Friday, June 22, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: The Gospel Meeting

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

On the subject of the gospel meeting, Mike Willis has dug in. Gospel meetings, Willis says, used to accomplish a lot of good when America was a rural nation and non-Christians would visit the meetings.

Now, he concedes, not so much.

Yet despite a significant decline in their effectiveness (according to Willis, “Fewer non-Christian visitors are attending gospel meetings than at times in the past” and “We are not baptizing people any more”), he’s determined to revitalize the form. Willis says, “Reminding ourselves of the legitimate goals of gospel meetings and refocusing our aims on those goals should help us to have more effective gospel meetings.”

At no point does Mr. Willis seem to consider the possibility that there might be a better way to evangelize, or that this dog may have had its day.

Tom: Immanuel Can, let’s talk about the traditional gospel meeting.

Immanuel Can: Okay, let’s.

The Scriptural Support for Gospel Meetings

Maybe you could start by citing a scriptural example, illustration or teaching about the “gospel meeting” so we could have a starting point.

Tom: See, now you’re just being mean. You know what I’m going to have to give you, right? The Great Commission. Or maybe I should give you Mr. Willis’ list of justifications for gospel meetings which, as far as I can see, amount to proof texts for the general proclamation of the gospel by individual believers. And the importance of preaching the gospel is something about which nobody in Christendom, to my knowledge, disagrees.

I will concede that there is no scriptural precedent for a gospel meeting that I am aware of. Surely you’re not going to tell me that means it’s evil?

IC: Me? No, I would only say it’s unscriptural. But first things first: every right-thinking Christian agrees with the statement, “We ought to preach the gospel.” But that means we also have to start by clearing up the two key ideas: 1) what is meant by “the gospel” and 2) what is meant by “preach”.

Tom: Not to be a pedant, but by way of clarification, when you say “unscriptural”, I’m going to take it you mean extra-scriptural as opposed to anti-scriptural.

IC: [makes mumbling sound that probably means “You’re being a pedant.”]

Defining the Gospel

Tom: But let me take a shot at your first question, because Mr. Willis has an interesting idea of what sorts of things form part and parcel of the gospel. This is what he says:
“Many erring Christians have been taught the truth on such things as institutionalism, church sponsored recreation, instrumental music in worship, unscriptural divorce and remarriage, and other forms of sin in which they were engaged through the efforts of gospel meetings. Some have repented of their sins and been restored to God through these efforts.”
This is a marvelously inclusive definition of the gospel! Do you see divorce, instrumental music in worship and such as being within the purview of the gospel?

IC: Oh, I should say not. And Willis’s situation is quite typical. I find that defenders of the gospel meeting generally have a very impoverished idea of what the gospel actually is. At best, they tend to reduce it to four or five points to do with getting saved, and leave out most of what the Bible says on the matter. Others like Mr. Willis here try to tack on a whole bunch of irrelevant stuff. But what is “the gospel”, Tom?

Tom: “Gospel” is simply our English translation of the Greek euangelion, meaning “good news”. I take it to encompass everything God has to say about all aspects of the salvation he has provided in the person of his Son, which is considerably broader than the old school “You’re going to hell — get saved!” message. However, it’s not quite so all-encompassing as to include prohibitions against divorce, recreation, institutionalism and loud music. I’ll take a wild, speculative guess that such matters are really unrelated to our subject.

God’s Ordained Method of Creating Faith

IC: Right. Then there’s the matter of the meeting. I must say that I’m not greatly impressed with Mr. Willis’ Bible study skills: he claims the gospel meeting is “God’s ordained method of creating faith”; then he quotes three passages of scripture that have the word “gospel” in them and asserts that they prove God has ordained “gospel meetings”. I’ve seen that trick before, many times. Unfortunately, people who are defending their meetings like to pretend they’re defending the gospel itself. But they’re not; they’re defending a man-made method, not a divinely instituted message. If Willis is not aware of his logical error in mistaking “gospel” for “meeting”, then he should know it’s called a fallacy of amphiboly; if he is aware of his error, then it’s simply called deception. Either way, as I say, I’m not impressed.

Tom: Silly question: Does God have an “ordained method for creating faith”?

IC: No indeed. There are many ways to convey the truth. In fact, faith can appear out of any real encounter with the person of Christ. Many have been saved by nothing more (less?) than reading their own Bibles.

Preaching the Gospel

But this gets us to the matter of what it means to “preach”, doesn’t it? In the article, Willis seems to treat it as exactly equal to “speaking from a pulpit during a regular, in-chapel ‘gospel meeting’ ”. Anything to say on that, Tom?

Tom: I have to go back to the so-called Great Commission here:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
This is not a command to the church; it is a command to individual disciples given before there even WAS a church. Even less is it a command to organize very specific sorts of meetings of Christians into which one invites unbelievers hoping they’ll get saved. That is a technique popularized in evangelical circles in the last few centuries. It’s one very limited, increasingly ineffective way we have devised to attempt to fulfill a small part of the Great Commission, that’s all.

IC: What do you say when defenders of gospel meetings respond, “Okay, well, maybe it’s not the ONLY way, but we should preach the gospel EVERY way, so we should keep having gospel meetings”?

Tom: I would reinforce that the responsibility for obeying the Lord’s command to his disciples in Matthew 28 belongs to individual believers, not the gathered church. I consider the traditional gospel meeting, as most often conducted, to be a very unproductive use of the church’s time. In some local churches, it constitutes at least 1/3 of the time devoted to corporate gathering, all in the hope that once in a while one or two unsaved folks may wander in. And in many cases a 40 minute message is devoted to the most basic aspects of a personal salvation nearly everyone has already experienced, when that church is often desperately in need of substantial teaching on the whole counsel of God.

