How do you react when that happens? (At least, I assume it happens to other people and it’s not just me? Yes?)
I’ve gone through four phases over the years.
My first was to get on my theological high horse, and blame the sleeper. “This is the Word of the Living God! How dare you fall asleep! Your wouldn’t nod off if he were here in person, would you? Well, he is here, speaking through his Word! AWAKE SLEEPER, AND RISE FROM THE DEAD (EPHESIANS 5:14)!!’ I didn’t actually say that, of course. But I thought it, and it made me feel better.
And there’s a host of Bible verses I can chuck at a sleeper to reinforce that guilt, and a quick concordance search on ‘idleness’, sleep’, and ‘sloth’ would give me plenty of ammunition.
The trouble is, the sleeper hadn’t been slothful – he’s made the effort to switch off the game, get in the car, drive to church and join in. He has made a series of decisions which ended with his being in that chair at that moment.
The Bible verses about idleness and sloth are better directed to the people wide awake on the golf course, or playing ‘Call of Duty’.
And there’s another nasty side to my reaction, which is the way I evaded any guilt or blame for me. I probably said, as I still do believe, “You don’t have to make the Bible relevant – it is relevant.” What I hadn’t woken up to (pun intended) was that as a preacher I can quickly make it irrelevant, difficult, and dull By failing to see that, and not working on it, I was the one being slothful.
You don’t have to make the Bible relevant – it is relevant. But as a preacher I can quickly make it irrelevant, difficult, and dull
Phase two was when we had young children, and it coincided with a season when I wasn’t preaching regularly on a Sunday because I was teaching in a seminary. I suddenly discovered that with a really full-on job and being chronically sleep-deprived, I could fall asleep in about two minutes, anywhere. Drop me into a seat listening to a sermon, and for the first time in a week, I’m in a place where it’s quiet, no-one’s demanding I read a story or play with some trains, and I would nod gently off.
It’s still an important part of my thinking when I see that tired young mum in church.
But it can’t be my only thought. Because everyone in church has hard, tiring, worrying and demanding elements to their life. Everyone can do with a doze . Should I allow everyone to sleep?
Because I know that if you sat that young mum with a group of her friends, she’d become more animated. A bit more energy in the room, and we wake up. Someone who’d doze in a darkened cinema will stay awake during the big match.
So I started to take more responsibility for being engaging, raising the energy levels and to take responsibility for getting people interested and keeping them with me.
The fatal error is to think that this means throwing every communicator’s trick into the mix. We become entertainers, comedians, or any other role that will keep people alert. I’ve seen that happen. I’ve done it, too. It’s awful.
But there’s a critical difference between being entertaining and being engaging. The first is trivial, and cheapens the role of the preacher. But the second works at finding the point of traction between the passage and life, and addresses the task of making it obvious and troubling.
The reality is that there’s a bit of a mix of all three going on. So during my prep, prayer, and preaching I have to shoulder the responsibility of being worth listening to. I know, I know, it’s God speaking and he is worth listening to, and I don’t have to try to do his job. But, but, but, have you never heard a faithful world-class preacher be boring? I have. What do you think went wrong? Was it all down to my inattentive heart? Or could it be that faithfulness is not the only criterion we need to evaluate? 2 Tim 2:2: ‘The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses, entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others.’
I also need the pastoral wisdom to know the difference between the person who is absolutely exhausted, and the person who is blind to spiritual realities. How I speak to them over coffee depends on that discernment.
And to stop me taking this whole thing too seriously, I need to remember Eutychus. Google him.
And check out Genesis 4:16.