Find the text of Study 1: First Impressions in the Church below, including questions for reflection or discussion. If you’d prefer to listen to the study, you can click the play button directly below — the content is the same. We hosted a Zoom meeting for discussion of this study the week we first posted it. If you have questions or would like to discuss this study, you can email us at email@example.com or send us a message (anonymously, if you’d like) through the website here.
Think of someone in your life who is not a family member but for whom you care deeply. Try to remember when you first met that person.
• What was your first impression of them?
• What was their first impression of you?
• How did those impressions change as you got to know each other better?
Read 1 Samuel 1:9-14 (NIV below):
9 Once when they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah stood up. Now Eli the priest was sitting on his chair by the doorpost of the Lord’s house. 10 In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly. 11 And she made a vow, saying, “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.”
12 As she kept on praying to the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk 14 and said to her, “How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.”
We read in these few verses of a man named Eli, a priest at Shiloh, who witnesses a woman named Hannah in great distress at the house of the Lord, praying “in deep anguish” while “weeping bitterly” (v. 10).
This is not the first time Eli has seen Hannah. We’re told in verses 3-8 that Hannah went to Shiloh to offer sacrifices “year after year” with her husband, his other wife, and his other wife’s children. Yet this may be the first time Eli has actually taken note of Hannah. And his first impression of her is a distressed woman crying and moving her lips while no words come out, and from this first impression he makes the assumption she is drunk, and he reprimands her.
There’s a whole other discussion you could have here about how church leaders should respond today if they encounter someone who is actually inebriated in the church building — Eli’s words in this context seem quite harsh and perhaps unhelpful if we imagine them being used today — but we know that in this story Eli’s assumption is wrong, so we’ll move forward with that in mind.
We might wonder why, as a priest in the house of the Lord, Eli’s first conclusion was not that Hannah was in prayer, crying out to God. Because of his response, it seems safe to say he hadn’t seen many people praying at Shiloh in this way, and maybe even that he had seen others behaving this way who were drunk after their meal. But we also need to consider the wider context. We know that this incident occurred in the period of the judges, when “Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit” (Judges 21:25), that visions and “the word of the Lord” were “rare” (1 Samuel 3:1), and that Eli’s two sons, who were also priests at Shiloh (1:3), were “scoundrels” with “no regard for the Lord” (2:12-17, 22). It seems,then, that Eli had some reasons (whether they were good ones or not) to expect the worst instead of the best from people.
This story happened in a different time, place and culture than ours, and there are aspects of it we don’t know and can’t fully understand. But if you imagine putting yourself in Hannah’s position as Eli accuses her of being drunk, what do you think you would have done? While some people may just walk off offended in a situation like this, it’s also the kind of story that, in today’s world, could end up spreading on social media and even inspire boycotts against the accuser. A legal battle might even ensue!
But that’s not what happens in this story. Hannah simply responds by explaining that Eli’s assumption is wrong — that she was not drunk but was “pouring out her soul to the Lord.” Hearing her explanation, Eli sends her away in peace and asks God to grant her request (1:17). God does grant her request for a son (1:20), and Hannah fulfills her promise to give him back to God (1:21-28). Eli’s assumption does turn out to be wrong and even perhaps offensive, yet that is not where this story ends.
What stories have you heard about “first impressions” of the church (local or universal)? Are they good? Bad? Indifferent? Do you think those first impressions are accurate representations?
What assumptions do you think people in church would make about you? What would people’s first impression of you be if you walked into a church building where you had never been before?
What do you expect to encounter when you walk into a church building? Can you identify the specific experiences that have led you to that expectation? Is there a chance you might encounter something different?