On Sleeping in Church

It’s been said that preachers are a group of people who talk in somebody else’s sleep. It happens—probably happens every Sunday most everywhere. Somebody in the congregation or the choir nods off to dreamland. This is nothing new. One of my favorite stories in Acts is the story from Troas in chapter 20, where Paul, planning on leaving the next day, and having still much to say, preached all night long. A young man named Eutychus moved during the preaching to sit in a window. Was he feeling sleepy? Maybe the smoky haze of burning lanterns called for some fresh air. Who knows? But we do know this: while sitting in the window listening to Paul drone on and on, Eutychus fell asleep and out the window—a three-story fall that killed him dead. But not to worry, the church rushed down to him, and Paul raised that boy from the dead. Some wonder if Luke included this story as comic relief, to prove Paul as a prophet in the vein of Elijah and Elisha, or to provide an example of judgment on those who neglect the word of God. Maybe it’s all of those. Being a preacher, I certainly find the comic relief in it—especially since Eutychus would live to sleep in church another day.

Every church has its sleepers. I remember a man in a congregation I served who kept his eyes closed for most of my sermon. He told me it helped him concentrate. I think he was catching a few winks. A friend of mine was in a church where a particular man fell asleep every Sunday. And one Sunday, the man was so deep in his sleep that he slept through the sermon and even the closing hymn. Fed up with it, the pastor called on this sleeper to close in prayer. Sound asleep, he didn’t hear the pastor call. So the pastor called on him again, and the man next to the sleeper grabbed his shoulder, shook him awake, and said, “You’re supposed to pray.” “What? Huh?” The man groggily stood and prayed, “Thank you, God, for the food we’re about to receive.” Thinking he was at lunch, he said a blessing. It happens. It’s never bothered me much when somebody falls asleep during my preaching. I figure that if the church can provide twenty minutes of rest to some worn out soul, then we’re still doing some good.

But not every preacher feels that way. I read a story about sleeping in church that happened in a Puritan church in Massachusetts in June, 1646. I found the story in On This Day in Christian History by Robert Morgan. The Puritans of colonial New England appointed “tithingmen” to stroll among the pews on Sunday mornings, alert for anyone nodding off during the long, often ponderous sermons. They carried long poles with feathers on one end and knobs or thorns on the other. Worshipers napped at their own peril, and the results were unpredictable. Obadiah Turner included this entry in his journal from a particular Sunday (I’m Americanizing the English a little bit):

Allen Bridges was chosen to wake the sleepers in worship. And being much proud of his place, he had a fox tail fixed to the end of a long staff with which he may brush the faces of them that nap during the sermon, likewise a sharp thorn whereby he may prick such as sleep most sound. On the last Lord’s day, as he strutted about the meetinghouse, he did spy Mr. Tomlins sleeping with much comfort, his head kept steady by being in the corner, and his hand grasping the rail. And so spying, Allen quickly thrust his staff behind Dame Ballard and gave him a grievous prick upon the hand. Whereupon Mr. Tomlins sprang up much above the floor and, with terrible force, strike his hand against the wall; and also to the great wonder of all, profanely exclaim in a loud voice, “Curse ye, woodchuck!” He was dreaming ,so it seemed, that a woodchuck had seized and bit his hand. But on coming to know where he was, and the great scandal he had committed, he seemed much abashed, but did not speak. And I think he will not soon again go to sleep in worship.

I think Mr. Tomlins could have avoided his embarrassing moment if he had owned a book I purchased years ago: 101 Things to Do During a Boring Sermon. In this book Tim Sims and Dan Pegoda offer a variety of games, diversions, musings, and the like to stay awake while the preacher waxes on and on and on.  Among them:

  • “Bird Brain” in which the bored worshiper lists as many state birds as he can and then matches the state birds he’s listed to church members who look like one of the birds.
  • There’s also a game called “Song of Solomon” in which the bored worshiper composes an oozing love letter to a prominent church member, then leaves it, unsigned, inside a hymnal or pew Bible. Not only will composing that letter keep you awake during the sermon, it’s bound to perk up the person who finds it the next Sunday.

Sleeping in church: it happens.  We preachers aren’t immune either. I remember reading this bit of preaching counsel: “Rule #1: don’t fall asleep during your own sermon.”  Perhaps, we preachers could work a little harder on being more engaging in our preaching.  But even the best preachers will preach a handful of people to sleep. 

I wonder if Eutychus realized what he was starting on that hazy Troas night. His tribe has increased. That’s just life; that’s just church. People are going to sleep in church from time to time. But my real concern is not for those that sleep through a sermon now and then but for those who are in a deeper spiritual slumber. They may wear the form of Christianity, but their faith is only skin deep, not heart deep. They are asleep to the presence of Christ around them, asleep to his promptings, asleep to the needs of their neighbors, asleep to God’s word and God’s will and God’s ways. Some of them may stay awake through every sermon and take good notes—notes that move from ear to page while bypassing the heart.

Those are the folks I worry about. But their situation is not hopeless. If God can raise the dead, he can surely wake the sleeping. I pray he will. There’s a life to be lived, a God to be worshiped, truths to be learned, and a world that needs God’s touch through you.  Sleeping in church won’t help.  Sleepwalking through the week won’t help either.

So, preachers, may God give us grace and unction to preach sleeping people awake, and awake people to vibrant worship and Christian living.

3 thoughts on “On Sleeping in Church

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