“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. But Paul went down and bent over him, and taking him in his arms, said ‘Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.’ And when Paul had gone up and had broken bread and eaten, he conversed with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed. And they took the youth away alive, and were not a little comforted.” — Acts 20:7-12
I feel sorry for Eutychus, first, because he fell asleep on the Apostle Paul, second, because his sleepiness had such unhappy results, and, third, because Luke was there to record the whole thing! This is the first record of someone falling asleep in church. There have been thousands of successors, but Eutychus is the one everyone remembers.
The Danger of Falling Asleep in Church
As a pastor I have again and again been reminded that on any given Sunday there are believers who are in danger of falling asleep in church. I have seen people fall asleep and bump their heads on the pews in front of them. I have been sitting on the platform when one my associates dozed off and dropped his hymnal! I have heard people awaken with a snort. In one congregation a certain young man sat on the front row and slept every Sunday. As soon as I was through the introduction, his eyes closed and his head tilted. The most memorable, however, was the Sunday both he and his wife fell asleep with their heads propped against one another. I’ve heard a preacher tell of an elder who fell asleep, and when his wife nudged him during the service, he stood and pronounced the benediction.”
I have great sympathy for those who have trouble staying awake in church. Some of us work such trying schedules that when we sit down, it is the first time we have relaxed all week. Others are sometimes victims of medication. Sometimes it is just so warm … The truth is, some of the best saints have fallen asleep in church. Eutychus was perhaps an enthusiastic new Christian who, though he was tired, would not miss church for anything. His spirit was willing, but his body was sleepy.
Falling asleep in church really does not concern me. It can happen for any number of reasons, both good and bad. What concerns me are the thousands who warm a pew every Lord’s Day with their bodies awake and their souls asleep. Some use the church hour to mentally complete the unfinished business of the preceding six days. Some people are more awake attending a garage sale or closing a business deal or even watching TV than they are when they sit with eyes wide open in church. Innumerable churchgoers appear to be perfectly awake but are spiritually asleep.
Why People are Asleep in Church
Some people are asleep because they have never been awake. I am familiar with that state because I was once in it myself. I attended church, heard God’s Word preached, sang the great hymns, listened to others pray – but with no depth of comprehension. I was simply present where others worshiped. I was on the outside. I was not alive to spiritual things. Perhaps you derive some vague comfort from being with religious people and doing Christian things, but inside you understand very little of what is going on. The pity is, it is possible to pass from this life into eternity without recognizing your slumber until it is too late. It is possible to be damned even in the church. As Screwtape, a senior devil, said to his trainee, Wormwood (in the great C. S. Lewis novel The Screwtape Letters), “The safest road to hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” Have you ever been truly awake? Would you like to wake up?
Sin, a compromising backslidden state, is a second reason some are in spiritual slumber. Some people have experienced an awakening and are truly Christians but have slipped into a spiritually comatose state. Sometimes we hear of Christians who have fallen to unimaginable depths, although they regularly attended church. Though they seemed to listen, they were spiritually and morally asleep.
Samson is the preeminent example of this in Scripture. He began and ended in the faith but messed up big-time in between. Sin progressively and imperceptibly too such hold of him that he was no longer awake to spiritual realities. In fact, his final doze on Delilah’s lap was symbolic of his state. “He awoke from his sleep and thought, ‘I’ll go out as before and shake myself free.’ Bt he did not know that the Lord had left him.” (Judges 16:20) Sin desensitizes us, and we soon fall asleep, even in church. Though externally everything may appear fine, sin makes us indifferent and bored with spiritual things.
Familiarity is a third reason why some are spiritual slumberers. C. S. Lewis recognized this danger when he warned a friend who was considering the ministry that the constant familiarity with holy matters could dull him to their significance. Lewis summed it up by saying, “None are so unholy as those whose hands are cauterized with holy things.” We can become like the man who directs the trains at the railroad station and has been selling tickets to various towns for years. Though he has never himself traveled at all, he begins to think he has been to all the towns to which he sees other people traveling. Some of us had no children’s church when we were growing up but instead lay in our parents’ laps. On the way to Never-never Land, we would count the holes in the sanctuary ceiling. We knew all the hymns (and their parodies). We knew the Doxology before we knew our times tables. We become so familiar with it all that we took it for granted. Church can easily become ho-hum. Some, though not damned in the church, are bored in the church.
How to Stay Awake in Church
Each of us should periodically make a personal spiritual assessment. If we have never truly been awake, we must ask the God of grace to help us believe. We must confess our sin, declare our faith in Christ, and ask Christ to make us brand-new – to receive Him as our Savior. Church will then become more alive than we ever imagined. If we are already children of God and our slumber is due to sin in our lives, we must repent, do a U-turn, and allow the joy of Christ to refill us. The joy of worship will then flood our souls.
Those of us who suffer the problem of familiarity must consciously and deliberately participate with all our being in the corporate worship of the church. When we sing a hymn, we should shut everything else out and sing it to God, singing not only with the mouth but with the heart and mind. As others lead us in prayer, we should pray along with them – a spiritual concert. When we hear the Scriptures, we must listen, for we are hearing the voice of God. We must listen to God’s Word as we would to a love letter, for that is what the Bible is.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer ran a seminary in Nazi Germany that was not approved by the state. He was a critical and intelligent man, but in his homiletics class he always laid down his paper and pencil, opened his Bible, and listened to the students’ sermons, no matter how poor or unskilled they were. He felt that the preaching of God’s Word ought to be received as if he were listening to God Himself. That is how we should listen too.
If we have been born again from our slumber, and if we have confessed our sin, we must consciously, in dependence upon God, wake up to the wonders of worship. Our coming together with other believers should demonstrate that we are awake and alive in Christ! Worship is to be in technicolor, for Christ is with us! That is how to stay awake in church.
A Final Word
Martin Luther had a parable or a dream about how on one occasion the devil sat upon his throne listening to his agents report on the progress they had made in opposing the truth of Christ and destroying the souls of me. One spirit said there was a company of Christians crossing the desert. “I loosed the lions upon them, and soon the sands of the desert were strewn with their mangled corpses.”
“What of that?” answered Satan. “The lions destroyed their bodies, but their souls were saved. It is their souls that I am after.”
Another reported, “There was a company of Christian pilgrims sailing through the sea on a vessel. I sent a great wind against the ship that drove the ship on the rocks, and every Christian aboard the ship was drowned.”
“What of that?” said Satan. “Their bodies were drowned in the sea, but their souls were saved. It is their souls that I am after.”
The third came forward to give his report, and he said, “For ten years I have been trying to cast a Christian into a deep sleep, and at last I have succeeded.” And with that the corridors of Hell rang with shouts of malignant triumph.
If we are asleep, let us hear God ‘s call today!
The night is nearly over, the day is almost here. So let us therefore put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.” (Romans 13:12)
“Awake to righteousness, and sin not.” (1 Corinthians 15:34, KJV)
“Wake up, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Ephesians 5:14)
Used with permission. From Acts: The Church Afire, by R. Kent Hughes. Preaching the Word Commentary Series, Crossway Publishing 1996