Transcription of article by Rev. William Lee
THIS subject should appeal to all earnest Christians, and to devoted Primitive Methodists in particular: for it is in the Sunday evening after meeting that we look for the ingathering. At least that was so in the past. It is, unfortunately, a somewhat rare event to witness conversions in the prayer meetings to-day. Years ago it was a common occurrence. The old-fashioned penitent form, or communion rail, used to be lined with penitents. But we do not expect conversions in these degenerate days. The tendency is to wait for a special agent, and look for results at the season of revival.
What is the reason of the comparative failure of the after meeting? It does not lie altogether with the meeting itself. We have to consider the character of the church, and the nature of the ministry. We cannot hope for spiritual gains from an unspiritual church, nor from a ministry lacking in true consecration to the preaching of the great evangel. Present day preaching is marked by a different emphasis. The accent, formerly, was placed on the imminent danger of the sinner; the certainty of the doom of the finally impenitent, the fearful looking for Judgment, if he did not close with the offer of pardon. But a change has come over the pulpit. New views of eschatology prevail. Milder and more humane conceptions of the punishment of sinners have arisen; and the tendency of all this is to make the appeal less urgent.
Preachers are more concerned to fit their hearers to become better citizens of the earthly Jerusalem than to prepare them for the Heavenly. Sermons are more ethical and practical; the wooing note is not sounded as formerly, and the preacher is not so pre-eminently concerned to win a verdict for Christ. There are preachers, still living, whose sermons used to haunt and terrify their hearers in visions of the night. Under those lurid addresses the people trembled, and as a result of those powerful appeals the communion rail would be crowded with weeping penitents. You do not now hear sermons which terrify you in the night watches. The preaching of to-day is pitched on a lower key. It is informing, interesting, pleasing, but frequently unconvincing. The inference is not unwarranted that this shifting of the emphasis accounts largely for the “paucity of conversions” in the churches of to-day.
In the early days our fathers preached with a view to immediate results, and they were tremendously in earnest. How they agonised with God! How they pleaded with the people! Is it to be wondered at that Heaven opened above them? Is it strange that troops of believing, rejoicing souls pressed into the Kingdom which had yielded to the violence of these great souls at prayer? Theirs was an extraordinary ministry of intercession. And the wonderful growth of the Church was the seal which the Holy Spirit gave to their impassioned labours.
We have fallen upon different, perhaps, degenerate days. “The old order changeth, yielding place to new.” We must seek to adapt ourselves to the new conditions, which are springing up everywhere. And the question arises, What methods shall we use to gather in the harvest of souls? In the first place we ought, at all costs, to recapture that strange passion for souls, which our fathers possessed in so full a measure. It is not their methods but their spirit for which we are pleading. A tepid, spiritless pulpit will never create that atmosphere in which souls must be born again. The evangelistic passion must again possess us. When the pulpit is occupied by a man baptized with the Holy Spirit, the o!d fashioned, Primitive Methodist prayer meeting is not an anachronism. Wisely led, conducted tactfully and with spiritual. insight, the old style prayer meeting is well fitted to render good service in the ingathering of the harvest of souls. The meeting for prayer must not be surrendered. An instrument so effective, as it has proved itself to be, for the extension of the Kingdom of the Redeemer must never be abandoned. It ought again to become instinct with the life which formerly characterised it.
The conduct of the after meeting is a matter of first-rate importance. Next to the spirit of the meeting comes the question of method. Well, the meeting should begin promptly. Immediately the benediction is pronounced, after the first service, a cheerful hymn should be announced, and the congregation should settle down to the business of the meeting at once. The leaders and officials should set the pace, not only by staying, but by the brightness and brevity of their exercises. It has a very depressing effect on those who stay, to observe the absence of the leading officials. It makes for a larger attendance when the stewards and local preachers are habitually present.
Furthermore, all the praying and believing force should be concentrated in one place. There is a great loss of power when it is not thus focused. Yes, and this praying power should all be directed toward the supreme aim of the prayer meeting—the decision of the wavering, the fixing of those who are halting between two opinions. The last place where generalities in prayer should be indulged in is the after meeting. Here the exercises should be brief and pointed. Comprehensiveness is an excellent feature in public prayer, but in the after meeting it may be sacrificed, and directness and urgency take its place. As to the length of the exercise brevity should be the rule. Some prayers which exceed the limit of two or three minutes are redeemed, however, by the loftiness of their tone and the spirituality of their petitions. But prayer in the after meeting should be brief. It is well to plunge into the midst of things at once, and not waste precious time in florid phraseology.
