“A Prodigal Preaching Story: Paul, Eutychus, and Bored-to-Death Youth” Part I

I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard the phrase, Youth are the future of the church! — or rather, I wish our youth ministry budgets had those nickels.

Congregations and denominations may disagree about theology and polity, but nearly everyone agrees that youth are important, and that future-minded churches should try to develop ministries with and for young people. But if the nickel-earning phrase were Youth are the future of preaching!, my contribution to any youth budget would be slim indeed; that is not a phrase I hear often, if ever — at least, not within the mainline Protestant circles I travel most frequently.  

There are many churches, particularly in the evangelical tradition, whose preaching ministries confirm that they do, in fact, firmly believe that youth are the future of preaching: some spend much of their time and resources on worship services designed specifically for young people, often enhancing the sermon visually and aurally; others teach their youth to preach as a rite of passage, or a means of nurturing voice and leadership.i These churches are finding ways to walk toward that preaching future, and their example can be a source of inspiration and learning. But this article is not primarily for them.

This article is for those who believe in preaching, believe in youth, but struggle to find any overlap between the two on a typical Sunday morning. I am writing for those preachers who genuinely want to reach all age groups, but don’t seem to be getting anywhere with the sleepy teenagers in the balcony. I am writing for those preachers who wonder how their sermons might appeal to youth and the younger listeners of the future (e.g., will they need “props” — music, power-point, lights, action, alternative venues, informality?). And most particularly, I am writing for those preachers who feel the burden of change falling most heavily on their sermons, and who fear that the kind of preaching they were trained and called to do may soon be as out-of-date and in about as much demand as a rotary telephone. To those preachers who hear the phrase, Youth are the future of preaching! as a cause for anxiety and a directive to resurrect their preaching, I say, read on: the apostle Paul has a word for us. The future of preaching may not depend on resurrecting sermons or young people; it may depend on something else.

The text that has taught me the most about this is Acts 20:7-12:ii

7 On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a
discussion with them; since he intended to leave the next day, he continued speaking until midnight. 8 There were many lamps in the room upstairs where we were meeting. 9 A young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked still longer. Overcome by sleep, he fell to the ground three floors below and was picked up dead. 10 But Paul went down, and bending over him took him in his arms, and said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” 11 Then Paul went upstairs, and after he had broken bread and eaten, he continued to converse with them until dawn; then he left. 12 Meanwhile, they had taken the boy away alive and were not a little comforted. (NRSV)

This is the first recorded incident in the history of the Christian Church in which a young person is literally bored to death by preaching. That alone makes it a favorite with youth groups; it is always nice to know you have biblical company. In the scholarly community, however, this is a story that receives scant attention; it scarcely elicits more than a shared chuckle about long-winded preachers. Most commentators swiftly (and briefly) classify it as a resurrection story in which Paul the missionary demonstrates the power of the risen Christ.iii Yet as Nicholas Lash writes, “there are at least some texts that only begin to deliver their meaning in so far as they are ‘brought into play’ through interpretative performance.”iv When I bring this text into play with young people and preachers, I see more than a vaguely humorous narrative with a miraculous aside: I see an interpretive performance of a drama about youth and preaching that has become one of the longest running plays in church history. Week after week, the story of Paul and Eutychus gets produced in more local congregations than any of us would like to think.

In this article, I claim that Acts 20:7-12 can be read as a parable about preaching and youth that invites our reflection on at least two planes. In its descriptive mode, the text is a devastating indictment of the ways in which preaching can marginalize and even anaesthetize youth to the power of the sermon event. In its constructive mode, the text offers a model for rethinking — if not resurrecting — a relationship between preaching and youth, or preachers and youth. As Acts 20 shows us, Eutychus is bored to death, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

