways to respond:
- 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 okay 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.
But in the end, 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. If the latter, I should be confident that the Word 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?
(Note: some content appeared in this September 2013 post)