9 Christian Worship
Religious faith expresses itself both in worship and in work. In such acts of religious service as may declare the soul’s devotion to the Deity, and in such works as are believed to be pleasing to Him, and such as naturally grow out of the faith cherished, and correspond to the worship offered.
Worship, properly speaking, is adoration and praise offered to God. The emotion is instinctive in a devout soul and tends to exalt and magnify Him to whom all honor and glory are due. It is offered in view of the glorious excellency of the divine character; and also because of what God has done for men. Both for what He is, and for what He does. Worship is usually attended with confession for sin and with supplication for pardon and needed grace. It is an important duty and a gracious privilege. But no act of devotion can be acceptable to Him, unless it be spontaneous and sincere. If it be such, He delights in it and accepts it with pleasure from His creatures. Its influence on individual piety, on the Church’s spiritual life, and on the moral sense of the community, is not sufficiently understood nor highly enough valued.
While, strictly speaking, it is defined within narrow bounds, yet in ordinary language all religious service is spoken of as worship. All recognize the Divine Presence as the inspiration of devotion and the object of veneration. The various parts of public and social worship claim brief attention.
I. The Preaching Service.
As public religious service is usually arranged by evangelical Churches generally, preaching holds a foremost place and the service is secondary. With a liturgical Church it is different. There the service rules, and preaching is largely subordinate. Preaching, strictly speaking, is not worship, though calculated to inspire and assist worship. Preaching is a proclamation of truth, not an address to the Deity. The preacher is a herald (kerux), a proclaimer, and his address (kenigma), a message delivered to an audience.
1. The Object of Preaching.
The true object and design of preaching is the salvation of sinners and the edification of the saints by means of instruction and persuasion. Instruction may properly be said to be the first object of preaching. Most emphatically it is not to entertain or recreate an audience; nor to crowd the house with hearers, nor to build up wealthy and fashionable congregations; nor to rent pews and replenish the treasury; nor to teach literature, science, or art; but to save and sanctify souls by an exhibition of Christ crucified. All preaching which fails of this, fails of its chief design. For this purpose our Lord “gave some to be pastors and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.”—Eph. 4:11,12. And the Apostle’s ministry was, “Warning every man, and teaching every man, in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus.”—Col. 1:28. There are occasions which press the minister of the cross very sorely to diverge from, if not altogether to forget, this high aim of his calling, and adapt his efforts to draw admiring and curious crowds to his ministry. And for this purpose, themes not Gospel and not even strictly religious, may be resorted to. But viewed from the low ground of expediency even, this is a mistake. Preachers who hold, longest and strongest, the consciences and the confidence of the community, and who command the most respectful attention of the people, are those who are loyal to the truth as it is in Jesus.
2. The Character of Preaching.
All preaching to be profitable should be plain and simple in style, spiritual in tone, experimental and practical in substance. The very basis and foundation of every sermon should be instruction. In the arrangement of the matter, order should be so manifest that the parts will follow each other by a natural sequence, so that the minds of the hearers will easily comprehend their relations. As to the style, clearness is of the first importance. The speaker is not preaching in an unknown tongue, and every sentence and word should be so transparent in its meaning that none can misunderstand. A mere jumble of words, a heap of figures and of flowers are as chaff compared with these qualities. All the arts of oratory and the adornments of rhetoric poorly compensate for the absence of transparent clearness.
Nevertheless, with these qualities possessed, the more interesting and attractive the preaching, in style, matter, and manner, the more welcome and useful it is likely to prove. And every preacher should strive to become as attractive and useful to the people as possible. There would be poor comfort in saying a sermon was good, if the style were such as to make it incomprehensible, or the manner of its delivery such as to make it repulsive. With these drawbacks it certainly would not be good for its purpose. Every preacher should “study to show himself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed.”—2 Tim. 2:15. Many sermons, in themselves really good, would be far more effective were the manner of their delivery more intelligible, animated, and impressive.
3. The Frequency of Preaching.
According to established customs in religious society, it is expected that in our places of public worship, two sermons will be regularly preached on each Sunday. Formerly it was customary to have a lecture—a somewhat informal—on some evening during the week. Special and protracted preaching services, daily or nightly, are often held during seasons of unusual religious interest or to produce unusual interest.
In primitive times, as now on mission fields, preaching was less formal and more pervasive. It was “daily, from house to house,” “instant in season and out of season,” that people might by any means hear the glad tidings of salvation. Now, congregations ordinarily require too much preaching in proportion to the more social services of religion. So far as the Church members and the stated congregation are concerned, it is questionable if any better arrangement for Sunday service than the following could be devised; viz., a sermon in the morning, the very best the preacher is able to produce; a Bible class, and Sunday-school service in the afternoon, and a prayer and conference meeting in the evening, so arranged as to be animated and attractive.
In our cities, towns, and larger villages, the Sunday evening congregation is largely different from that of the morning, consisting to a great extent, of a floating population, with but few of the Church families, and to a considerable extent made up of young people. Of course it is not thought best to abandon preaching for that service. To meet this tendency, not a few preachers have held very loosely the evangelical character of their evening services, and instead of Gospel themes, have treated semi-secular and otherwise alien subjects to catch the drifting current. This is a great mistake; for no subjects can be so attractive in a Church service as simple Gospel themes, if rightly presented. It would seem that music should have a larger place in evening than in morning worship.
