By Rev. Kyle Norman, Crosswalk.com
We’ve all seen them, people who attend the church in body but not in spirit. They stand during the singing, but their lips never move, nor do their hand ever raise. In prayer, they seem to look forward aimlessly, and the sermon is received with an attitude of disinterest.
In a word, they are bored. It happens all the time. In fact, I am sure there are times when I have been bored in church.
Is it okay to be bored in church? This question appears easy to answer, requiring nothing more than a “yes” or a “no.” I posted this question on social media and instantly had emphatic responses in each direction. “No!” someone exhorted, “if we are bored, we are not worshiping!”
This respondent went on to describe how our primary call as a people of faith is to pay attention to God. God’s holiness demands our love and praise. Boredom, therefore, is an antithesis to love — a dispassionate engagement with the Lord in our midst.
Yet another person commented, “Yes! It’s okay to be bored because worship is not entertainment. Boredom may mean distraction, not disinterest.” This person went on to talk about how we come to worship “as we are” amid feelings of anger, worry, or sadness.
Our personal disposition in worship never discounts God’s loving acceptance of us. One is free to be bored in church because our worship is never perfect, yet God accepts us just the same.
The dichotomy of each response indicates the complexity of this question. Embedded into this question are various presuppositions regarding how we understand “boredom” and how we understand “the church.”
Thus, the answer to the question depends on how we understand these two realities, along with how we understand God’s intention for our worship life.
What Do We Mean by ‘Boredom’?
The basic definition of boredom is to have feelings of disinterest towards something or someone. Boredom is a negative response to what occurs around us.
When we feel disinterested in the events, activities, or people surrounding us, we close ourselves off mentally and emotionally. We tune out. When it comes to our worship within the church, boredom works against our active involvement.
The opposite of boredom is interest or attentiveness. Too often, however, we conflate boredom with a lack of enjoyment. We claim boredom whenever the worship of the church doesn’t fit our preconceived preferences or expectations.
For example, one might feel bored because the songs or hymns were not to their liking. Thus, the individual may choose to not sing those songs and thereby criticize the service as being uninspired, unenjoyable, and boring.
But where does the problem truly lie? Was it the service that was boring, or was it the person’s failure to engage in the worship before them? Worship is not entertainment, and our personal enjoyment is never the goal of our time in church.
The fact is, if we make personal enjoyment a criterion of “good worship,” then we will always be chasing an elusive dream. None of us should go to church believing the service must adhere to our preferences.
In fact, places and times where we are discomforted during service may be more transformative for us than times when we feel exhilarated and entertained. It may just be that God leads us into a time of boredom to dislodge us from a false and idolatrous view of worship.
Despite the level of our personal enjoyment in the singing, preaching, and events at church, as Christian people, we are to maintain our worshipful interest.
We are to be attentive to the Lord in our midst regardless of how “enjoyable” we find the service before us. Liking the chosen hymns ought to have little effect on one’s attentiveness to worship God in the community of faith.
What Do We Mean by ‘Church’?
In today's me-first age, it is easy to engage with the Church in an individualistic manner. “Church” means nothing more than the place to attend a weekly service of worship.
Concern over the church’s worship easily denigrates into whether we like or don’t like a particular hymn, sermon, or liturgical style.
I once received an email from a parishioner that began, “worship sucked today.” The person then went on to describe how all the hymns were not sung to his liking.
Such an individualistic understanding of the Church flows against the biblical understanding of the community of faith. The church is more than a collection of individuals gathered in the same location.
The church is a fellowship, a body of believers. This means that the people of God are called to act together in a unified way, to praise and worship God. This multiplicity of people means that there will be a multiplicity of preferences. Unity does not mean uniformity.
If we enter the church in an individual way, then we will naturally begin mediating our experience of the church through the lens of personal enjoyment and entertainment.
Whenever something doesn’t align with our own preconceived or self-focused expectations, we will criticize our experience under the rhetoric of boredom.
We might describe how the need “get something out of” the service or how the sermon ought to “feed me.” In doing so, however, we become solely concerned with how the sermon, Bible reading, liturgy, or music speaks to "me" alone.
Instead, what might it look like to participate in the activity of the community, despite our own feelings of enjoyment? For example, might we sing a hymn we don’t like to lend our voice to the uplifting of another?
Might we rejoice in a sermon that doesn’t “feed me,” trusting that God uses those words to bless another? Such a robust understanding of the community of faith helps us enter the movement of the Spirit beyond our own isolated comforts.
It is hard to be bored in church when we see ourselves participating in a dynamic fellowship with each other and the Spirit of God.
We can see how the question of whether one can be bored in church is quite complex. If we mean, “is it okay not to feel entertained in church?” then the answer is undeniably “Yes!” The worship of the Church does not exist for our self-defined gratification.
However, if we take boredom to mean a lack of interest or engagement with the Spirit, then we must declare a resounding “No!”
Boredom in church testifies that we are not fully attentive to the work of God in our midst or the needs of our brothers and sisters in community. Boredom would be an indication that our prayerful focus has gone awry.
So, if both realities are correct, then how might we go forward?
Perhaps the question, “is it okay to be bored in church?” is less important than pondering, “how do I respond if I am bored in church?” The fact is, in every church, every Sunday, there will be people struggling with boredom. It happens.
When this occurs, our call is to allow our feelings of boredom to correct us. Our feeling of boredom offers us the opportunity to reflect on what is occurring in our spirit. Is the worship butting up against our selfish expectations?
Could God be confronting an attitude of individualism? Conversely, might our boredom be rooted in a failure to engage with the community around us? If our boredom is rooted in distraction, how might we offer that distraction to the Lord?
Thus, boredom, as uncomfortable as it can be, may call us back to prayerful attentiveness. It may move us into a deeper engagement with the Spirit of God. So, while it may be okay to be bored in church, it is never okay to be satisfied with boredom.
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The Reverend Dr. Kyle Norman is the Rector of St. Paul’s Cathedral, located in Kamloops BC, Canada. He holds a doctorate in Spiritual formation and is a sought-after writer, speaker, and retreat leader. His writing can be found at Christianity.com, crosswalk.com, ibelieve.com, Renovare Canada, and many others. He also maintains his own blog revkylenorman.ca. He has 20 years of pastoral experience, and his ministry focuses on helping people overcome times of spiritual discouragement.