Spurgeon on Church Gatherings
In February I plodded my way through Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students and found it to be an immense store of practical but gospel motivated advice for those who teach and preach in the local church. Throughout the collection, Spurgeon comes across not merely as an influential luminary and iconic leader but as a man who loved the Lord Jesus and longed to see God’s people properly shepherded. There is unfortunately no summary of the work that will adequately substitute for reading the lectures yourself, which I heartily encourage you to do, and in this post I simply want to pick up on a few of Spurgeon’s passing but invaluable points about church meetings, corporate gatherings, “Sabbath services”, or whatever else you want to call them.
Hearing God’s Word preached is an act of worship
“Rightly to listen to the gospel is one of the noblest parts of the adoration of the Most High. It is a mental exercise, when rightly performed, in which all the faculties of the spiritual man are called into devotional action. Reverently hearing the word exercises our humility, instructs our faith, irradiates us with joy, inflames us with love, inspires us with zeal, and lifts us up towards heaven”. Many Christians today foolishly distinguish between aspects of our meetings that constitute worship, for which we have a “worship leader”, and others whereby something else is happening. Spurgeon continues, “True preaching is an acceptable adoration of God by the manifestation of his gracious attributes: the testimony of his gospel, which pre-eminently glorifies him, and the obedient hearing of revealed truth, are an acceptable form of worship to the Most High, and perhaps one of the most spiritual in which the human mind can be engaged.” The sermon does not only inspire worship, responding in hymns and prayer; hearing God speak to us through his Scriptures and by the work of his Spirit is an event in the life of the church where Jesus’ name is magnified and our hearts are moved to praise. Surely that is worship. As D.A. Carson writes in Basics for Believers, “The sermon is not un-worship; it is part of our corporate worship, both a sign of it and a profound incitement to it.”
Weigh each aspect of your service
Continuing from the previous point, Spurgeon calls us to “feel very deeply the importance of conducting every part of divine worship with the utmost possible efficiency”. Just as we fall into the error of distinguishing worship and listening to God, so we sometimes fail to consider how each aspect of our corporate gatherings can declare the gospel, not only the sermon. Spurgeon calls us to remember that the salvation of a soul may hang on the choice of a hymn. Yet most Christians are more caught up with the style of their music rather than content. He challenges us to reflect that “God may very especially bless an expression in our prayer to the conversion of a wanderer; and that prayer in the unction of the Holy Spirit, may minister greatly to the edification of God's people, and bring unnumbered blessings down upon them, we shall endeavour to pray with the best gift and the highest grace within our reach.” Yet we stupidly think prepared prayers unspiritual and lifeless. Lastly, Spurgeon says, “In the reading of the Scriptures comfort and instruction may be plenteously distributed, we shall pause over our opened Bibles, and devoutly seek to be guided to that portion of Holy Writ which shall be most likely to be made useful.” Yet I have visited numerous churches where Bibles are little more than stage props. Removing the public reading from Scripture from our meetings robs people of hearing from God, in his living and true word. We must prayerfully consider every element in corporate worship, for each has the potential to proclaim the gospel and encourage faith.
Vary the order of service
Still discussing the service as a whole, Spurgeon warns: “In order to prevent custom and routine from being enthroned among us, it will be well to vary the order of service as much as possible”. Spurgeon entreats us to allow the Spirit to work through innovation, not being in bondage to tradition and fixed rules as modes of worship. He also notes the irony where liturgy is vehemently resisted yet other prescribed rubrics reign over church meetings. “We claim to conduct service as the Holy Spirit moves us, and as we judge best. We will not be bound to sing here and pray there, but will vary the order of service to prevent monotony…Irregularities would do good, monotony works weariness.” It would be easy to highlight the charismatic churches’ repetitious singing at this point, but in my own Anglican tradition that makes frequent use of the Book of Common Prayer we are in grave danger of stifling our services with structure, both in week to week monotony and in the lack of space given to unprepared sharing, testimony and prayer. Being enslaved to an order of service can dissuade people of the liveliness and significance of God’s gathered people.
Direct all public prayers to God
Finally, I want to draw an incisive point from Spurgeon, as many preachers tend to treat their closing prayer as an “oblique sermon”, powerful rhetoric designed to stir their hearers’ emotions, or an opportunity to summarise their message. He smarts, “It is little short of blasphemy to make devotion an occasion for display,” for “the Lord alone must be the object of our prayers.” He then goes on, quite unsettlingly to state that, “Fine prayers are generally very wicked prayers.” While we might aim through zeal to excite our hearers, “every word and thought must be Godward…look up, look up with both eyes.” This does not excuse embarrassingly personal or specific prayers. A prayer should harmonise with the rest of the service – from our songs to the sermon and even to confession – but this is to be done wisely, not slavishly, always remembering that God alone is the object of our prayers. I would add, in conclusion, that if it is God’s gospel of grace that we proclaim through our preaching, accept and find assurance in during confession, celebrate in our songs, and through which we humbly approach God in prayer, then not only would we be kept from falling into this trap uncovered by Spurgeon but it would be unthinkable that our prayers be directed to anyone other than our gracious heavenly Father.