y the time the worship service began the large third-story room was filled to capacity. The first portion of the service was devoted to singing hymns and psalms, interspersed with testimonies and much prayer. Finally Paul stood up to speak to the assembled believers. In his heart he knew this would be the last time this side of heaven that he’d see this group in person, and there was still so much he wanted to impart to them.
Clearing his throat he began where he always did, sharing his personal testimony of what Christ had done and was doing in his life. As he began to speak, a young man who’d been standing in the back throughout the worship service surveyed the room. He’d been standing for some time and was eager to find a place to sit. His eyes fell on one of the windows that overlooked the street below. Making his way to the window, he sat on the sill and leaned against the side of the window frame. As he did, a smile covered his face and he let out a sigh; it felt good to be off his feet. Now he could sit back, relax, and enjoy Paul’s sermon.
Because he knew this was his last chance to talk in person to the believers in Troas, Paul found it hard to stop talking. In fact, we’re told that he “kept on talking until midnight” (Acts 20:7).
As midnight came and went, Paul kept going. In fact, he was just warming up. It was a little after midnight when Eutychus, sitting on the windowsill, felt his eyelids getting heavy. For a while he fought a valiant battle to keep himself awake, but finally he succumbed.
Suddenly Paul was stopped midsentence by the sound of a sickening thud. Screams rang out from the back of the room. Quickly word spread throughout the congregation that Eutychus had fallen out the window. Immediately people jumped to their feet and rushed down to the street. A hush fell throughout the crowd as they saw the young man’s mangled body. “He’s dead,” said those who arrived at the scene first and checked him for vital signs.
How often is the same pronouncement made in churches on Sabbath mornings as people drift off during the sermon and leave church spiritually dead? It seems that the Eutychus syndrome is a reality in churches today.
A case can be made for the biblical Eutychus. After all, Paul had been preaching for hours when Eutychus fell asleep. Most of us are thankful that our pastor doesn’t preach that long. Yet 25- to 45-minute sermons still invoke the same syndrome. We might not fall asleep literally, but our minds and our hearts are not tuned into what the preacher is saying. We are busy daydreaming or making a to-do list in our heads, and the end result is the same—at the end of the sermon we have no spiritual vital signs.
Just recently I made the switch from pastoral ministry to academic ministry. After 15 years of being behind the pulpit every Sabbath I now find myself sitting in front of the pulpit. This new role as a listener has helped me realize how easy it is to fall prey to the Eutychus syndrome. I have also recognized how easy it is to put all the blame on the preacher. I’ve become conscious, however, that the problem is more with us in the congregation than it is with the preacher. Jesus tells us to “consider carefully how you listen” (Luke 8:18). If we’re going to overcome the Eutychus syndrome, we must take seriously our responsibility as listeners.
REPLAY—A Helpful Acronym
An appropriate acronym for the responsibilities that we have as listeners is REPLAY. The word “replay” means to play again. Isn’t that what we want God’s spoken Word to do in our lives, to play again and again? It also expresses six responsibilities that we have as listeners.
The R stands for rest. It’s crucial that we go to bed early on Friday night so that we get enough sleep. When our bodies are well rested our minds are more alert. It was by divine plan that Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday. This allows us time to slow down and to prepare our bodies as well as our souls to receive God’s Word.
The E represents expectancy. A key part of preparing our souls to receive God’s Word is to come to the sermon with an anticipation that God will show up and that He’ll have a message for us. God’s promise is sure: “My word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return to me empty” (Isa. 55:11). Do you come to church with the expectancy that God will speak and that when He does His message will minister to your heart? The question is never whether God will show up. He will come (Matt. 18:20). The real question is, Will we be prepared to receive Him when He does?
The P is for prayer. E. M. Bounds, in his book Powerful and Prayerful Pulpits, says: “Without preparation the hearer cannot hear to profit. The sermon may fail because of the [lack] of thorough preparation in the pew” (p. 86). There’s a need for prayer before, during, and after every sermon. We need to pray for the preacher. Could a lack of spiritually moving and Spirit-filled preaching be a result of our lack of intercession on behalf of the preacher? We also need to pray for ourselves, that God will open our hearts and our minds to receive His Word and give us the grace to put what we hear into practice.
The L stands for listening with the inner ear. Too often our attention is focused on things outside ourselves. We are distracted by those who are sitting around us, or the new stain we see on one of the curtains, or the things we need to do next week. The devil will use anything he can to keep our attention focused outside, so that we can’t hear the Spirit of God speaking to our hearts (Matt. 13:15-17). In order to stay focused during a sermon some find it helpful to keep a pencil in hand and take notes. Others find it beneficial to enter into a dialogue with the preacher through response (saying “Amen!” “Praise God!” and so forth). It’s also beneficial to keep our Bibles open during the sermon so that we see and hear the Word.
The A represents applying. Our ultimate goal in listening to a sermon should be transformation. We need to be in dialog with God throughout the sermon, asking Him, “How does this sermon apply to my life?” “What difference should Your Word make in my family life, at work, and in my relationships?”
The Y is for yielding. Yield means to surrender. We surrender fully to God by not being just hearers but also doers of the Word (James 1:22). We need to listen with an eagerness not just to apply the message to our lives but also to put it into practice. Unless we do, we have not really heard and received.
In Acts 20 the Eutychus story ends well. Paul arrives on the scene, boldly striding through the crowd to where Eutychus lies. Kneeling by the motionless body, he places his arms around the boy and says to those around him, “Don’t be alarmed. . . . He’s alive!” (Acts 20:10).
May it be said of us spiritually when we leave church each Sabbath, “Don’t be alarmed—he or she is alive!”
The Eutychus syndrome can be overcome when we take our responsibility as listeners seriously and learn to REPLAY.