Considering the necessities of the world, and that men perish perpetually without the gospel, those called to that sacred work should “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and doctrine.”—2 Tim. 4:2.
Note 1.—Though no fixed rule can be adopted for the length of sermons, yet when the Sunday is crowded with services, as it usually is, that should not be protracted. Ministers are not usually complained of for long sermons unless they be uniformly long. If it be only occasional it is borne. Some discourses require more time than others, and some will be listened to with more interest and patience than others. Seldom, however, should one consume more than forty minutes, and the entire service should be something less than an hour and a half on all ordinary occasions.
Note 2.—Very unreasonable objections are at times made to doctrinal preaching. It is a little doubtful whether those who object really know what doctrinal preaching is. In fact, doctrine is the very essence and marrow of the Gospel, and little instruction in godliness can be imparted without doctrine. It is the framework of the building where edification—upbuilding—is enjoined as the special duty of the religious teacher. No doubt doctrine can be preached so abstractly and uninterestingly as to be a burden to the hearers.
Note 3.—Should manuscripts be used in the pulpit, or should sermons be extemporaneous in manner, are questions which the preacher must decide for himself. Opinions differ. The excellency or usefulness of a sermon does not largely depend on either method. Some subjects cannot be accurately treated without writing. Moreover, writing is an important aid, and an invaluable mental discipline to the preacher. It helps him to think systematically and to express himself concisely and forcibly. But for all ordinary occasions of preaching it cannot be doubted that an extemporaneous style of address is most in accordance with the spirit of the Gospel, and more agreeable, forcible, and profitable to the congregation.
Note 4.—The great temptation, however, to extemporaneous preachers—especially if they have large facility in the use of language—is to neglect the preparation of their sermons and depend on the inspiration of the occasion. This temptation, if yielded to, becomes fatal to both the reputation and the usefulness of the preacher.
Note 5.—Sermons need not be read even though they be written. Nor, if a manuscript be used, need the manner of address be servile and lifeless. Some ministers are as free, animated, and vigorous in using a written sermon as others are who never wrote one. The trouble is not with the manuscript, but with the manner of using it.
Note 6.—Perhaps no better advice could be given on this subject than that one written and one extemporaneous sermon should be prepared and preached each Sunday. Two well-prepared and well-written sermons each week, with the many pastoral duties and the many interruptions incident to a minister’s position, will prove a severe tax on his time and energies, or an utter impossibility.
Note 7.—Probably no more effective method could be adopted than for the preacher to write his sermon carefully, then make a brief abstract or skeleton for use in the pulpit, leaving his manuscript at home. He would thus largely combine the advantages of a written style with the freedom and force of an extemporaneous delivery.
Note 8.—Above all things, let the preacher have something to say; know what it is; be thoroughly penetrated with the importance and the spirit of it; then say it earnestly and devoutly as an ambassador of Christ, to do the people good. The Spirit will help his infirmities.
II. The Prayer Service.
Prayer is an important element in all religious service. Not only is it vital to the individual Christian life, its importance in social religion is scarcely less important. “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you,” was the positive declaration of our Lord to His disciples.—Matt. 6:7.
There are special blessings promised to united prayer, as well as to personal prayer. “If two of you shall agree on earth, as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.”—Matt. 18:19. Secret prayer, and personal communion alone with God, is essential to the soul’s spiritual life, and is encouraged by the promise of special blessing. “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.”—Matt 6:6.
Prayer adjusts itself in form to the various occasions which demand its exercise, but in spirit it is essentially everywhere the same. The pastor’s prayer before his congregation would speak for them as well as for himself, and would be different from his prayer in his own study, at the family altar, in the sick-room, with a penitent sinner, or with a dying saint. An intelligent faith will adjust its form to the peculiar circumstances in which it is called forth. The prayer before the sermon would naturally be somewhat different from that at its close. If the petitioner have the true spirit of supplication, the petition will take on suitable language for its expression. The form will need to give no anxiety.
1. The motive of prayer.—Prayer includes worship in its strictest sense. He who prays is supposed to shut out the world, and become insensible to aught else, while he communes with God. It includes adoration, confession, thanksgiving and petition. In its narrower sense prayer is supplication [precari—to beseech, to supplicate); making request for needed blessings on behalf of the worshiper, and other objects of divine clemency. The intercession of Christ must evermore be recognized as the only prevailing influence with, and cause of blessing from, the Father. “Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, He will give it you.”—Jn 16:23. While the office of the Holy Spirit must be relied on as the only means of communication with the Throne of Grace by the merits of Christ. “For we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit Himself maketh intercession for us, with groanings which cannot be uttered.”—Rom. 8:26.
2. Preparation for Prayer.—There needs to be a preparation for prayer, in order to lead profitably the devotions of others in addresses to the mercy seat. Not a preparation of words, but of the heart; not a forethought of phrases for that particular occasion, but a spirit in harmony with the divine fulness and a felt necessity for the blessings sought. He who would have the preparation, when in the pulpit, must obtain it before he goes there. “He that cometh to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them who diligently seek Him.”— Heb. 11:6. “But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering.”—James 1:6. “Praying in the Holy Ghost.”—Jude 20.
