I think his record was 15 minutes.
Usually, he was out in under 10 minutes. Brother Leroy (not his real name) just couldn’t seem to stay awake during the sermon. And he wasn’t a quiet sleeper. On occasion, he would snore, but most of the time he would throw his head back, mouth agape, and drift into a sleep so deep I’m not sure he’d have heard Gabriel’s trumpet.
After the service, I would stand in the back. Brother Leroy would nod and tell me, “Good sermon, pastor.”
I’ll be honest and tell you that as a young pastor, I was deeply offended by this guy. If most of the congregation was falling asleep, I might have concluded I was the problem. But there were many others truly engaged. This one was on Leroy.
I concluded that Leroy was an unspiritual man who had zero taste for the preaching of the Word of God. Christians value God’s Word. How could you fall asleep when someone is passionately sharing the gospel?
Are you bored with Jesus, brother Leroy? Why even bother coming to church? What are you getting out of this little charade?
Compassion for sleepy congregants
Then I had a conversation with brother Leroy. He told me, “I really do appreciate your sermons, young man.” Then he kind of chuckled and said, “Well at least the parts I stay awake for. I’m really sorry if you’ve ever noticed me nodding asleep …”
(Oh, I’ve noticed Leroy. How could I not?!?!?)
“I’m on this darn medicine I have to take in the morning, and I just cannot stay awake. I try, but the medicine seems to win every time.”
Being young and foolish at the time, I probably concluded that Leroy was just making an excuse for his sleeping. But over the years I’ve matured (at least a little) and thought about some of the other “sleepers” in our congregation. There was a single mom, a guy who worked the graveyard shift, and another older man going through cancer treatment. And suddenly I realized they were in church and even falling asleep because they did value God’s Word.
Most of them didn’t want to fall asleep. They weren’t devaluing God’s Word; they were just being human. Their sleeping didn’t communicate anything about my preaching or about their love for God. After all, I love watching football. But on most Sundays, I’ll fall asleep when my preaching exhaustion sets in.
Tips for preaching to sleepy congregants
There’s a gentleman in my church now who is dying of cancer. He falls asleep for at least a bit of my sermon every Sunday. But it’s a joy to have him here. I knew this guy before he was pumped full of meds to keep him alive, and I know how much he loves Jesus.
I know I have about five to 10 minutes at the beginning and usually a little bit at the end. So, I will put a few morsels in the first five minutes and the last five minutes, just to feed him. One or two lines of encouragement. It’s something related to the text I know he’ll be able to chew on before he drifts into sleep.
It’s funny because the sermon he tells me was “so good and helpful for his week” usually isn’t exactly squaring with the overall message. But he is fed what he can digest. And I know he eats that little bit because he loves the Word.
It’s amazing what happens when we can look past our own egos and learn to not take a sleeping congregant personally. It shifts our perspective. My goal isn’t to keep him awake for the whole sermon. My goal now is to feed him whatever I can while he is awake. It’s a way of loving him where he is at for that day. If the apostle Paul had someone fall asleep during his sermon (Acts 20:9), it will probably happen to you.
The challenge from sleepy congregants
This advice doesn’t mean we should stop attempting to keep everyone engaged and awake. You should be able to tell if you have your people’s attention or not. They may not be sleeping, but if they keep shifting in their chairs, checking watches, looking around the room, etc. it’s quite possible you have lost them.
If someone’s falling asleep in your congregation, and the culprit isn’t medicine or exhaustion, it’s quite likely the problem is clarity.
Have you ever been reading a book and then realized you’ve turned three pages but haven’t processed anything you’ve read? That is because something has tripped up your brain. It might be a difficult word, a tough concept, or even something that triggers another thought. But for whatever reason, our brain cannot move on.
The same thing happens with preaching. When we are unclear, our words are bound to trip people up. I love the words of Einstein, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” In this regard, our sleepy congregants can challenge us. If I have only a few minutes before your medicine kicks in, that motivates me to say as much as possible and as simply as possible with as few words as possible.
Preaching and listening to the preached word are sacred things. But they are also sacred things we engage in as humans, and we are at times frail. Our spirits relish the preached word, but our bodies aren’t always able to cooperate. When this is the case, our people don’t need an angry and chiding shepherd. Shaming a sleeping congregant will only breed shame and legalism.
Love your people where they are. Even when that means they are in the land of Nod.
Mike Leake is the pastor of Calvary of Neosho in Neosho, Missouri. This article originally appeared at Lifeway Research. Please visit their article here.