As a worship leader, I often engage in discussions about distraction in worship. It is not uncommon for someone to tell me something like the following: nothing that happens in corporate worship should be a distraction. I have even said something of the same variety. Distractions offend us and, even more, hinder us from truly worshiping. What do we mean when we refer to distractions though? Without belittling true distractions (which surely exist), in my observations, distractions come in subjective and manifold forms. Perhaps there are not distinct criteria for defining distractions; perhaps the issue goes deeper to the point where we refer to discomforts as distractions when the two are not one in the same.
In 2 Samuel 6, King David dances naked before the Lord and in the presence of other people to celebrate the arrival of the Ark; yet, he said, “. . . I will make myself yet contemptible than this. . . ” (v. 22a) Although the people were discomforted, there was no shame or seeming discomfort for David, for he acted as the Lord God led him. Perhaps we should then consider distractions in a different manner and discomfort does not constitute a distraction. The issue might be within ourselves rather than the visible acts we observe from other worshipers. Maybe our discomfort infers that we are merely being stretched by Jehovah Mekadesh who sanctifies. Considering that, I would like to suggest four ways God might stretch us through discomfort in the context of worship.
Your Heart Is Being Stretched
When you are discomforted in worship, it could be that the Lord is stretching your heart to conform you to the image of Christ. So much of how we apply worship is rooted in the attitude of the heart. If we are to love the Lord with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength (Luke 10:27), God must change each of those aspects of our lives. Often, Christians tend to focus on one over the other, e.g. heart over mind or vice versa. The heart, in the Bible, refers to the seed of the emotions, i.e. it is not referring to the blood-pumping organ. For one’s approach to worship to be right, the heart must be right first. Since we are not yet perfect worshipers, part of our sanctification process includes a continuous change of the heart. When we think we are distracted in worship, is it because of an irreverent act, a selfish act, or an improper attitude of someone else, or is it merely because we do not like an external aspect of the worship service, e.g. someone who feels led to dance or lift their hands, loud music, or a musical style we do not enjoy? If it is the latter, it is likely that we are not distracted but rather discomforted and God is stretching our heart.
Your Mind Is Being Stretched
You might also be discomforted because God is stretching your mind. The Apostle Paul proclaims, “. . . I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also . . . ” (1 Cor 14:15 ESV) We should not make the mistake of assuming that spirituality and worship is more about the heart than the mind. We are to love God with the heart, soul, mind, and strength equally, not negating any aspect of the four parts of our person. A stretched mind plays out in worship often when one is discomforted by a sermon or something a leader verbalizes. Perhaps it seems too deep, or perhaps it makes one engage the mind more than they are comfortable with. Either way, we cannot assume that God expects to change our hearts and not our minds. Clearly, the Lord desires to transform us by the renewing of the mind (Rom 12:2). Comparable to the stretching of the heart, if you disapprove of an act of worship (especially displayed by someone else) that is not theologically wrong or blasphemous in and of itself, it might be that God is stretching you, and you should embrace his sacred work in renewing your mind.
Your Theology Is Being Challenged
As a worship leader, I often receive critical comments about song texts or the words proclaimed in a sermon, and it is usually from people who are not theologians, and, in fact, do little in the way of knowledge-growth except adhere to mere embedded theology they have rarely examined for themselves. To grow theologically, we must deliberate for ourselves, which often means that our theology is challenged. Secondary issues might not be salvific in nature, but they are no less important than anything else in the Bible; therefore, it is crucial that we examine these difficult issues.
The discomfort that arises as a result of worship words (whether in the music or the spoken word) could very-well be the result of God challenging your theology. Furthermore, you should not abandon such a challenge but should, instead, embrace it and delve into life-changing purposeful theology. A challenge to one’s theology is not necessarily a bad thing. I would dare assume that no Christian is precisely where they were theologically when they first came to know Christ. I certainly am not. God changes us and reveals truths to us throughout the course of our lives.
Generally, adamantly confessing someone’s wrongfulness on a secondary issue reveals not only our pride but perhaps (also) our discomfort. In the entire body of Christ and even in individual local churches, people do not see eye to eye. The diversity of the church then should be embraced and used as a growth tool rather than a divisive weapon. We should go back to the root of the worship act performed (specifically related to theology); is the act we assume to be a distraction inherently wrong or sinful? If not, it could be that our theology is being challenged. Let us embrace the challenge and deliberate.
Your Stylistic Preferences Are Being Challenged
Finally, a distraction might, instead, be discomfort if your stylistic preferences are challenged. I often hear believers express the truth that style is a negotiable aspect of worship; yet, the very same people will often criticize something that is not their preferred style, particularly when it is far outside the bounds of their preference. Humans can usually accept a little compromise, but it is difficult when the compromise greatly exceeds our bounds of comfort. A reality check could be to consider the diametric opposite of what you prefer; in such a case, would you still be able to worship? If not (and the style is not inherently wrong), you are likely not distracted but are rather discomforted. We might say that worship is not a matter of style, but when the discomfort level is raised enough, we could easily offer criticism.
I don’t only refer to music in this instance. I recently heard someone who attended a worship service, which included technological elements such as lighting and fog machines, ask, “Do we need all that to worship?” The obvious answer is no, but I don’t think that was the intent of the question. The person was likely not asking a question but making a statement, which essentially said, “I don’t like it.” If that is the substance of distraction, it is not a distraction but a discomfort. Many people might view technological advances such as lighting or fog machines as an artistic expression, no different than stained-glass windows in a worship space. Is it okay to criticize modern technology but not stained-glass windows? If the content of worship is accurate, the style should not distract you; it can be assumed then that your stylistic preferences cause discomfort and God is challenging you to worship him irrespective of stylistic elements.
Are You Distracted or Are You Discomforted?
If one’s gift in worship leadership is modern visuals, dancing, sign-language, or drama and you view it as a distraction, you should first ask if it is not a distraction but rather a discomfort and God is stretching you. It is one issue to determine discomfort, but it is another vastly disparate issue to admit it. We want our way, and when we don’t get it, we can easily try to spiritualize it to seem as if the issue is not our selfishness when it really is. If corporate worship is God-focused with Christ at the center, individual acts that are not inherently wrong should not hinder worship. They are not distractions but are discomforts, which we should allow to transform us to a point of uninhibited worship. May God search our hearts and reveal discomfort to us and his transforming purpose in it.