To make prayers and to pray, are very different things. Anyone can make a prayer, who can command the use of language; but to pray, the soul must commune with God. There is constant danger that prayers offered in the pulpit will become stereotyped and monotonous, so constantly are they repeated, and under circumstances so almost exactly similar. The best preventive is a fervent spirit, and a deep sense of the need of divine assistance.
3. Style of Prayer. —While prayer is not to be measured and meted out by mechanical rules, nor subjected to the rigid canons of logic or rhetoric, yet the petitioner in not—ordinarily, at least—beyond a self-conscious sense of certain properties, which even prayer, as a public or social exercise, should not transgress. Nor need it dampen the spirit, or interrupt the flow of devotion, to regard those proprieties. Prayer should be simple, direct, and brief. It should be so simple in style that all in the assembly can intelligently unite in it. It should be direct as to what is prayed for, and not wander over all possible subjects, seeking nothing in particular, and expecting nothing in particular. It often seems as if prayer was offered in public worship, not because there was a felt need of it, but because it is the prevailing custom to pray in that particular part of the service.
Prayers should be brief: of course, in some cases more so than in others. There is no excuse for the painful length of what is called “the long prayer” preceding the sermon in the case of many clergymen. In fact, the “long prayer” is a calamity, to both the minister and the people. It is often difficult to perform it, and painful to endure it. Very largely it is not prayer at all, but a religious address, the rather, discursive in style and promiscuous in matter. If it could be confined to three or five minutes, the “long prayer” would be no more, and public worship would gain immensely. But the tyranny of established usage still preserves and inflicts it on preacher and people alike without compensation.
Prayers should be distinctly uttered, so that all can understand and unite in them; nor should there be anything, in manner or expression, so peculiar as to divert the thoughts of hearers from the devotion. Especially should not the petitioner “use vain repetition as the heathen do; for they think they shall be heard for their much speaking.”—Matt. 6 Besides which, the whole style and manner of address should be penitential, reverential, and dignified withal, savoring of meekness and humility, as is becoming in sinful, helpless creatures when approaching a holy God. All flippant familiarity with the sacred names, which seems an affectation of unusual piety, should be avoided, as most offensive to sensible minds.
4. Faults in Prayer.—It may seem a most ungracious thing to criticise so sacred an exercise as prayer ought to be, and point out defects which not unfrequently mar its excellencies. The one prevailing defect, no doubt, is want of faith, spirituality, and the influences of the Holy Spirit. But these attach to all Christian exercises. There are, however, certain defects in the drift of prayer—more particularly prayers in the social meetings—into which the pious sometimes unconsciously fall, which deserve attention and correction.
Preaching Prayers, in which Scripture is explained, doctrine expounded, and instruction offered to the audience.
Exhorting Prayers, where warnings, rebukes, and exhortations seem addressed to classes, or individuals, and possibly personal sins are pointed out.
Historical Prayers, in which facts and incidents are related, from which inferences and arguments are adduced. Not to be commended, though David, Solomon, and Ezra indulged in them on very special occasions.
Oratorical Prayers, which seem framed with special regard to the language, as if intended for critical ears.
Complimentary Prayers, where the excellencies of persons present or absent are effectively dwelt on, as if individuals were flattered, rather than the Deity worshiped. Clergymen in praying for each other, on public occasions, often use flattering speech.
Fault-finding Prayers, which make prominent the real or fancied faults of the Church or of individuals, existing difficulties deplored, advice given, remedies suggested, or rebukes administered.
All such things should be avoided.
The Prayer Meeting
The Prayer-meeting is emphatically a Christian institution. For while prayer, as a religious exercise, or form of religious service, is by no means confined to Christian assemblies, nor indeed to Christian life, yet gatherings for social worship, chiefly for thanksgiving, supplication and song, are peculiarly the outgrowth of the Gospel of Christ. In saying this, the fact is not overlooked that among idolatrous and barbarous races, even, there are assemblies for worship constantly recurring, largely and enthusiastically attended. But the prayer-meeting idea does not enter into the purpose or conception of such assemblies. The disposition to pray, to petition the Supreme Being for benefits needed, and for defense against impending evils, is instinct in the human mind. But the idea of worship, in its strict sense, of fellowship with the spiritual, and communion with the unseen, seems never to have entered into the idea of prayer, except to those illuminated by a divine revelation.
The teachings of Jesus revealed to men the fact that God is a father interested in human affairs, caring for the welfare of His creatures, and that He is pleased to have them approach Him, and make known their requests with prayer and supplication. Indeed, under the old dispensation, God declared Himself to be a praying-hearing, and a prayer-answering God. But Jesus brought the divine presence nearer to believing souls, and gave assurance of the Eternal Father’s loving care, which even a weak faith could not question. “Ask, and ye shall receive; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened.” And He further assured His disciples, that God was more willing to give the Spirit to those who asked, than parents were to give good things to their children.