Again as many as possible ought to take part. The tediousness of some prayer meetings is insufferable, and it is largely due to the recurrence, week after week, of three or four stereotyped prayers. There is only one thing that is worse than long, pointless petitions, and that is the painful pauses which occur in so many prayer meetings. It is depressing to the last degree to hear the leader’s voice pathetically break the silence with the request for someone to lead in prayer.
The service of song is also a matter that calls for care and thought. Sometimes the organist stays at strikes up appropriate choruses, but this is a very rare practice. If the leader can pitch the tunes, and has a good choice of suitable pieces, it is well to allow him to control the singing. It frequently happens that the leader starts a verse, and some well-meaning person takes it out of his hands, and sings verse after verse, where the leader only desired one verse or a chorus. There is fitness of things in song as in other things. The penitential hymns should not be sung at the moment of victory, nor those which express ecstasy and rapture, when some struggling soul is endeavouring to break the chains of his captivity. The singing should interpret the mood of the meeting. When it does so it becomes a very important element in the success of the after meeting.
The question arises whether the character of the after meeting might not occasionally be changed. Change is desirable in the interest of freshness. Certainly the prayer meeting ought not to become rigid in its uniformity, and it is exceedingly difficult to keep the meeting fresh unless variety is introduced. It will be found useful to vary the menu occasionally. Thus a praise and testimony meeting may be announced with excellent results, so far as the attendance is concerned. It is surprising how many more can be prevailed upon to stay behind for such a service.
The idea of “the social hour,” closing with family prayer, is adopted in some Nonconformist churches. At Whitfield’s Tabernacle the Rev. C. Silvester Horne has found this to be an excellent plan for getting into touch with the young people of his congregation. The present writer tried this at Surrey Chapel once a month last winter, and with excellent results. The attendance went up from forty or fifty to a hundred and twenty; and a number of young people were induced to join the Church through the meetings. The social hour is worth a trial in the large centres and especially in down town churches.
There are many people in our churches, as hearers, with whom it is difficult to get into contact. The social hour furnishes just this opportunity; and when it has been tried it has bridged this gulf. The social hour is not suggested as a substitute for the prayer meeting, but as an occasional variant from it.
Now as regards the mission of the prayer meeting, little need be said. Its one great aim is to gather in the results of the day’s labour in school and church. The net has been cast into the sea, now is the time to draw in to the shore. The prayer meeting is the supreme opportunity to watch for souls. It is the occasion for coming to close grips with the enemy of souls, who here makes his last desperate effort to retain his hold upon his victims. To wrest them from his grasp is no easy task.
It needs great tact and almost infinite patience to land your fish, even when it is properly hooked. We have all seen the disastrous results of bungling methods in the prayer meeting. There are occasions when souls are in such deep distress that anyone who approaches them with kindly intentions and an earnest desire to help will be welcomed. But there are other occasions and persons when the utmost care and the most delicate handling are required. Sometimes people will stay behind to the after meeting, who are in a careless, even a flippant mood. Perhaps an unskilful or inexperienced worker approaches one of this class; and the results are not at all happy. Beaten in argument, outmatched in wit, the worker has perchance lost his temper, and the enemy has used the occasion as an opportunity to “blaspheme.” No possible good can come of prolonged conversations with persons of this class.
There ought to be two or three persons, sisters and brothers, of proved capacity in every church, for this delicate work of personal dealing with souls. Perhaps no one ought to resist a strong impulse to speak to a soul under conviction for sin. Such an impulse may be a direct inspiration from the Holy Spirit, and ought to be acted upon.
It is certain that much greater results might be obtained if greater pains were bestowed upon the prayer meeting. This great Methodist institution ought to be used more intelligently and wisely, and then should we see a return of that glory and blessing which rested in so marked and marvellous a degree on the labours of our fathers.
Primitive Methodist Magazine 1910/98