What can we learn from the way a great preacher admonished sleepy saints in church?
There are lessons here — confirmed in Scripture — for how pastors can sustain a steady spirit of serious joy in God-centered preaching, and yet get very specific in dealing with specific behaviors of their people.
Great Awakening and Non-Great Issues
The first phase of the Great Awakening in New England lasted about five months, from early winter, 1734, to late spring, 1735. Jonathan Edwards, pastor at Northampton, Massachusetts, was the main human instrument in this work of God.
Edwards believed that God had ignited the awakening largely through five particular sermons. They deal with “Justification by Faith Alone,” “Ruth’s Resolution” (the firmness of resolving never to leave God’s people), the urgency of “Pressing into the Kingdom,” “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners,” and “The Excellency of Christ.”
Alongside these doctrinally laden, spiritually weighty, earnestly urgent, God-centered sermons, Edwards was willing to descend to utterly down-to-earth matters in his preaching that seem inconsequential — even trivial — compared to a theme like the justice of God in damnation.
For example, in July, 1735, when the revival fervor was waning, Edwards preached a pleading message from Ezekiel 39 in which he stated the “doctrine” like this:
When God pours his Spirit upon a people, ’tis a thing greatly to be desired that God would continue the tokens of his presence and mercy amongst them, and no more depart from them.
He was laboring to preserve the power and preciousness of God’s unusual presence that they had been enjoying for the last several months. In the application of this doctrine, Edward included an exhortation that believers would wake up those sitting near them in church if they fall asleep!
Here I would particularly desire that you would not suffer those that sit by you, to sit sleeping at meeting; but wake one another, when anything of that appears. And let none of the godly give way so much to their corruption as to take it ill, when others admonish them, when others jog them to wake them, either out of their natural sleep in time of public worship, or their spiritual sleep, by friendly admonition. (Works, Vol. 19, 415)
So he asks his listeners to “jog” the people next to them who are sleeping. And he asks those who are so “jogged” awake not to “take it ill.”
From Cosmic to Coffee
What strikes me is how utterly down-to-earth and practical this is. It would be like me ending a sermon on the majesty of God in worship by asking people not to bring coffee into the worship service — not because I care about the carpet, but because you don’t sip coffee in the presence of the King while he is talking to you. (Which I really do believe!)
“Let application be constant. Let elbowing be rare.”
As a pastor, I was always reluctant to get this particular in my applications. For one thing, I knew some people are wired to call any such specific admonitions legalistic or fastidious. For another, I did not want to lower the atmosphere of serious worship to the level of ordinary hand-slapping.
To be sure, Edwards seldom did this. He knew that a steady diet of admonitions about the practical demeanor appropriate for worship would turn preaching into a petty thing, when it is a glorious thing. Nevertheless, there were times when he got this meticulous. And I want say to pastors: there are times when it is good to do so.
Sip Wine, Bring the Cloak
We have a precedent in the Holy Scriptures. What could be more sacred, or more exalted, than the inspired word of God? Yet we find Paul saying to Timothy, “Use a little wine for the sake of your stomach” (1 Timothy 5:23). And we read in his second letter to Timothy, “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas” (2 Timothy 4:13). And in another place, he even names two precious friends who had served with him, but who need to stop squabbling: “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord” (Philippians 4:2).
So, yes, there are times when a pastor should get this specific in his exhortations. But I would offer three suggestions, lest the tone of preaching move from a spirit of joyful seriousness about the wonderful works of God, to a spirit of mundane trivialities that make the sermon feel petty.
How to Be Granular
First, let such particularities of admonition be exceptional, rather than regular. I don’t mean application should be exceptional. But there is powerful, conscience-penetrating, heart-convicting application that wakens people to the blood-earnest seriousness of wakefulness in worship without telling them to give the folks next to them a gentle elbow. Let application be constant. Let elbowing be rare.
Second, like Edwards, let your overarching tone in preaching be so joyful, large-souled, God-magnifying, and radically serious that even when you do exhort an elbow, or no coffee, everyone knows and feels that the overwhelming spirit of preaching is the grandeur of God, and the triumph of Christ, and the glory of Spirit-led Christian living.
“Christian living is intensely practical. There are no experiences in life that God does not touch and change.”
Third, when you do sense it is time to put your finger on some particular behavior, don’t just descend to that level, but take hold of it and ascend with it into the presence of God. This is what Paul did. Immediately after admonishing his two squabbling friends to agree with each other, he said, their “names are in the book of life” (Philippians 4:3). One moment he seems to have descended to the level of a mere personal squabble. But no. He had come down to that level only to take it up to the highest place. Your names are in the book!
No Easy Calling
Christian living is intensely practical. There are no experiences in life that God does not touch and change. Pastors face the enormous challenge of giving people a taste for the greatness of God every week, and yet touching them in the seemingly non-great practicalities of daily life.
It is not an easy calling. Jonathan Edwards and the apostle Paul are good examples. Soak your minds there — or in similar God-centered saints — and God will give you the discernment you need.