Boredom: It Ain’t All Bad

When I’m flying somewhere, I pray for a boring flight.

The last thing I want at 30,000 feet is excitement, which would usually involve turbulence or storms, equipment malfunction or a passenger problem. None for me, thanks.

“Mom, I’m bored.”

Sound familiar? The harried mama will be tempted to do something to interrupt this state of affairs in the life of her child. Most of her choices, I venture to say, are not good ones and involve the television.

“Good, honey. I’m so glad you are bored. Now, sit here and enjoy it.”

No parent says such a thing. But it’s not a bad idea. There’s a lot to be said for boredom.

Boredom at home can be good.

As a bored five-year-old, I was pestering my mom and bugging my little sister. That’s when Lois Jane Kilgore McKeever did something for which I have been grateful ever since: she sat Carolyn and me down at the kitchen table, gave us pencil and paper, and told us to “Draw!”

I discovered that I love to draw. I’m now 71 years old and still drawing. Cartooning is not what my life is all about, I’m glad to report. But it’s one aspect of my life. It’s fun, it’s creative, it’s an outlet for a lot of things, it’s a great way to bless people, entertain children, connect with strangers, and communication spiritual truths.

Boredom at church is another matter. Or is it?

We have all sat in church services that were boring. The music being sung is the same stuff we have done a thousand times before, the words long since having lost any meaning. The sermon was all monotone, the content uninspiring, the delivery practically non-existent, and the worshipers asleep.

I’ve known of pastors being terminated because the congregation was bored.

Recently, in a seminary class on worship, the students were assigned to visit three churches different from their own and to write up reports on their worship services. I’ve just finished grading 45 of those reports. Several students wrote of dropping in on the services of Catholic or Episcopalian churches with highly formal rites. After a while, I could just about predict what the next papers would say about these services since the students mostly came from a traditional Southern Baptist background: I was lost in there. I couldn’t figure out what was next. The people around me seemed to be just going through the motions in reciting prayers and responses. It was boring.

And then, in several instances came the surprising conclusion: I found myself liking it. I want to go back. Next time, I’ll have a better idea about what to do.

The fact is that boredom–whether in church or in the living room–is a lot like that featureless landscape in western Texas outside the car window: it has a beauty all its own, once you learn to see it.

The problem is our people don’t have the patience to handle boredom.

This morning early, I turned the television to the taped services of the First Baptist Church of the nearby city where I’m ministering. Having pastored three churches that ran their services on television, I know a little of the challenge that church faces in wanting to draw viewers into worship while presenting their own ministries in the best light. After 20 minutes, I left to begin this blog, but I had come to a conclusion by then: It’s an exciting church.

Is that bad? Not bad at all.

The “bad,” if you will, is that we treat boredom as though it is the cardinal sin in church life. In fact, I’ve probably said that it is.

I was wrong. I think. The jury is not in yet. Or, if it is in, the verdict is not unanimous.

I’m trying to say something positive about boredom.

Blaise Pascal said something to the effect that all the troubles of life have come upon us because we cannot sit quietly in a room.

My observation about the people in our pews is that they handle boredom in three ways and only these three ways:

1. They love it.

Evidently, a lot of them enjoy being bored in church since they seem to plan worship services that are strong in that feature. And, as we’ve said, many people want a formal, liturgical service that has zero spontaneity and thus few stimuli to arouse the adrenalin or stir excitement.

2. They leave.

They simply drop out of church and quit going altogether, convinced that Marx was right in calling religion the opiate of the people. As a disgruntled church member said to me the Sunday after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., when I had preached on the racial divide in America, “We come to church for some peace and quiet.” Some may, but others leave when there’s too much of her good thing.

3. They simply zone out.

They accept that this is how things are, that church is supposed to be uninspiring, sermons are supposed to deal with heavy matters in dead manners, hymns are supposed to be dragged out as though they were funeral dirges, and nothing not printed in the bulletin was allowed to take place.

I went to a church as pastor where the young people–the teens and collegians–sat in the farthest area of the balcony. If they could have found a more distant pew, they’d have retreated there. For years, the services and sermons of their church had missed them altogether and they had acclimated themselves to this as how things have always been, will always be, forever and ever, amen.

A friend from Ole Miss was down visiting my family that weekend. He had brought his guitar, so I invited him to play and sing a solo in church, something–I need to add–that was so unorthodox as to be heretical to some of our older people.

That morning, I introduced David Moak. He walked to the platform, sat on the stool, strummed his classical guitar, and crooned a sweet song (I have long since forgotten what he sang). After the benediction, two things happened: the older adults crowded around the minister of music to express their fears about what the new young pastor was doing to their wonderful church, and the young people spilled out of the balcony to meet the guest singer. They then moved over to their young pastor and said, “Where did you find that guy? He was wonderful.”

There’s a point in here somewhere. I suppose it’s that, while boredom has its uses, it can also be mind-numbingly awful, particularly in the area of life that should deal with the best Heaven has to offer.

There was nothing boring about Jesus. But I’m not Jesus.

Everywhere the Master went, lives were blessed or transformed or enraged. No one was neutral about Him, no one disinterested in the visit He had just made to their town, no one without an opinion.

But I am often boring. I get bored (which as I’ve tried to say, is not all bad), and no doubt I occasionally bore students in a classroom or worshipers trying to listen to me preach.

A boring sermon, if done only occasionally, is not the end of the world. Maybe the congregants needed a rest that day. (On Facebook, I’d follow that with a smiley-face.)

I have three suggestions concerning boredom.

1. Expect it occasionally. The adrenalin does not need to be pumping all the time. You will be needing some down time. Relax.

2. Use it. Pray. Reflect on what’s going on, something you read or heard or plan. In order to be its most creative, our minds need rest from the noise and busy-ness of life.

3. Value it. When you look back over the past few days, you will occasionally see something fine that came from those still moments when you thought you were bored. You dug out a great book that has become special to you. You thought of an old friend and reconnected. Or, you took a nap.

Well, a fourth suggestion, too, although of a lighter nature: The next time you hear someone mention in church that they found the sermon boring, assuming it doesn’t happen regularly, respond with something like: “Great. You know what that means, don’t you? Our pastor is such a great preacher that when the sermon isn’t up to par, you really notice. If he was a drudge every Sunday, you would never be making such a statement.”

Hey, it’s worth a try. 🙂

3 thoughts on “Boredom: It Ain’t All Bad

  1. When I was a kid, if I ever said “I’m bored” or “There’s nothing to do” I was given extra work – weed the garden, pick up sticks, stack firewood – or told to “Go outside and play”. My parents learned from their parents, ad infinitum, that the cure for boredom was action. It certainly cured me! It occurs to me that those who claim to be bored just need some impetus to involvement (like your mother setting you to drawing). Mostly, when I experience the feeling of boredom, it’s because I have no interest in what’s being said or done, or I have no involvement in it. So while boredom is not a cardinal sin, it could be an indicator that action needs to be encouraged.

  2. One other thing I’ve noticed: I’ve come out of meetings thrilled, humbled, challenged while others come out yawning – and vice versa. Engagement is a tricky beast, and only rarely catches everybody in the room…

  3. In USA Today in an article title “More Americans tailoring religion to fit their needs”

    “Barna blames pastors for those oddly contradictory findings. Everyone hears, “Jesus is the answer. Embrace him. Say this little Sinners Prayer and keep coming back. It doesn’t work. People end up bored, burned out and empty,” he says. “They look at church and wonder, ‘Jesus died for this?'””

    Best Regards


Comments are closed.