In the Old Testament much is said of prayer, many remarkable instances of which are narrated, with equally remarkable answers to them. But nothing is said of prayer-meetings for worship. The temple services contained nothing equivalent to it. During the captivity the Jews had their assemblies for mourning and lamentation over the desolations of Zion. They may have mingled prayers for the promised restoration. Of this we do not know. It is certain that the jubilant spirit of social worship could not have inspired their assemblies without song, for they hanged their harps on the willows, and refused to sing the Lord’s songs in a strange land. In the triumphs of a Christian faith, Paul and Silas beguiled the midnight hours, in the Philippian jail, with prayer and singing, though their feet were held fast in the stocks of the innermost prison. After the captivity it appears that the synagogue service, in some cases at least, did approach the social worship of the prayer-meeting. Pious Jews, not numerous enough, or not rich enough to build and sustain a synagogue in heathen cities, were accustomed to have oratories, places of prayer, cheap and temporary resorts for worship. In one of these the Apostle found Lydia and her associates, out of the city of Philippi, by the riverside, where they were accustomed to pray.
It does not appear that even Jesus and His disciples held seasons of social prayer together. He prayed much, and taught them how to pray, as John also taught his disciples. But immediately after the ascension, the spirit of the new life took possession of the disciples, even before the baptism of the Pentecost, and they resorted to “an upper room,” where “these all continued, with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, and His brethren.” There was born the prayer-meeting of the Christian dispensation, which has, through all the generations continued, with non-liturgical churches, a component, and a most important part of Christian worship—in theory at least, however much it may be neglected in practice.
As the services of evangelical churches generally are arranged, the principal prayer-meeting, or, as it is sometimes distinguished, “the Church prayer-meeting,” comes in the middle of the week. As a rule it is not numerously attended. But the most spiritual and devout members attend; and those who do habitually attend become the devout and spiritually minded, if they were not such before. This service not only reveals, but nourishes and develops the religious vitality of the Church, and the importance of the service as a spiritual force cannot well be overestimated. The pastor who is wise unto righteousness for the good of his people, will cultivate this part of worship with the most painstaking assiduity. Those pastors who have been most successful in edifying their churches, have most magnified the prayer-meeting. Those ministers who have been most successful in winning souls, have most magnified the functions and the efficacy of prayer. And those churches which most devoutly pray for the success of the gospel among them, are the most likely to realize that their work is not in vain in the Lord.
Doubtless every pastor believes himself fully capable of so ordering this service as to produce the best results, without advice from any one. And yet it is probably safe to say, that not one minister in ten knows how to make a prayer-meeting efficient, and about one in twenty would kill the best one that could be put into his hands. By many it is considered a very unimportant affair, that will care for itself, or, if not cared for at all, it matters little. No wise pastor will make such a mistake.
The following suggestions—a few out of many—may be helpful to some.
1. The success and utility of the prayer-meeting depends on the leader, more than on any other one thing, save the presence of the Holy Spirit. The leader will presumably be the pastor. He certainly ought not to commit the management of so important a matter to other hands, as a rule. And he ought to give diligence and prayerful study to bring this department of worship to the highest possible state of interest and efficiency.
2. The success of the service does not depend on the numbers who attend. Though a full meeting is desirable, yet a very full meeting may be a very poor one, and a very small meeting may be a very good one. And all attempts to crowd the service by introducing other than legitimate topics, is a mistake. The prayer-meeting has its special mission. Diverted from that, it ceases to be the true prayer-meeting, though it may prove an interesting service of some other kind.
3. The prayer-meeting is not a “teaching service.” Though its exercises will convey instruction, yet instruction is not its special function. That belongs to the pulpit, the Bible class, and other similar exercises. This is for the heart rather than for the intellect. To feed the spiritual hunger of the soul. To cheer, inspire, comfort. Many keep silent because they say they cannot instruct. But that is not the peculiar vocation of the service. They can console, sympathize, encourage.
4. The opening exercises should be brief. So should they all. Many pastors talk to death the service, by long, dull, dreary harangues, just to “start the meeting!” Give a desultory discourse, a kind of pointless lecture, of a promiscuous character, confusing rather than illuminating the minds of the people, giving them nothing in particular to think about, to speak on, or to pray for. Then the leader sits down, telling them to occupy the time and be very brief! Is it a wonder that no one feels like moving, and that the meeting expires after a few ineffectual struggles for animation .”
5. Singing should have a large place in the prayer-meeting. Not so much as to absorb and cover up, or exclude prayer and exhortation, or degenerate into a singing-school. The hymns should be wisely adjusted to the service and the temper of the occasion. After the meeting is fairly opened, one stanza at a time is all that should ordinarily be used. The hymns should be so familiar that all can use them. At the opening and closing of the service an instrument is of special use. But during the progress of the meeting, it is rather preferable, as being more free and less formal, for some one to strike a familiar verse, without waiting to look it up in the book, or for the instrument to lead.
6. Begin the meeting on time. That will help the attendants to be prompt. If the leader waits for the people, the people will be all the later. Train them to habits of punctuality. Close on time, except that, on occasion, the interest may justify protracting the exercises somewhat. But do not continue so long as to exhaust the interest, and have to stop on a falling tide.
7. Have the place of meeting pleasant and attractive. This can be done, however plain and poor it may be, by those little arts of handicraft and good taste which people anywhere can exercise. By the use of flowers, inexpensive pictures and mottoes, you can make a barn look pretty. Worshipers, especially the young, should associate beauty, purity and good order with religion.
