Ministry Meetings and Bible Readings
G. B. Fyfe, London
Our terms of reference for this paper are to suggest hints and helps for the profitable conduct of Ministry Meetings and Bible Readings.
Ministry Meetings. A noticeable decline in number* over recent years in many areas has taken place in those regularly attending the assembly ministry meeting. This is particularly evident in the case of young men and women. Several factors conspire to bring about this state of affairs, but perhaps the root cause lies in a lack of interest or in a wrong assessment of life's priorities. Would that, by the Spirit, there might be created within us in these dark closing days a real hunger for the Word of God!
Space will permit of just a few observations relative to the ministry meeting.
1. The Character of the Ministry. This should be suited to the spiritual and moral condition of the Christians being addressed. If their state is spiritual and mature, the more advanced truths of the Word can be profitably expounded. If the majority are still young in the faith, there will be a need
to instruct them in the basic truths of Scripture. The compass of the ministry, given over a period of time, should be balanced and blended to include principles, practice and prophecy; and be in character, expository as well as hortatory.
2. The Continuity of Ministry. Some thought should be given in each local assembly to the systematic study of the Word. Bible instruction requires the element of continuity in it, if we arc to acquire a comprehensive knowledge of God's purposes for Christ, for us, for Israel and for the world. Piecemeal ministry cannot effect this. It is not suggested, though, that every address in ministry should be on a specified subject. That would eliminate the occasional and seasonable messages which, originating from the Spirit of God, have proved such a blessing to needy souls experiencing the trials and difficulties of life. Some ministry of each type is the sensible solution—consecutive and "occasional". Thus, for periods at least, provision should be made for consecutive studies on a Bible Book or Epistle, a sequence of truth, or an important group of subjects. Ministering brethren, competent to expound the selected subjects, would have to be invited. How this consecutive ministry should be introduced would obviously depend on the local circumstances of each assembly.
3. The Clarity of the Ministry. There is a need today for clarity in our teaching. Biblical expressions, so well-known by the older Christians in assemblies, are not always understood by the younger generation. Therefore we must define our terms, and suitably break down the subject, endeavouring to present it with clarity, so as to make the right impact and convey the true meaning. The possession of Scripture knowledge by those who teach is not in itself enough. Should not due attention be paid to the principles of presentation} All that a man may say in his address may be true and wholesome; but even sound doctrine if it is not appealingly presented can become wearisome to those who listen. In other words, an attractive frame displays a good picture to the best advantage.
Bible Readings. The Potentialities and Procedures of Bible readings now engage our thoughts.
1. Their Potentialities. Those who have had a long and varied experience in local assemblies will no doubt agree when we say that there is probably no better way of establishing the saints in the principles and truths of God's Word than by the conversational Bible reading method. Apart from the fundamental doctrines which are expounded, many other subjects are touched upon in the course of Bible readings which are
scarcely ever dealt with in normal addresses. Points of controversy can be examined, questions posed, and provinces explored which are often outside the range of regular ministry. The potentialities of the conversational form of Bible reading are great—provided the meeting is well-conducted and wisely handled.
2. Their Procedures. Bearing in mind the practical slant on our subject, we visualize ourselves as present among those assembled for a Bible reading. What are the procedures, then, which (on the human level) can be expected to yield a fruitful season around the Word?
(i) The Minister. Firstly, the conduct of the reading should be in the hands of a capable brother, recognized as a teacher, with an extensive knowledge of the Scriptures and well-versed in the subject to be considered. With him lies the task of introducing the subject and guiding the discussion. By the way, it does not follow that every excellent minister of the Scriptures is equally expert in controlling a conversational Bible reading. The technique is rather different for the latter.
(ii) The Methods. After the necessary preliminaries, including prayer, the proceedings are taken over by the brother responsible to give his introductory remarks on the subject. His aim will be to bring the subject into focus.
(a) The Introduction should be clear and concise, confined to a general analysis of the passage. Bible readings are sometimes spoiled by a long detailed recital of the content matter, which robs the subsequent discussion of its pith and vitality. Bemoaning the experience of a flat and disappointing period of conversation after one such introduction, a friend of ours ruefully commented, "Well what could we expect—he ate up every blade of grass, and nothing was left for us to consider!" This treatment changed that Bible reading virtually into a ministry meeting.
(b) The Discussion. There are various ways of obtaining the maximum benefit from the conversational part of the reading. Some passages require the verse-by-verse method: for instance, where the arguments are close-knit and progress in a strictly logical sequence such as in Paul's great arguments in Romans. Other chapters, because of their length or structure, are best dealt with in a more general way either by the
consideration of successive paragraphs, or by the selection of the main points for discussion in turn. It is unwise to rush through a lengthy chapter for the sake of covering the entire expanse within the limited time. The contributions of others are stifled by this procedure, and it detracts from the interest and helpfulness of the study.
In the course of the discussion, some matters will require a longer period of consideration than others. The brother conducting the reading should use his discretion to move the company on to the next section, when he feels sufficient has been said. It is easy to get bogged-down by phrases as "the spirits in prison", "sin unto death", or similar topics. While the authoritative manner is to be avoided, the situation should be firmly handled when necessary. A reasonable degree of flexibility in this type of meeting, however, is advisable.
(c) The Contributors. The pooling of our spiritual resources is a feature of the Bible reading. Participation on the part of the brothers is essential. Some, according to their store (not, we trust, because of their loquacity) will be more vocal than others. But we must all familiarize ourselves with the subject or chapter to be discussed. The younger men should be encouraged to express their difficulties and put their questions. We have also found it to be appreciated when a young man is asked to read the passage in public before the study commences.
In this connection, care needs to be taken by the brother conducting the discussion not to clamp down on a young brother, who, having summoned up the courage to ask a question or venture a comment, is slightly out of order in what he says. A sympathetic attitude should be shown, and a suitable reply given, leaving the contributor feeling his question or comment, though wide of the mark, has been appreciated. A harsh reply can shock a sensitive young man into silence, perhaps for always. Superior knowledge gives no sanction for a stinging reply. After all, who among us has not at some time displayed immaturity in the things of God? (In our early days we have sat under both types of teacher— the ruthless and the responsive.).
Now, concerning those who take part. Their comments should be short and to the point. Long rambling statements do not conduce to a stimulating reading. Of even more importance to the company is, surely, audible contributions. The bane of Bible readings can be inaudible and indistinct utterances. How frustrating it is, when half the congregation sits in ignorance of what is being discussed sotto voce at the opposite end of the hall. We should study to let our remarks be heard all the time by everyone present.
Perhaps it is almost unnecessary to say that the spirit of Christian courtesy and forbearance should be displayed, especially when conflicting views are expressed. Dogmatism in doubtful matters should be avoided by all.
A final point—punctuality in closing the meeting is commendable. Our reluctance to cease, if a lively discussion is in progress, should be overcome, and for the benefit of all (and the patient sisters in particular) the meeting should be brought suitably to a close.
These simple practical rules, we hope, will set us on our way towards the ideal conversational Bible reading. Why not start a series now—and compile a syllabus of subjects to stimulate the interest.