I smiled when reading of Stanley Delves, a Grace Baptist pastor in Sussex, who, on retiring after 60 years in the ministry, said with evident relief, ‘I will not have to chair any more church meetings!’
His attitude is regrettably easy to understand. While the church meeting is something central to Congregationalism, it is in practice a problem for many people.
In 1981, Derek Swann spoke on the subject of the church meeting at the Congregational Studies Conference and gave us two wonderful, opposite and apposite quotations on the subject, both of which came from R. W. Dale, a famous Congregational minister who ministered in Birmingham during the nineteenth century.
Firstly, the positive: ‘And so, to be at a church meeting — apart from any prayer that is offered, any hymn that is sung, any words that are spoken — is for me one of the chief means of grace. To know that I am surrounded by men and women who dwell in God, who have received the Holy Ghost, with whom I am to share eternal righteousness and eternal rapture of the great life to come, this is blessedness. I breathe a diviner air’.
The counterbalancing negative is equally forceful. He describes church meetings as ‘meetings for the transaction of formal business, in which no rational man can feel any intense interest’.
My experience of mixing with Christians over the last 40 years is that criticism of the church meeting is equally fierce from opposite ends of the evangelical spectrum. Let’s consider some drawbacks and blessings.
Sometimes church meetings seem tediously slow. Part of this is simply because we need to update everyone and get everyone on board before making decisions. This can seem particularly tedious for church officers, because they have already discussed the matter, but, if you share the decision-making process, that is what happens.
Sometimes they are inappropriately detailed. The larger the church, the greater the danger that the sheer bulk of business will simply clog up the system. In small churches, a meeting in single figures might appropriately discuss everything, but a meeting of over 100 simply can’t do that effectively.
They seem to give as much authority to the most difficult, unspiritual church member as to the most godly church leader. They ‘seem’ to, but they don’t — if church officers are respected and listened to, and if they prepare properly. If whoever chairs the meeting is efficient, this should minimise the impact of a difficult member, but if someone is consistently difficult and obstructive, this is a spiritual problem to be dealt with separately.
We need to focus on the 99 per cent of blessings, rather than the 1 per cent of problems!
Church meetings give opportunity for ideas from all sorts of people. Ministers are to lead, and will seek to set the church’s direction, but they need the input and support of the whole church to help shape, own and implement the church’s vision. I fear some leaders find it hard to have their ideas challenged and be shaped by the church membership — and this is to their loss.
Sometimes quiet and shy members contribute significantly. A number of years ago our church faced a big decision. Debate was so intense that we had to postpone a vote and meet again. During the interim period, I had supportive conversations with shy and quiet church members, and in the meeting members who had rarely, if ever, spoken in a church meeting stood up and made their contribution. It was very moving.
Church meetings can deal with matters of great spiritual significance. Occasionally, and sadly, there is church discipline, but more often, thankfully, admissions to church membership. These are never mundane. People have professed faith in the Lord Jesus and have passed from darkness to light. Those who interview them have the duty to report fully to the church meeting and it can be wonderfully encouraging, if properly done.
By all means, let’s think how to make these meetings more effective and helpful. Times change as to how it is appropriate to handle many administrative issues. Let’s hang on to what is good.
Edited, with permission, from infellowship, the magazine (Winter 2015 edition) of the Evangelical Fellowship of Congregational Churches (EFCC). The author is general secretary of the EFCC.