The scene in Acts 20:1–12 is painfully unfamiliar to the modern churchgoer. The Apostle Paul is gathered with the saints in Troas on Sunday in an upper room. The parchments are rolled open and he is preaching. Luke tells us that he spoke “until midnight.” This means that Paul probably began speaking early in the evening, and as midnight approached, he still had not concluded his sermon. Luke is clearly playing up the long duration of Paul’s speaking as he adds: “Paul still talked longer.” In the back corner of the room was a young man, probably between ten and fourteen years old, “sitting at the window,” beginning to sink into a deep sleep.
This scene challenges many things that modern Americans think about coming to church. Many think of Sunday worship as a place to grab a cup of coffee, enjoy great music, and hear a few insights and stories from the pastor in a comfortable atmosphere. Many current books on preaching idealize creating a comfortable atmosphere, with entire chapters on what people are able to handle when they attend worship.
We’re seeing the consequences of idealizing modern expectations for worship. In fact, we live in a day of little appreciation for the necessity of even attending church. Though the statistics vary, some report that less than 20 percent of Americans attend church on Sunday. If the trends continue, over the next decade very few Americans will be attending church. This signals trouble for Christianity in the United States.
The question of what has brought about this exodus from the church is a challenging one to answer. Is it the consumerist, entertainment-driven model that is leaving people empty and with little reason to attend? Is it the abandonment of the Sabbath that has created the sense that nothing about gathering to worship is important or holy? There are certainly a variety of reasons for the decline, but there is no question that one of the greatest contributions is the demise of faithful preaching.
In our day, few people appreciate preaching and understand its importance. However, Acts 20 showcases Paul’s commitment to preaching in a way that defies much of what modern preaching books say we should do. In passages like this, the Holy Spirit challenges our assumptions of what the ministry of the Word accomplishes. Why were these early Christians so committed to gathering around the spoken Word when its delivery might last late into the night?
In Acts 20:1–2, Luke tells us that it was Paul’s purpose to visit the churches he planted and encourage them. The stage is now set for these Apostolic convictions to face an extreme test. Imagine the following scenario: Your pastor has been preaching for around five hours, and it’s now midnight. As he is preaching, a loud scream of a mother overtakes the room as her son falls off the balcony, hits the ground, and dies on the spot. Everyone rushes down the stairs only to find the lifeless body of the young man.
Whatever amount of encouragement Paul had given, it was replaced with the greatest possible discouragement. The congregation in Troas had just been confronted with their greatest enemy: death. The comfort of the Word was completely eclipsed by the horrific death of Eutychus.
To be sure, this story has a happy ending. Luke says that Paul rushed down and took him up into his arms, saying, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him” (v. 10). God, through Paul, raised Eutychus that day from the dead.