THERE WAS A TIME when society was much more traditional – “conservative” would be another way of looking at it, and people, whether Malay, Chinese or Indian, were constrained to act in time-honoured ways.

Time has changed many things, and we may smile at the custom which prevailed in some early Methodist churches in Singapore when men worshippers sat on one side, and the women on the other – the twain prevented from seeing the other side by a discreet curtain. Younger members were prevented from “socialising”, so that mixed male and female voice choirs were not permitted until around 1920.

Similarly, within the family, children were supposed to be seen and not heard. ey were often “excused” from gatherings where adults were socialising and engaged in polite and not-so-polite conversation. Prevented from taking part, or if they were allowed to stay, children were to remain silent and not fidget.

In the 21st century, this sort of strict behavioural control would be considered old-fashioned and we may welcome this new latitude, sometimes abused.

In contrast to the “conservative” habits of old, modern Singaporeans live at a time when one is quite free to socialise, whether in mixed company or across generational lines, although sometimes with doubtful consequences.

However, it is pertinent to ask whether the freedom to associate and socialise has its limitations. To illustrate, one may contrast the reverence of church worship and the carefully crafted expressions in the early days, with the informal, not to say, familiar and free-form expressions in vogue today. We seem to treat the Holy One the way we address each other – loudly and familiarly – so that the line separating the sacred and profane seems to have been blurred.

To add to the air of “informality”, there has been a growth of practices which are hard to justify in a worship atmosphere. In addition to conversing with friends, mobile phone conversations, texting and twittering have become commonplace in the world at large, and it may be wondered how these activities can be allowed to distract one’s attention inside the sanctuary. It is true that doctors and those who have to respond to emergencies need to be continuously contactable, but here, they can always switch to the silent mode, and act appropriately.

By and large, the proper attitude in church, surely, is a prayerful, reverent and expectant attitude where the focus should centre entirely on our worship of Him who is the Alpha and Omega. Otherwise, of what worth is one’s “worship” when our attention is broken?