8. Be sure to have plenty of pure air and good light in the prayer room. Few buildings are so badly ventilated as our church buildings. On Sunday people can better bear to be poisoned with a noxious atmosphere, when they have nothing to do but listen to the preacher—or not listen, as the case may be. But in the conference meeting, where they are expected to take some part, it is absolutely essential that they shall not be put to sleep, made drowsy, or given a headache by vitiated air.
9. As the chief value and potency of the social meeting lies in its spiritual function and power, therefore one of the chief subjects of prayer should be the implored presence and aid of the Holy Spirit. And those persons are best prepared for it, and the most useful in it, who do the most to live in and walk by the Spirit. No intellectual or literary qualifications can meet this demand. Here, the spiritually minded bear the palm, though in all else they may be quite behind.
10. As the fabric of the prayer and conference meeting consists of this threefold texture, prayer, exhortation and song, does not assume the functions of teaching, and relates largely to personal Christian experience, therefore all, old and young, male and female, learned and unlearned, can take part in its service, be benefited, and benefit others. All who have a personal experience of divine grace in their own hearts and lives, are fitted to do good and to receive a blessing in this sacred service.
Besides the mid-week general prayer-meeting of the Church, many other occasions for special or stated prayer are observed by most Christian congregations.
The women’s prayer-meeting. In very many churches Christian women have a weekly service of this sort, conducted by themselves, where they can feel more freedom than in the general meetings. These services, sometimes inaptly called “female prayer-meeting,” give occasion for those to exercise their gifts who lack the courage, or possibly doubt the propriety of females speaking in promiscuous assemblies, as in some communities they do.
Young people’s prayer-meeting. Within recent years, the organization of classes, especially women and young people, for religious and benevolent work, has assumed proportions not formerly dreamed of! Great good has resulted, and greater good, we may hope, will yet result, notwithstanding some doubts and drawbacks as to the evils of class divisions in Church life and work, as imperiling the unity of the body. The young people’s prayer-meeting is now almost everywhere in the churches. The only objection that seems valid, as against them, is, that having done their part in their own prayer-meeting, they may either feel at liberty to absent themselves from the Church prayer-meeting, or, if present, to take no part. Where this does happen it is a serious misfortune, and overbalances any good their separate service may produce. The Church should not be broken up into sections and segments of old people and young people, male and female, but be as one family, a sacred unity, as the body of Christ. But these unfortunate results do not always follow.
The missionary prayer-meeting. The concert of prayer for missionaries, and the success of the Gospel in heathen lands, held once each month, seems falling into neglect. Formerly it was generally observed by all Evangelical churches. “The week of prayer,” for the same object, and for the universal revival of religion, is still generally observed on the first week in the year. Usually very gracious results follow in the churches which observe it. They that water others shall themselves be watered.
The temperance prayer-meeting. This is not so generally observed as it should be. For if there be anything that appeals to Christian faith, and which should lead Christian people to appeal to God, the righteous judge, for help, it is this cause,—that the gigantic iniquity of the saloon, and the drink habit, which cause more suffering than war, pestilence and famine combined, may be checked and destroyed. With churches so apathetic, and good people on every hand so indifferent, the rum power rides riot over all that is fairest and best in society, destroying homes, impoverishing nations, and invading the sacred altars of our holy religion. Appeals need to be made to Him who is able to hear and save, for who else can avail?
The mothers’ prayer-meeting. There is fitness in the gatherings of mothers for special prayer for their children, that they may escape the snares of sin and the temptations of the world, be early converted, and make honorable and useful Christians. Such meetings, persisted in, have often been followed by the most manifest blessing of God in answers to prayer. But mothers who pray for the conversion of their children must constantly strive to answer their own prayers, by training them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
The Sunday-school prayer-meeting. It is quite natural for Christian workers in any department of service to feel specially interested in that department, and to implore the divine favor to attend and give success to their endeavors. Sunday-school work has become so wide-spread, so vital as a religious agency, and so efficient among the young, that it rightly holds a large place in the sympathies and the prayers of the churches. It is most commendable, therefore, that special prayer, and special seasons of prayer be designated for the success of this line of Christian endeavor.
For colleges and schools of learning. An annual “week of prayer” is now generally observed for educational institutions, especially schools for higher learning, that they may be made subservient to virtue, truth and piety. For the conversion of students, and the sanctification of all intellectual acquisitions to the best interest of true religion. This is a matter of the gravest importance, especially as nearly all of our colleges and high schools were founded, and are largely supported by the benevolence of Christian men and women.
III. The Service of Song.
The power and influence of sacred song in worship are not understood and appreciated as they ought to be.
Even where music is highly cultivated in Christian congregations, it is rather for aesthetic effect and popular attraction, than for spiritual uses; rather as an appeal to the intellect than to the heart; rather to gratify the taste than to answer the cravings of a devout spirit. Music may become high art in the house of God, but that does not make it worship. Of course it should be artistic in the best sense of that term, but only that it may be the more devout. In the old temple service of the Hebrews, music, conjoined with sacrifices and offerings, constituted almost their only worship.
