Lamps in the Upper Room

Falling asleep in church is almost as old as the church itself.

For something that is one thousand, nine hundred and seventy-six years old, that is a mighty long time. Falling asleep during worship – especially it seems during the portion devoted to teaching – is far too common and even customary for certain worshipers.

For some, it is an unpleasant reaction to necessary medications or getting off work after a midnight shift. In such cases, drowsiness is less a reflection upon the worship or the worshiper and more upon the unenviable circumstances of life.

For others, however, ecclesiastical drowsiness might be evidence of boredom with the current service or worship itself, or it might result from too little sleep the night before. Raucous parties, midnight movies, even nocturnal insomnia can render the worshiper incapable of concentration.

Eutychus, of course, is acknowledged as the most famous “church sleeper” in history. Luke writes that, “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered. And a young man named Eutychus, sitting at the window, sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked still longer. And being overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead” (Acts 20:7-9). 

Fortunately for Eutychus, he had both a good excuse for his slumber and a miracle-working preacher to meet him down below and restore his life. “And they took the youth away alive, and were not a little comforted” (12).

It is the rare preacher today who prolongs his message to midnight, regardless of when he starts. Most sermons seem to last 35-50 minutes, although gospel meeting lessons tend to take a few minutes longer.  Even the heartiest pulpiteer is usually satisfied by 75-90 minutes of the sound of his own voice.

Yet, even when the sermon expires at half an hour, there are some who involuntarily doze off in their padded seats. Age, medication, even an exhausting shift of work might be to blame. 

What if the preacher, however, is partly to blame? Could it be that he takes the most magnificent message known to mankind and reduces it to an exercise in tedium?

Could be. Even the apostle who preached until midnight confessed that he was no great orator. “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom” (First Corinthians 2:1). Popular opinion held that, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account” (Second Corinthians 10:10; cf. First Corinthians 2:4, 13).

While all this is far from proving Paul to be a boring speaker, it does suggest that some speakers will be superior to others at the art of oratory. After all, some will surely be more apt to teach than others (see Acts 18:24 and Second Timothy 2:2, 24).

In addition, younger generations of saints – especially those from Generation X on down – have been raised on fast-paced media, seven-second sound bites, 30-second promotions, and rapid-fire data. They are accustomed to having a TV remote control in one hand and a joystick in the other, always prepared to hop to the next channel or blast away at any foe. It is impossible for a sound gospel preacher to wedge himself and his message into that culture without looking absolutely ridiculous or emasculating his teaching. Probably both.

Certainly, preachers should try to keep their lessons interesting and engaging, not speaking in monotone or lazily reading their manuscripts. Maintaining eye contact and moving around a bit help to hold interest, as do informative slides. Humor and pertinent illustrations have a place in an interesting presentation, but must not be abused by excess so that they become the real focus. 

Maybe, however, it is not really the preacher who is boring, but the worshiper who has become bored with his religion and its inconvenient weekly summons to worship. “About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing” (Hebrews 5:11). Such folks are of the same ilk as the unbelievers whose “heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them,” Jesus said (Matthew 13:15).

Christianity, worship and Bible reading will surely lose their novelty as the disciple naturally progresses toward maturity and returns time and again for more instruction. Absent novelty, some lose their zeal and it shows when they halfheartedly appear at the worship hour, worn out from play or simply ready to contribute nothing more than their mere bodily presence. Their minds wander during prayer and the Supper, only their lips are moved while singing and 40 minutes of teaching seems either sadistic or soporific. 

What can be done when a lack of zeal is the reason for nodding off in worship? A soft heart will try to reengage itself – listen more attentively, take notes, turn to the announced passages and think about the message. Find the application. Even most boring preachers have something to say since they must turn and read God’s word every now and then. Be sure to get plenty of sleep if possible and refrain from sitting in a darkened, solitary corner of the auditorium. 

“Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11). Turn on the lamps in the upper room of your brain and zealously seek a sincere interest in God’s will.