SCENE 1. Troas, Midnight.
Long Sermons and Bored-to-Death Youth

The setting for Acts 20:7-12 is Troas, on the coast of Asia Minor. It is an evening service, since Troas has many disciples who are slaves and cannot meet during the day. It also happens to be the last time these disciples will hear Paul, the visiting preacher, since he plans to leave in the morning; because of this, the text says, “he continued speaking until midnight.” Whether marathon sermons were the norm in Troas and people routinely preached for three or four hours, or whether the occasion demanded a lengthy farewell speech from the departing missionary himself, isn’t entirely clear. The text’s lack of descriptive details about Paul’s preaching and its reception, however, give us clues that perhaps the length of the sermon supercedes anything else we might say about it: the man may have been good, but after four hours, who could remember?! The lateness of the hour (past midnight) and the ambiance of the room (all those burning oil lamps, presumably to keep people awake in the absence of Starbucks — since the smell and smoke alone would surely suffice) only serve to accentuate the text’s focus on sermon length. This vespers service is fast becoming a smoked-out lock-in.

If the listeners were on the edges of their seats with excitement or bored out of their minds, the text doesn’t tell us; perhaps the author is too polite to comment. Yet in verse 9, there is at least one reaction to Paul’s preaching that cannot be overlooked, not because it is an unusual way to respond, but because the location of the listener prompts an unusual crisis. Over by the open window, propped up on the ledge, sits a young man named Eutychus who cannot keep his eyes open. This is hardly surprising: for all we know, everyone was starting to doze off from lack of sleep and breathable air. Not everyone, however, was dozing in a windowsill. As Eutychus begins to sink off into a deep sleep (while Paul, as the text archly puts it, “talked still longer”), his unfortunate location on the ledge leads to disaster: he falls out the window. And he doesn’t just roll into the bushes from the first floor, which would make this a funny story; he falls from the third floor, three stories down, strikes the hard pavement, and is taken as dead, “picked up dead.” Instead of a comedy, we have a tragedy: a young person literally bored to death by preaching.

Most commentators fast-forward at this point to the resurrection scene, in which Paul rushes down to the dead boy’s side, pronounces him alive, and then returns upstairs to spend the rest of the night eating and talking as if nothing had happened. My guess is that these commentators have not read this story with their local youth group. When I bring this text into play with youth, the performance I see is shocking. There is something appalling about this scene.

*A preacher who drones on until the worship service has become an all-nighter?

*A young person so tired of the talk that he falls out a window and dies?

*A worship service in which youth have to perch on the windowsill, at the margins of the room, so that their safety and well-being — indeed, their very lives — depend on their alert participation in the community’s proclamation?

To read this text as if nothing unusual is happening, here, is to turn a bemused eye on long-winded preachers and the sleepy-eyed kids they sometimes bore to death. To read this text as if resurrecting youth on the church grounds is an everyday occurrence is to ignore the possibility that Eutychus was killed because he was literally marginalized, and that it was the church’s preaching (not to mention its spectacular lack of awareness) that actually put him at risk. This story is no laughing matter. When performed in the local congregation, it is more like a text of terror — for youth, for preachers, and for the church.v

Used with permission:  Florence, Anna Carter, “A Prodigal Preaching Story: Paul, Eutychus, and Bored-to-Death Youth.” Theology Today 64.2 (2007): 233-243.

i See, for example, William R. Myers, Black and White Styles of Youth Ministry (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1990) on how preaching engenders voice, leadership, faith, and pride among African American youth.  Myers describes a large African American congregation that holds a “Youth Sunday” every five weeks or so; youth lead all parts of the service, and, with the avid support and training of the senior pastor, preach the sermon.

iiI am grateful to Austin College for inviting me to give the Cunningham Lectures in the fall of 2000; my reflections on the Acts text began with those lectures, and continue here in another vein.

iiiTwo that are representative are Johannes Munck, The Anchor Bible: The Acts of the Apostles (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc, 1967), p. 201; and William H. Willimon, Interpretation: Acts, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), pp. 152-5.

ivNicholas Lash, “Performing the Scriptures,” in Theology on the Way to Emmaus (London: SCM Press, 1986), 41-2.

vThe phrase “text of terror” is a reference to Phyllis Trible’s well-known work, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984).