Indeed in our less pretentious Christian services, singing constitutes almost the only act that can be called worship in the strictest sense. Like prayer, the service of song may express adoration, confession, supplication and praise. But, unlike prayer, all can vocally unite in this act of worship. Now, as in the primitive churches, the saints can mitigate their sorrows, beguile their griefs, elevate their affections, and gird themselves with strength, “Speaking to themselves in psalms and hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in their hearts to the Lord.”—Eph. 5:19.
Being performed in concert, where many people, it prevents an unpleasant sense of individual responsibility, and becomes a pleasant privilege, instead of a burdensome duty. It animates the dull, and soothes the agitated spirit. While it comforts and inspires the saints, it, more than any other part of religious service, attracts the unconverted and the unbelieving. It is the act of worship in which all occupy a common attitude, and mutually bear a part. It is not, therefore, strange that sacred song has occupied so large a place in the history of Christian worship, and that the affections of the renewed heart cherish it so fondly, and resort to it so constantly. Christianity has sung its triumphs through the ages, and around the world.
1. The Character of Song-Worship.
It should be the united expression of the assembly—the worship of all uttered in song. It is not to be a performance by a company of musicians, for the entertainment of the congregation, but an act of worship by the congregation itself. It is not to be an act of worship, performed by others, to which the people are to listen, but an act of worship which they themselves are to offer. “Let the people praise thee, O God let all the people praise thee.”
Therefore singing should be congregational; that is, the people should sing; all the assembly should praise God in song. Singing is the people’s worship. The chant, the anthem, the oratorio are rather for the cathedral and the temple. Though beautiful and grand, and potent with a savor of worship, they should be sparingly used in the Christian congregation. They may incite an audience to worship, but the assembly does not to any considerable extent worship in them. The genius of the Gospel requires chiefly the chorus, where the people shall not simply listen, and have devotion excited, but where they shall sing, and express devotion.
2. The Style of Music.
Since the true idea of sacred song is that the people shall worship, not witness a performance, therefore the style of music should be such as the people can perform. But the mass of worshipers can never go beyond the simplest elements of any art or science; therefore the music for Christian service should be of the simplest kind, in structure and execution, and limited to a small number of tunes. Music more complicated in structure, and more artistic in execution, a few could perform, and perhaps more highly enjoy; but it could not express the devotion of the great majority of worshipers because they could not unite in it. Devotion seeks plain choral harmonies in which to utter its worship. The leaders of Church music will be constantly endeavoring to treat the congregation to a greater variety in style and execution; but this will be a departure from the true idea of worship. As our religious services are usually arranged it may be very well to introduce them with an anthem, a chant, or a sentence by the choir; and possibly a short set piece somewhere before the sermon; perhaps immediately following the “long prayer,” before the notices, and the second hymn. But the hymns and prevailing custom calls for three—should be sung to simple music, so familiar that the people can sing them, without an effort to remember the tune, and without danger of losing it, all thought being given to the sentiment and spirit of the words.
3. The Leader of Music.
It makes little difference whether the leader be an organ, or a single voice, a quartette, or a choir. Either of these would harmonize with the spirit and design of worship, so long as it be simply a leader, and not a performer. If the singing is to be done for the people, and they take no part in it, it matters little whether that part be performed by an instrument, a single voice, or several voices. But a Christian congregation should not omit so important a duty, nor deprive itself of so sacred a privilege as that of singing the praises of God in His house of worship.
Note 1.—The too common custom, in our large and wealthy congregations, in cities and towns, of hiring a company of professional musicians, operatic or otherwise, carnal, worldly minded, and irreverent persons, destitute of religious sentiment, to perform this important part of religious service for the Church, is a shameful perversion, which outrages every sentiment of a pure spiritual worship, violates the proprieties of a simple Gospel service, and ought not to be tolerated by a Christian assembly. For while it is proper for unconverted persons to sing in worship, and even to be members of the choir if reverent, and while it is proper for persons who devote valuable time and service to music to receive appropriate compensation, yet to give up to a company of paid performers the most important part of worship, simply because they possess musical taste and culture, is an offense to the spirit of devotion, and it must seem to the Spirit of grace as well.
Note 2.—While it is as proper for unconverted persons to sing, as it is for them to read the Scriptures, or to pray, yet it is altogether inconsistent for one not truly a Christian to lead, have charge of and control the music for Church service; as inconsistent as it would be for an unconverted man to take charge of the prayer-meeting. The choir leader should be a thoroughly Christian man.
Note 3.—Since the music is a part of Church service, and a principal part of its worship, the right and oblgation to engage, dismiss and manage those connected with it, belongs to the Church distinctively, as pertaining to its spiritualities, and not to the trustees, whose duties are confined to the temporalities; though so far as the payment of salaries is concerned, that falls to the trustees. Sometimes the Church by a special act gives up the entire management of this department to the trustees, to the deacons, to a music committee, or places it in the hands of the chorister, making him responsible. Either of these courses the Church has the right to take, judging for itself which is the wisest and best way.
Note 4.—It must be remembered that Church music is a part of worship, and since the conducting of worship devolves on the pastor, and is his by right, so the management of the singing should be only on consultation with him, and with his approval. And while he has not the right to overrule or reverse the action of the Church, they should not attempt to force on him musical adjustments which are unwelcome, or repugnant to his sense of propriety. The pulpit and the orchestra must be in accord, if worship is to be pleasant and profitable.
