Worship Surprises: How to Deal With Them

Sooner or later, every pastor has it happen. He’s in the middle of a sermon, all is going well, he’s on top of his game, the Lord is near, the people are listening well. And then, bam!

An interruption. A disruption. (He will feel like it’s a “corruption.” The trick, however, is not to turn it into a PRO-duction. Okay, enough of that.)

Something happens in the service the pastor was not prepared for. It throws him. For a moment, he is stunned into silence.

What he says/does next and how he does it could end up being far more important than anything he was saying in the sermon.

The people sitting in front of the pastor are of two minds: like him, they had their train of thought disrupted by whatever happened, and they are watching to see how he handles things.

These interruptions–surprises, disruptions, snafus, foulups–are generally of two types: 1) those involving matters within the congregation, and 2) those which pertain primarily to the preacher himself.

The pastoral team can make preparations for dealing with the first kind. By setting up a first aid team or training the ushers for emergencies, you’re set for handling most crises.

Someone in the pew has a health crisis. In the middle of your sermon, you notice a commotion on the right side of the auditorium. People are hurrying to attend to the victim. What to do? Because you have a first aid team on site, the pastor calmly tells the congregation that well-trained people are taking care of matters. He asks for quietness and prayer while they do their job. A musician will play softly and the pastor will walk back to check on matters. The EMS people arrive and the victim is taken to the hospital. The pastor will lead in prayer for the person, and then make a determination whether the service is ended or to go forward.

An intruder invades the worship service and creates a commotion with his loud rants. The ushers go into action and whisk the person into the foyer where he is dealt with in an appropriate manner.

A bride faints in the middle of the wedding. The wedding director is ready. Someone carries the bride into the church parlor, where she is laid on a couch or the carpet. The wedding director breaks open a vial of smelling salts, and she is given nourishment (a glass of juice or something). After a 10 minute break, the wedding resumes. All is well.

I’ve had all these things happen and more. And, we survived them.

Our concern here, however, is with the second type of abrupt surprises–those directly involving the preacher. He’s using powerpoint when it fails. He is relying heavily on his notes when he realizes the last pages are not to be found. Someone he was counting on to do something necessary to his sermon has dropped the ball.

The pastor is announcing some event or program when a staffer interrupts to say his information is wrong and to correct him. The staff member is correct. The pastor now stands corrected.

What he does next tells volumes about the pastor’s character.

Last Saturday, something happened that caused me to pray about how I handle such interruptions. What it was is irrelevant here. The point is that I had identified a problem with it and was asking the Lord for help.

Then, the very next morning, in the early part of my message, bingo! an interruption. A foul-up. Someone dropped the ball, and it was me. But there I am, preaching to 700 people with television cameras pointed my way and my image being projected onto two large screens, and I am discombobulated.

Not good.

(Before telling the story, I need to explain that the problem was not a major embarrassment to me nor to the powerpoint operator, I trust. We have since exchanged notes via email, and all is well.)

Does this happen with other people, I wonder. You’re praying about some area of your life that needs improving and the Lord sends you an object lesson to drive home that point.

On Friday, I emailed three scriptures to the person in charge of powerpoint. I typed out the verses exactly as I wanted them on the screen. (Since there are so many Bible versions, it’s important for the preacher to select which one he prefers.)

I arrived at the church in plenty of time to check on matters. But that’s where I dropped the ball. I sat on the front row and listened to the musicians rehearse, I greeted a few people, and then I drew a half-dozen youngsters. At no point did it occur to me to check on what would be projected onto the screen.

When preaching time came, I stepped up and made the typical introductory remarks. Then I called attention to the sermon text. When it came up on the screen, it was a different version from the one I had memorized and was prepared to recite from memory. Furthermore, the last verse was missing. Bear in mind, I’m finding this out as my mouth is uttering the words on the screen. Not good.

Now, what a preacher says in a moment like this and how he says it tells far more about his character than a dozen sermons.

