James urged his audience to “be doers of the word and not hearers only” (James 1:22). The emphasis is on doing, but we cannot do what we have not heard. Romans 10:14 asks, “how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?” Just as hearing is essential for believing, hearing is essential for our ongoing formation. Certainly one way to love the Lord with our mind is to pay attention in church.
We should not forget, however, that what we do in church is not—primarily—about us. While we often try to detach ourselves from those in the other pews, the Scripture does not align with our individualistic emphasis. Pastors often say, “forget about everyone else and worship the Lord.” What they usually mean is, “don’t be distracted by little Timmy playing with his toy trucks” or “don’t miss the log in your own eye because you are thinking about the speck in your brother’s eye.” Both of these emphases are important. But what many hear is, “this singing is all about me and what I can get out of it.”
Colossians 3:16, however, says that an essential purpose of “singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” is that of “teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (emphasis added). Paying attention in church is important for our own ongoing spiritual formation, but it is also essential for serving one another in love.
When I am listening to a sermon and I am uncertain or uneasy about the preacher’s thoughts, I inevitably glance to someone in the congregation who I respect. If I see him nodding his head in agreement, I naturally feel a sense of relief and begin thinking about how the message applies to my life. While it is vitally important that we think for ourselves, it is Biblical and right to look to more mature believers for guidance. Every Christian is a disciple, which means every Christian is not only a follower of Christ but also a follower of other Christians. Paul writes, “ye became followers of us, and of the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 1:6).
As disciples who follow, we are also called to be disciple-makers and examples to those who follow us. That means that every mature saint should think seriously about the message they are communicating to others while in church. Others are watching and taking their cues from you. If the message of a sermon pricks their heart and they see you nodding in affirmation or saying “Amen,” you take a part in “teaching and admonishing one another.”
It is normal and healthy for your followers to want to know what you think about an idea. The word “Amen” means “so be it” or “I agree with that,” and adds the weight of your witness to what is being said in a speaker’s monologue. While verbalizing an “Amen” is Biblically acceptable, someone with a shy personality may communicate the same sense by repeatedly nodding their head. When I am preaching, it is the head-nodders who gain my attention. I look to them because I know they are in my corner.
People know if you are paying attention. The song leader at my church recently told me, “I know who is with me and who isn’t.” Even with a view from the pew, it is easy to tell who is distracted. There are some people that I specifically avoid sitting with at camp meeting because I know they will lean over and whisper to me twelve times throughout the service. Unfortunately, I’ve caught myself being the distracter. Lord, help me! We never know how much our distractedness will cost another who desperately needs to hear the message. How shall they do if they do not hear? And how shall they hear if they are thinking about us?