Note 5.—All levity and irreverence on the part of singers during the time of service should be strictly avoided, and if need be, absolutely forbidden and prohibited. All whispering, trifling, leaving the gallery during the sermon, returning in time for the closing hymn, with all other marks of indifference and disrespect, are painfully incongruous in scenes of devotion, especially on the part of those who occupy so prominent a place in worship as do the musicians. The same respectful attention to all the services should be demanded from them, as is expected from others of the congregation.
Note 6.—In order to realize the full advantage of congregational singing as an aid to worship, some churches have weekly meetings, especially of the young people, for the purpose of practising, and becoming familiar with the hymns and tunes used on the Lord’s Day.
Note 7.—Every Church should provide for the instruction of the young in the congregation and Sunday-school, in the elements of vocal music. Such instruction, during six, or at least three months of the year, with a weekly exercise, would soon make congregational singing practicable and successful.
Note 8.—It certainly would seem that every Christian congregation should be able to recruit a volunteer chorus choir from its own members, without the necessity of hiring professional artists from abroad. This would better harmonize with the true idea of devotion. And if Church music were sustained purely for worship, as it should be, and not as a special entertainment or attraction, this might be realized more frequently than it now is.
IV. The Word of Exhortation.
Whether the gift of exhortation were one of the special charisms bestowed by the Spirit on the primitive Church, as many believe, and as would seem to be implied in the eighth of Romans, where it is mentioned as one of the gifts, and classed with prophecy, the ministry, teaching and ruling, we do not undertake to decide. Certain it is that it has always been developed among the spiritually minded as a powerful auxiliary to the preaching of the Gospel, and other means of grace. It constitutes a considerable part of worship in social religious meetings, where God’s people “exhort one another daily,” and each “suffer the word of exhortation.”—Heb. 3:13; 13:22. The meaning of the original word [parakaleo) is significant of the importance of the exercise. It means to call for, or upon, and especially to call upon in the sense of cheering, encouraging, comforting, inspiring, those addressed.
There are persons in every Church who have a depth and richness of Christian experience far beyond the common average, whose remarks are attended by a peculiar unction and power unknown to the ordinary Christian life. This is, doubtless, largely owing to their closer fellowship and more intimate communion with God. But, aside from such special cases, every saint can speak of his experience in the life of faith, and by a recital of both his sorrows and his joys, exhort and encourage others. They are not called upon to expound the Scriptures, nor to conduct public meetings, but they can tell of the love of God and the grace of Christ as revealed to them.
The exhortations of God’s children form one of the most effectual means of spiritual improvement and edification to the churches, “Or he that exhorteth on exhortation.”—Rom. 12:8.
1. Who should exhort.—All who have the spirit. It is the privilege, and, doubtless, at times, the duty of all who know the grace of God, without distinction of age, sex or condition, to speak of their experience in the divine life, and thus encourage others. This is an exercise specially fitted for the social meetings. There, where the greater freedom of “the household of faith” prevails, they should “exhort one another, and so much the more as they see the day approaching.”—Heb. 10:25.
2. The gift of exhortation.—Whether there be a special gift for this exercise, and whether some are called to it as others are called to preach, it is clear that some are specially gifted in it, as some are in prayer and some in the ministry of the word. But every one who has an experience in godliness can speak to edification, and the deeper and more constant is that experience the more gracious and edifying will be the exhortation. Ordinary abilities, sanctified by the Spirit, cannot fail to be profitable. Those who speak the most fluently and the most eloquently do not always speak the most profitably; but those who speak with the Spirit never fail to edify those who walk in the Spirit.
3. Faults in exhortation.—Christians sometimes fall unconsciously into faulty habits in this exercise, which hinder their usefulness and mar the pleasure of spiritual fellowship.
Gloomy and despondent expressions should be avoided. Comforting, inspiring, stimulating utterances befit the meaning of the word and the wants of the saints.
A preaching style should be avoided, though passages of Scripture will often be mentioned, suggesting reflections of great interest and profit.
Prolix exhortations should never be indulged in, since they become wearisome and unprofitable, and deprive others of their privileges.
One’s self should not be too often mentioned, lest it might appear boastful and egotistic.
Fault-finding and complaining should be most carefully shunned. It closes the ears and hearts of the hearers, and casts a pall over the spirit of the meeting.
Denunciation and a censorious spirit is, if possible, still worse. It exhibits a spirit opposed to the Gospel, and never fails to do harm.
Hobbies are unprofitable. Some dwell on hackneyed themes until both themselves and their subjects are distasteful to the audience.
Foreign subjects should not be often introduced, except as illustrations, or from which to draw lessons of instruction. Experimental religion furnishes the fittest themes for exhortations.
Adulation and excessive praise of individuals are as unwise and offensive as harsh criticism and denunciation; though commendation and approval, when called for, are praiseworthy.
Confessing one’s self a very great sinner, parading his shortcomings, will be understood as an affectation of unusual piety. This is not wise exhortation.