So, what did I say? Nothing bad. And nothing embarrassing to my friend the powerpoint operator, I trust. I did ask and he signaled that, no, the final verse would not be thrown onto the screen. I think I told the congregation that I had meant for the scriptures to come from the New American Standard Version.

Not a major thing. But–and this is what bothered me–it wasn’t sharp. I had been caught unexpectedly by the little foulup and had not reacted as appropriately as I wished I had.

The next morning–this morning–the powerpoint guy and I exchanged notes. He had received my email only at the last minute and hardly had time to type it up. And I apologized for assuming that all was well and for not checking.

As one who still has a way to go regarding handling disruptions, here is my five-point checklist:

1. Figure on the unexpected happening. It will.

The less you anticipate disruptions happening, the more they will throw you for a loop when they do occur. So, expect the unexpected.

2. As much as you are able, plan for ways of handling such surprises.

This is where a great ministerial staff comes in. Discuss these matters with them, and get their input on how to prevent meltdowns the next time there is an eruption of some kind. And, if you do respond poorly to an emergency situation, at the next staff meeting, lay it out there before your team. Get input on how it could have been avoided and what to do next time.

3. Pray for the Father’s presence and guidance in responding to interruptions.

This will be your best resource. Nothing will assure you that your response will be in order and gracious like the Holy Spirit working within you.

4. Cut yourself some slack. No one is 100 percent all the time.

Sometimes you will blow it. That’s not all bad. I’ve even known a preacher to react in the way most of us dread the most, with a curseword. After the congregation recovered from the shock, some members actually gave the pastor points for being human.

5. Don’t be afraid to publicly apologize.

If you blew it and know it and everyone else watched you humiliate yourself (or worse, someone else), there is only one thing to do: confess it publicly and ask them to forgive you.

4 thoughts on “Worship Surprises: How to Deal With Them

  1. Joe: We had a wasp flying around the auditorium while I preached Sunday. Baptists evidently are fearful of wasps and a few nearly spoke in tongues! Give me your take on a senior lady who perpetually waits until I am mid way through my introduction to get up, crawl over five people, grab her walker and leave the service. Sometimes she returns (more commotion) and other times she just leaves. Every Sunday.

  2. Outside the little church this past Sunday, a parked Car horn began blowing to signal a break in. I had my hand in my pocket while preaching and feared I had hit the panic button on my keys so I took it out and hit it again to turn it off. Then–there were two car horns blowing distress! All Fifty people int the little church began to search for their panic buttons. One man went out and returned to tell the congregation it was a white Chrysler (which belonged to a visiting preacher in the congregation). He immediately pressed his panic button and it stopped. I sallied forth–the horn went off again. He immediately hit the button and cut it off again. I continued on. It happened again. He stood up and put his keys in the window of the church. It happened again. His wife finally figured out, she had given her keys to their little three year old grandson. He was activating th horn and his granddad was cutting it off without realizing the little lad was doing it. We all laughed and agreed it was a good day for preachers “to blow their horn”–for Jesus!

  3. Joe: I was in the congregation at Columbus FBC (about 1975 or 76) the day a visiting lady had a small screaming child, to the point of nobody hearing a word you said for several minutes. You handled it well. Seems like the key to both types of interruptions is patience and humor, with a little prayer thrown in.

  4. Bro. Joe, My late uncle, Estus A. Mason, told of a church he preached in that was “way out in the country.” His first service there my aunt Gertrude said, they had to choose the ruts you took down the road so they didn’t get stuck. They raised the windows, since it was a warm day, pre-air conditioning, and as he started to preach a rooster, who was nested in the woodpile just outside the window, jumped up and crowed in the middle of his sermon. My aunt said they forever after checked around the church to know what surprises might be in store.

    Recently deceased, M.C. Barton was my pastor as a teen. His daughters and I were friends. Again, it was pre-air conditioning days, windows open and a bug flew into his mouth as he preached. He gulped, and said, “It was chocolate. Will someone bring me a glass of water to wash it down?” and he continued to preach. Can’t keep a good man down.


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