IC: I think there’s a danger …

Tom: I’m sorry, I should add here that I don’t find it the least bit inappropriate for a speaker to take a few minutes in the context of another, meatier subject to explain the gospel if he sees he might be addressing a need. But it’s of extremely limited value to invest a full meeting every week on the same few points about salvation, or on an altar call, if anyone still does that.

Meat or Milk: What Is Our Mandate?

I also have no objection to targeted meetings for evangelism, where the church takes the opportunity to invite individuals that each member has been in contact with at work or in the community, and the emphasis of the gathering is to meet the needs of interested people by preaching the gospel. But every week in a meeting of the church? Not the best use of our time.

IC: Yeah, I agree. I think there’s a danger of misleading Christians as to who bears the responsibility for fulfilling the Great Commission. A church cannot do it for us; we, as disciples of the Lord, have to obey personally. So if gospel meetings, so called, are performed ritualistically or too regularly, they may become a replacement for our personal responsibility. In the church, the commandment is “Let all things be done for edification.”

Tom: Right. And building up or edification, as you say, is an ongoing process. When you are being built up, you know and do less at the beginning than you do later on. Hearing a subset of messages restricted to particular gospel topics or verses severely limits one’s opportunity to grow, at least during the time that is devoted to “milk” rather than “meat”.

IC: Another interesting thing is this: of the seven churches in Revelation, not one is accused by the Head of the Church of failing to preach the gospel. Now that’s got to strike you as strange, given the spiritual condition of these churches. The Head of the Church neither praises a church as faithful as Smyrna for its gospel meetings, or charges a church as unfaithful as Laodicea for failing to have them. That would be surprising — except if you realize that gospel-preaching was never any part of their mandate as a church — it’s 100% on us as individual Christians. It is we who must “do all things for the sake of the gospel”.

The Size of the Problem

Tom: How big a problem is this, do you think? Mr. Willis’ piece was written in 1993, so we’re 20+ years down the road. Who’s still having weekly gospel meetings at this point? I know Church of Christ do it … er … religiously, and Gospel Halls (of course). I don’t see Baptists doing it; they often do more of a Sunday school thing for all ages. Maybe you can think of others that still do.

But I wonder if the gospel meeting hasn’t already fallen out of fashion with many local groups these days.

IC: The gospel meeting idea took a bit of a beating in the 1990s, when Willis was writing, and as a consequence many local churches went to what they called “seeker sensitive” models. In practice this meant softening or even eliminating convicting or politically ticklish elements of church practice in order to lure the (presumed) hordes of “unchurched” people out there just waiting to become “churched”. Of course, the conservative gospel-meeting advocates saw this as a betrayal, and so, as a backlash, reaffirmed their commitment to the gospel meeting as their prime activity.

Tom: Right, I’m familiar with some of manifestations of this thinking process.

IC: Unfortunately, both factions were wrong, and strangely enough, they shared a common error. Both factions thought that the church was primarily a place to draw unbelievers; neither taught the responsibility of individual disciples to promote the gospel. As a consequence, I think that two important Christian causes lost out. Firstly, the gospel itself was hurt by being taken indoors by both factions. Secondly, both factions reduced edification in order to put additional focus on “seekers” or on the alleged “unsaved” who might need a gospel meeting, with the consequence that at least a generation of Christians had very little solid teaching.

A Positive Way Forward

I think that the church is still trying to recover from this huge blunder. But I wonder, Tom, can you suggest a positive way forward?

Tom: I can think of one particular local church I’m familiar with that has grown steadily for a number of years now. They have three meetings on Sundays: a worship service followed by two meetings of mostly Bible teaching, morning and evening. They don’t have a regular gospel meeting, but neither do they discourage visiting speakers from preaching the gospel if they are inclined to do so because the place is full of young Christians and visitors who are the neighbors and coworkers of the Christians who meet there, so chances are any time you bring up the gospel you’ll be addressing an urgent need rather than preaching to the choir. They don’t really ever target anyone, to my knowledge, at least not from the platform. They just preach the Word.

I think there are other churches doing similar things, and that’s certainly not the only possible way to arrange meetings.

IC: Well, I think we couldn’t get a more sober, serious or definitive charge than this: “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word …”, so that church is doing the right thing. And we need to preach the *whole* word, the whole message of the Person, purposes and work of Jesus Christ, not just a cut-down, shorthand “get-saved” message. The goal of the Great Commission is not to make mere converts, but to make full disciples — to bring people into passionate, knowledgeable, practical and mature relationship with the Lord, isn’t it?


  1. A quote from Mr Willis' article:

    "Many families have had their marriage strengthened through lessons on the family, received words of encouragement or hope, learned to pray more effectively, and otherwise been strengthened through the efforts in gospel meetings. Are the Christians in your local church so strong that they need no more strengthening?"

    I don't think he's very clear on what he means by a "gospel meeting".

  2. No, I agree with you, Shawn. It's almost as though he simply attributes any good outcome evident in any church at all to "the gospel meeting."

    But why? Is fellowship not good? Is the Breaking of Bread not good for the believers? Does edification have no salutary effect on the prayer, encouragement and strengthening of believers? How does he then conclude that only his "gospel meeting" does any of these things? And how would he have determined that? Where's his evidence?

    He's really just asking us to take his word for it. And I really don't see why we should.