“ASLEEP IN THE PEW”
May 16th, 2008
What could possibly be wrong with a little nap? I thought to myself. After all, it’s Sunday afternoon, the day of rest. Biblical precedence and religious tradition are certainly on my side here. Napping at such a time as this is practically a requirement no matter where I might find myself, even in a church. Besides, who else is going to know?
I was involved in a dress rehearsal for the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra and as a contracted musician I was required to be present on stage ready to perform five minutes before the rehearsal started. But since the rehearsal was to begin with a guest soloist accompanied by a small chamber ensemble, I would not be needed on stage for at least an hour, plenty of time to catch a few “zzz’s.” This particular rehearsal and the concert the following evening were being held in a large church in downtown Phoenix, an elegant, acoustically vibrant facility with comfortable, well-padded pews. Wandering out into the sanctuary I chose a pew near the back, kicked off my sandals, laid down, closed my eyes, and drifted off to sleep with the monotonous sounds of various musicians tuning their instruments coursing through my mind.
I had paid no attention to a small trickle of unfamiliar people who were also wandering around and choosing seats throughout the sanctuary. A handful of visitors was a common sight at dress rehearsals, but this soon turned into more than just a handful. The small trickle of people mushroomed into a massive deluge of humanity, none of whom managed to disturb my sojourn in dreamland. Apparently the concert had been sold out and the demand was so great that the symphony management had decided to sell tickets for the dress rehearsal. They just didn’t bother to inform the musicians. Before long the auditorium was packed with hundreds of well-dressed patrons of the arts along with one obviously out of place, nearly comatose musician continuing in his undisturbed slumber.
Now you must understand that the term “dress rehearsal” is somewhat of a misnomer. For a musician it simply refers to the last rehearsal before a concert; no special requirement is given as to what we should wear. So there I was, clad in my typical, everyday attire of shorts and t-shirt, stretched out on a pew barefoot and looking for all the world like a drunken bum had wandered in off the street searching for a place to sleep it off. I must have provided a stark contrast to all the concert goers dressed in their Sunday best expecting a dignified, rich, cultural experience. Ignoring them all I slept on in blissful ignorance unaware of what was occurring around me. The polite applause from the audience as the soloist entered the stage was insufficient in disturbing my repose. The sweet sounds of chamber music which followed also failed to awaken the dead.
I find it difficult to believe that no one in that church took it upon themselves to gently shake me into consciousness. Perhaps fear of whom I might be and an unwillingness to upset the slumbering vagrant prevented anyone from awakening me. But what they failed to do was accomplished handily by a standing ovation at the close of the guest soloist’s performance. My sweet dreams were suddenly interrupted by my worse nightmare. A bolt of lightning and a thunderclap could not have startled me more. Nearly falling off the pew, I leaped to my feet as the horrifying reality began to dawn on me. No, I hadn’t missed my cue, but I had set myself up for one of my most embarrassing moments. Surrounded by smiles, giggles, outright laughter and mocking applause (most of it coming from my fellow musicians), I was forced to find my way to the aisle, walk to the front of the auditorium, and take my place on stage. How awful! How humiliating! How could I have been so clueless?
Have you ever fallen asleep in church? Be careful how you answer this question. As I reminisce about my inglorious repose on that occasion I take some comfort in knowing I am far from being alone in my humiliation. Okay, so my untimely nap was particularly egregious. Yet I know for certain that at least once a week our houses of worship are filled with blissfully ignorant, nearly comatose Christians. Whether the church is meeting in a large stained-glass cathedral, small country chapel, or comfortable living room, our gatherings are packed with slumbering saints. How awful! How humiliating! How could we be so clueless?
Is this a recent phenomenon? No, sleeping in the pews has been going on for centuries. Is this problem due to lengthy services, boring sermons or uninspiring worship? No, most worship services are very entertaining and inspirational. In fact, unlike my inglorious example, most of those in attendance have their eyes wide open and seem quite alert and involved in the proceedings. Then how do I know they are asleep? The answer to that should be obvious. For the most part the Church, especially here in the west, is losing its faith, losing its influence upon society, losing its ability to transform lives, losing its compassion for “the least of these,” losing its calling to seek and to save the lost and make disciples, losing its sense of urgency, and losing attendance. Clearly its people are asleep in the pews.
Much of this problem has come about because we have given over the function of ministry to a few highly trained professionals. As long as we pay our dues and say our prayers we can close our eyes to the plight of those around us. It has become accepted, even expected for others to take center stage and do the work of the ministry while we sleep on in blissful ignorance, waiting for some special cue from God. And even if we manage to hear the Master’s cue, we sleep through it believing He must be calling someone else more qualified. How can we ignore the Conductor of the church shouting to His musicians to take the stage? “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest field.” – Luke 10:2. Many of the answers to this prayer are sitting in the pews in our worship centers on Sunday morning—asleep!
Perhaps this problem is exacerbated by just how comfortable we have made the pews. We have taken great pains to make following Jesus as easy and undemanding as possible. Just come to church when you can and put a few dollars in the collection plate when you have some to spare and you can be a member in good standing. We can worship in air-conditioned splendor on padded pews or, if we prefer, on over-stuffed couches right in our own living rooms. By all appearances being a Christian is as simple as falling asleep in the pew. But have we forgotten these words of our Master? “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” – Luke 9:23. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…” – Matthew 28:19. Strange, but I don’t see anything in these imperatives about padded pews, taking naps, and providing for the comfort of all who come to Him.
Excuse me, I don’t mean to embarrass you, but you might want to open your eyes and take a look around you. While we have been dozing the world around us has been filling up with desperate people searching for hope. How can we possibly ignore such a deluge of human needs clamoring for the Church to perform, to share the music of love and grace? How can we slumber on without even being clothed in our work attire while we are surrounded by poverty, depravity, human tragedy, and disbelief? How can we nap when the time is so short and the curtain call is about to sound?
Allow me, the once-embarrassed sleeper, to issue a wake-up call. Better yet, listen to these lightning bolts and thunderclaps from the Holy Spirit. “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God…But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.” – Revelation 3:2-3. “The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” – Romans 13:11. “…for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night…So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self controlled.” – 1Thessalonian 5: 2,6. “This is why it is said: ‘Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’ Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” – Ephesians 5:14-16. “…He who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son.” – Proverbs 10: 5.
Take it from one who knows, it’s not good to be caught sleeping in church. In these days the results could be far worse than just embarrassing. Our wake-up call has been given. Will we rise to humiliation or applause? The Maestro has issued our cue; we dare not miss it! Anyone still asleep out there?
Bill, a child of God, awake and alert