V. The Covenant Meeting.
The Covenant Meeting is an order of religious service, very generally, though not universally observed among Baptists. Its observance, however, is extending, and becoming more general. In form, it is a usage peculiar to our people, but in spirit and purpose, it has its counterpart in some of the other denominations. Somewhat like the “class-meeting,” it aims to secure some expression of Christian experience from each Church member present; and somewhat like the “preparatory lecture,” it proposes to become a fitting preparation for the communion of the Lord’s Supper, to be observed on the following Sunday.
The origin of this service, in its present form, is not known. It was peculiarly valued by the old New England Baptists, and traveled West and Northwest with the tide of their emigration, more than South and Southwest. Its spirit is instinct in the fellowship of the Gospel, and the spiritual sympathy of the Christian brotherhood. The saint, at conversion, enters into joyous covenant with Christ, and with His people. Whether formally expressed or not, every Christian does, on being baptized and received to the fellowship of the Church, covenant to walk together with the other members, in all sincerity and godliness, as common heirs of the grace of life. This pledge, to love, pray for, and help each other, shunning all ungodliness, and living soberly and righteously before the world, is the renewed assurance of fellowship, in the bonds of a common faith, and the love of a common Saviour, from time to time renewed. These covenants of mutual sympathy and help, had a significancy amidst the persecutions of the early martyr age of Christianity, which they have not now. The same may be said as to the times of persecution, when the early Baptists of New England endured much cruel opposition and suffering inflicted by their fellow-Christians, for conscience’ sake, and for Christ’s sake patiently borne. The renewal of this covenant is with both Christ as the Head of the Church, and with the members of the body.
In favor of the covenant meeting, as a means of spiritual help and culture, much may be said. If a member could attend but one service of the Church during the month, that one should undoubtedly be the Communion of the Lord’s Supper. This is the highest expression of piety, and brings the soul into most immediate fellowship with its exalted and livingLord. If there be but one other service which the member can attend, that other one should be the covenant meeting, which anticipates the near approach of the commemorative Supper, and reviews the vital relationship of the disciple to His Saviour on the one hand, and to his fellow-disciples on the other. And where the service is so conducted as to realize its true ideal, it becomes the most endeared to those who attend, and the most spiritually stimulating and helpful of all occasions of social worship.
But the covenant meeting, in order to realize its benefits, must be made distinctive, and kept true to its purpose. The service is unique. It is not a prayer-meeting, it is not a lecture service, it is not a teacher’s meeting.—It is for each member. So far as all are willing for there is no compulsion—to speak briefly of his religious estate and experience, especially during the past month, and in view of the approaching Communion. After the usual opening exercises, and brief remarks from the pastor, along the special line of the meeting’s purpose, calculated to be helpful to what follows, the members are expected “to speak to their covenant,” or in more common phrase, “to renew their covenant.” This is done in few words by each in turn, by a renewed declaration of their interest in, and fellowship with, the Church and the Christian life, with mention of any peculiar experience of joy or sorrow, during the previous month. The whole area of Christian experience comes under review, as each one’s meditations may be led.
It is not always an easy task to induce an assembly of Christian people to speak readily and freely concerning their own religious experiences. Some have so little experience in godliness; some are so little accustomed to speaking before others; some shrink with such timidity from speaking of themselves, that there is probably more difficulty in reaching a satisfactory attainment in this service, than in any other social meeting. No one is called on personally. But some pastors, to save so large a loss of time, and to secure a larger number of testimonies, have the speaking begin at a particular part of the room, and go in order through one row of seats after another, till the whole is completed. Each one speaks, or declines, as he chooses, when the turn reaches him. This plan is a little more formal, but a much larger number of testimonies will in this way be secured, and usually the effect of the meeting is better. Many will have something to say when their turn comes, and others immediately about them have spoken, who otherwise would remain silent. And those who are thus induced to bear their part in the service find themselves to have enjoyed it vastly more on that account. The covenant meeting is held monthly, on the week preceding the communion Sunday. In cities, towns and villages, it usually takes the place of the prayer-meeting for that week, notice being given on Sunday, that it may be kept in mind. In frontier districts, and sparsely settled country neighborhoods, it is common to hold it on Saturday afternoon, as more convenient for attendance. In such cases it is usual for them, in addition to the covenant service, to transact any Church business, needful to be done.
Note 1.—To the Articles of Faith, which the churches use, there is generally attached a form of Church Covenant. This, some pastors are accustomed to read to the Church when assembled at the Supper, and to which they give assent by standing while it is being read. Some read it at the Covenant Meeting, as a partial substitute for, or supplement to, the meeting.
Note 2.—It will be understood that with our churches no formal pledge, creed or covenant is made compulsory on members, either on being received to their fellowship or subsequently. On making application for membership, copies of the articles of faith and covenant are put into their hands—or should be—and they are asked to examine them carefully. A general concurrence in these is expected, but no pledged conformity is ever exacted.
Edward Hiscox (1814-1901) was an American Baptist pastor and theologian. He was converted to Christ in 1834 and began to preach the gospel four years later. He served as the pastor for several congregations, including the Stanton Street Baptist Church, New York (1852). He is best known for authoring the “Standard Manual for Baptist Churches” (1890) and the “New Directory for Baptist Churches” (1894).