Concerns have been repeatedly raised over the years over the state of the Sunday gospel meeting, and the lack of interest from the unconverted. In seeking to deal with this issue, the first thing that needs to be said is that the Bible itself knows nothing of organised gospel meetings, and certainly nothing about anything so specific as a ‘Sunday service’. If the gospel is preached in the hall in which we meet on the Lord’s day then we can be very thankful for that, but let us not pretend that such occasions owe anything to Scripture. It is tradition—a commendable tradition—but a tradition nonetheless. Nor would one like to see Sunday preachings discontinued for they continue to have value in ensuring that matters are “fully believed among us” (Luke 1: 1). However, it is clear that we need to question whether we have gone about trying to reach the unconverted in the right way.
The almost universal attitude is we need to work much harder than hitherto in striving to get unbelievers into the building where we meet as Christians. ‘Come to church’ is the well–nigh universal mantra. Indeed many, in their desperation to do something about falling numbers, seem prepared to employ almost any device in order to attract people in. The result is that the solemnity and seriousness of the gospel message becomes ever more squeezed in the drive to attract and retain the interest of the listener, and eventually all that is left is a form of religious entertainment. The other extreme is to throw up the hands and say that nothing can be done about the lack of interest from the unconverted, and for the congregation to withdraw in on itself as a relic from a bygone age. In that situation, a new convert would be utterly unthinkable and so, by and large, the congregation has given up thinking about such a thing.
Both of the scenarios described are sorry states of affairs, and this is because in both the problem of a disinterested world has been approached in the wrong way. Instead of striving more earnestly to get people to come in to hear the gospel, the emphasis should be on going out to them with the message. Why? Because this is what Scripture teaches us! It is most significant that the Holy Spirit only mentions three buildings used as Christian meeting places, and not one of them an ecclesiastical edifice. We read of an “upper chamber” (Acts 1: 13), a “school” (Acts 19: 9) and an “upper room” (Acts 20: 8), and as far as can be ascertained, all these were for disciples only. That the unbeliever was free to attend is clear enough from 1 Cor. 14: 24, 25, but who could possibly imagine that the ear of “the whole creation which [is] under heaven” (Col. 1: 23) could be reached at Pentecost if Peter had remained in that upper chamber? He went to the people. The farm worker may find plenty to do in his master’s granary––he needs what he finds in the granary for the sowing––but how much actual sowing would he do if he confined his labours to those four walls? “Faith cometh by hearing” (Rom. 10: 17; AV), but if the unbelievers will not come to us, how are they to hear if we do not go to them? Thus whether in the Jewish synagogue (see Acts 18: 4), by the riverside or some place of concourse like Mars Hill (see Acts 16: 13; 17: 22), Paul went to the unconverted “publicly and in every house, testifying to both Jews and Greeks repentance towards God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20: 20, 21).
Our way is that if sinners want to hear then they must come to us. By contrast, Gods way is that if we would have them hear then we must go to them. The word of the Lord to the converted demoniac was: “Go to thine home to thine own people, and tell them how great things the Lord has done for thee” (Mark 5: 19). To the servant when all things were ready for the “great supper”, the instruction was “Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city” (Luke 14: 16, 21). The apostles were told “Go into all the world, and preach the glad tidings to all the creation” (Mark 16: 15), and later when they had been delivered from prison, the word was “Go ye and stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life” (Acts 5: 20). Part of Paul’s commission was “the nations, to whom I send thee” (Acts 26: 17). To Philip the Evangelist the command was “Rise up and go southward … approach and join this chariot” (Acts 8: 26, 29)—why was the eunuch not told to go to Jerusalem to hear Philip preach? Peter was sent to find out Cornelius: “go with them, nothing doubting” (Acts 11: 12)—why was Cornelius not sent to see Peter? We also get instruction by parable and figure. Thus the Samaritan (see Luke 10: 33, 34) came to the very spot where the half–dead man lay, and the shepherd (see Luke 15: 4) went out to seek His lost sheep until He had found it. It matters little that men are unwilling to come to us if we are willing to go to them! It is our waiting till they can be persuaded to come to us that has so seriously stood in the way of many hearing the gospel at all.
Of course after persons have been reached on the street or in the home they may well be willing to come and hear a gospel preaching in a hall. However, they do need to be reached first. To imagine that the ‘announcement’ that takes places in our halls is all that is required in evangelisation is to ignore the plain teaching of Scripture, and also the plain meaning of the word announce (see Rom. 10: 15). Thus whenever we find ourselves blest with good news we go out and find others to tell them about it (see Luke 1: 58; 2: 17; John 1: 41)—we do not wait for them to come to us! So it is with the gospel.
If the truth be told, we are shackled by tradition in our approach to these matters. There is an unspoken agreement in many places that a Sunday gospel service shall be held whether preachers suitable or not are forthcoming. The consequence is that a ‘stop–gap’ is often requisitioned whom the Lord’s people can barely endure, and whom we would never dream of asking the unconverted to come and hear. People say ‘Oh, but we must not give up the gospel!’ Is that not what we have actually just done? Maybe in the past there was an abundance of suitable preachers to be had, but our business is to be effective in the present. If the only preachers we can now find are inadequate or incapable then surely our time would be better spent in going out into the “streets and lanes” (Luke 14: 21) of our cities and seeking the lost ourselves? Then, when a preacher with real love for souls is able to come, a hall could hired in the district in which our interested friends reside, and invitations delivered. No doubt this goes quite against what some of us have been used to, but we need to ask ourselves in all seriousness what we are really about. Are we interested in souls or are we not? Above all, we need to jettison that deeply–ingrained and pernicious notion that evangelisation is all about getting people in to our meeting halls. Of course, we are not all gifted to be street preachers, but like the woman of Samaria we can all, in our own way, be witnesses to the unconverted (see John 4: 39). It is easy to imagine that we have discharged our responsibility to the lost by holding a Sunday gospel service, but what needs to be on our consciences is “How then shall they call upon him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe on him of whom they have not heard?” (Rom. 10: 14). It is the feet willing to carry the message to the lost on the mountains that God calls “beautiful” (Is. 52: 7; Rom. 10: 15)!