If there is no gospel meeting how can the gospel be preached? Poor attendance, inadequate preaching, crusty hymns and tired format all point to the conclusion that the gospel meeting has had its day!
The above opposing viewpoints are often expressed relating to current concern over the effectiveness of the gospel meeting and are at apparently opposite ends of the spectrum of opinion. However, both fail to appreciate, to a lesser or greater extent, the significance of the gospel meeting as a cultural phenomenon. An over-reliance on the traditional meeting as the main means of evangelism amongst adults has left many assemblies ill-prepared to meet the spiritual needs of the unsaved in our modern society. However, this does not mean that the gospel meeting is a universal failure. The traditional gospel meeting is a mighty evangelistic tool in many regions of the world including Eastern Europe, South America, Africa and Asia. This article will seek to evaluate the title question and suggest a response to it.
Certainly, a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ cannot answer the title question. However, what can be said at the outset is there is no mention of a gospel meeting, as we know it today, in the New Testament. It is true that Peter preached in Jerusalem, Acts 2, and Paul preached in Athens, Acts 17, but nowhere is it found that the unsaved were invited to attend a meeting at 6.30 p.m. on a Sunday in a Gospel Hall. This shows us that the gospel meeting, although it is an outworking of a biblical commandment, Matt. 28. 19-20, it is also a cultural creation. This creation is not of the first century, but more likely of the nineteenth century. As a cultural creation, it was there to meet a need, and we know that it has had great success in meeting that need in the past. However, when it begins not to meet that need is it not our duty as believers to modify or even to do away with it in favour of something more culturally relevant, so that we may remain faithful to the biblical commandment?
There have been significant changes in Britain and elsewhere since the midnineteenth century, not least in the spiritual sphere. Today we live in what is commonly called a ‘post-Christian’ society. The term ‘post Christian’ is a curious one. Quite simply, it expresses the view that Christianity is a historical phenomenon that is no longer relevant and should be consigned to the past. However, as David Gooding argues in the introduction to his book True to the Faith, the obstacles and opposition faced in the modern world are essentially no different to the ones that the apostles encountered when the gospel was first preached. It is true that many people today see the claims of the gospel as irrelevant to their lives, for the simple reason maybe that we have not made much of an effort to make them see its relevance, Acts 17. 23. Many have been duped by the ‘post-Christian’ rhetoric and have allowed themselves to be marginalized, believing implicitly that the gospel message has no legitimate place in mainstream society. Therefore, few unbelievers attend the gospel meeting and the preacher is quite literally left preaching to the converted.
Another related factor why the gospel meeting in many assemblies is not a particularly effective evangelistic tool is that those in fellowship, at least in the Western world, are mostly second, third or fourth generation Christians. There are obvious benefits of being brought up in a Christian family. One of these is the social environment of the local assembly that is often warm and friendly. Yet, it could be that as a result of this comforting cocoon, believers have lost the great urgency to reach out to the lost. Also, family and close friends may already be Christians and this builds in an atmosphere of lethargy with regard to witness. In its extreme form, this attitude can encourage the local assembly to become a social club for believers, who are satisfied with the status quo, Rev. 2. 4. Consequently, the convening of a gospel meeting rapidly becomes routine and ritualistic. A further contributing factor is the implicit or explicit belief, in some assemblies, that having non-Christian friends is to be ‘worldly’. The need for sanctification from worldliness is a point well understood and cannot be ignored, 1 Thess. 5. 22. Moreover, the risk that a Christian may be corrupted by an unbeliever’s lifestyle is also noted, 1 Cor. 10. 12. However, according to Scripture sanctification is a preparation for witness, see 1 Pet. 3. 15. If believers do not befriend unbelievers and spend time with them, how is initial contact to be made? Rom. 10. 14-15. The injunction not to have fellowship with the world refers to an ungodly system or mindset as in Ephesians 5. 11, but does not in any way call us to isolate ourselves from the general population of modern society.
Some believers argue that the answer lies in such things as dressing down to more casual clothing, changing the name of the meeting place, having a new hymn or songbook, adopting a more modern version of the scriptures and all with a view to making the entire meeting more appealing to the unsaved. However radical and exciting these proposed changes might seem to some, unless there is a genuine understanding of the power and nature of the gospel and a readiness to preach it, Rom. 1. 15-16, they will be just cosmetic in real spiritual terms and yield in themselves little benefit.
If we are to see the gospel meeting being used as an effective evangelistic tool, firstly we need to remind ourselves what is so special about being a Christian. How much do we personally know of the unsearchable riches of Christ, Eph. 3. 8, or the abundant life only He can give, John 10. 10? Secondly, we need to be in constant prayer regarding our evangelistic endeavours: looking in expectancy to the Lord to bless and save, Acts 4. 31. Thirdly, we must all be engaged in bridge-building and witnessing to the unsaved, Acts 8. 35. When genuine interest in spiritual things has been stirred in unbelievers by personal testimony then the preaching of the gospel will be at its most effective. Fourthly, the elders of each assembly should rigorously safeguard the quality of gospel preaching. Every believer knows the gospel, but not every believer has the gift of preaching it with passion and conviction, Eph. 4. 11-13. Finally, there is more to the autonomy of the local church than merely an assembly distinctive against the ecclesiastical hierarchy of Christendom. Autonomy offers the saints the liberty to respond to local needs in terms of gospel outreach and discipleship. Order should not mean legalism. Unity should not mean uniformity, Gal. 5. 18.
I do not think the gospel meeting has passed its sell by date. However, Christians cannot continue to believe that just by convening a gospel meeting they have met their evangelistic responsibilities. The gospel meeting should be only one of a number of methods and strategies we use to reach people for Christ, 1 Cor. 9. 18-23. Fundamentally, why the gospel meeting is still a mighty evangelistic tool in many countries is because it benefits from believers who are not only willing to witness to the saving power of Christ, but live out the gospel on a daily basis and whose lives are seen to be attractive and inviting to unbelievers, Phil. 1. 21. Essentially, in order to counteract the notion of a ‘post-Christian’ society we need to be a people who are committed to the gospel and to ‘keeping it real’, 1 Cor. 15. 58.