The question might well be asked, "Is the gospel meeting, as we have it, based upon Scripture or on 19th century church practices?". It must be acknowledged that there is no "chapter and verse" to which one might turn to substantiate the holding of a weekly gospel meeting as has been traditionally practised by assemblies of the Lords people for perhaps the greater part of two centuries.
Over many years, there has been a good reason for an assembly holding a regular, weekly gospel meeting in the Gospel Hall (the very name indicating a place where the gospel is preached). Many (including the present writer) have been converted during, or as a result of attending, such meetings.
The Present Situation
In the present day, it is very difficult to get people, other than believers children and perhaps other family members, to come to gospel meetings. Even in parts of the United Kingdom where up to (say) ten or twenty years ago, folk were prepared to attend such meetings, these days are now passed. Men and women are not accustomed to "church going" as they were in previous generations. The Lords Day is not observed as once it used to be.
There are so many attractions in the world. Sporting activities now take place on a Lords Day; shops are open. This was not the case in a previous generation. The enemy of souls is quite happy for people to be taken up with the "witty inventions" of men introduced over the last two decades. Many young people spend a disproportionate amount of their time in social networking.
Should we change the gospel meeting?
Some assemblies, in an effort to make the gospel meeting more attractive to outsiders, have introduced what has often been termed a "Family Service". This is frequently held later on a Lords Day morning following the Lords Supper; in some cases, sadly, this has resulted in the latter meeting being somewhat curtailed. One is left wondering what is meant by the term "Service". Those who attend are made to feel "very much at home" (not, of course, that we should ever be unwelcoming); however, we should never leave unbelievers with the impression that by coming to such gatherings that they are in some way "serving" God.
Some assemblies hold what are sometimes termed "Gospel Teas"; these are periodically held on a Lords Day afternoon. The "preliminaries" are kept to a minimum; the gospel is preached for about twenty minutes and a tea follows. These occasions give opportunity of entering into conversation with those who have come (usually more outsiders attend such meetings than would be the case for a "normal" gospel meeting). We do not preach what has been termed a "social gospel", but nevertheless such meetings do serve to reach those who under normal circumstances would not attend a "standard" gospel meeting. We do, of course, need to bear in mind that one or two might come to such meetings simply to avail themselves of "the loaves and fishes".
We are living in days when the majority of those who do come along to such meetings are present through personal contact with an individual believer or family in fellowship in the assembly. The importance of maintaining a good testimony in the place of study, in the workplace, and in the neighbourhood cannot be overemphasised.
In what ways might we change the gospel meeting without affecting the gospel message itself?
1) Does the meeting have to be of one hours duration? Several assemblies have reduced the length of the meeting to forty-five minutes.
2) Is it necessary to follow the traditional format of i) hymn; ii) prayer; iii) hymn; iv) notices (or intimations); v) Bible reading; vi) hymn; vii) message; viii) hymn; ix) closing prayer? N.B. viii) and ix) would be reversed in certain parts of the United Kingdom. The number of hymns sung could be reduced. It is appreciated that many of the hymns that we sing do contain gospel truth. However, those who may come in from outside are not accustomed to singing hymns and spiritual songs; it may be an embarrassment to them to feel that they are obliged to attempt to sing in this way. It should be mentioned that some believers feel that it is decidedly wrong to "make" outsiders sing words which are certainly not from their own experience.
3) It is evident from the book of the Acts that those who preached took into account the backgrounds of their hearers. Thus Peter, on the Day of Pentecost, when preaching to Jews at Jerusalem, quoted freely from the Old Testament with which his audience would be acquainted. Paul did the same when he entered into synagogues e.g. "And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures". We are also told that "Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them" (Acts 8.5); this was most appropriate, since the Samaritans were looking for the promised Messiah. When speaking to the "man of Ethiopia", he "began at the same scripture (what we know to be Isaiah 53.7-8), and preached unto him Jesus" (Acts 8.35); Philip had to show the Ethiopian that the despised Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the One of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke. On the other hand, Paul, when addressing the men of Athens "in the midst of Mars hill" introduced his message by speaking of the God of creation.
We must bear in mind that those who do come from outside to hear the gospel preached are, for the most part, totally ignorant of the Bible. They have not attended Sunday School as did their own parents and grandparents. The truths of the gospel must be presented in a simple way. The gospel message can still be preached in all its power and beauty yet couched in language which can be understood. The message must not be "watered down"; the demands of the gospel must be brought to the attention of the hearers - "repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 20.21), an acknowledgement of the Lordship of Christ (Rom 10.9); a warning should be given of the consequences of neglecting or rejecting the message. It is not for one moment being suggested that we should preach what has been termed the "Modern Smooth Cross". Shallow preaching can produce only shallow converts. God can still save men by the faithful proclamation of the gospel, but let it be the gospel in all its purity.
4) It should be borne in mind that it is not "the law of the Medes and Persians" that the gospel meeting should be held at 6.30pm on a Lords Day evening. Perhaps it would be possible to encourage contacts to come if the meeting were held, e.g. at 5.00pm. Again, it is not vital that the main "gospel effort" should be on a Lords Day; an evening during the week might be more appropriate.
To be continued.