Gospel proclamation lectures or public addresses have been a feature of Christadelphian life since the days of Brethren Thomas and Roberts but in recent decades their popularity has declined. There may be several reasons for this, but the following is a fair representation of the most commonly cited reason:

The success of a meeting depends in part upon the attendance and attention of brethren and sisters. Theirs is the duty of supporting the speaker by their presence and their interest. Enthusiasm and apathy are both highly contagious states….

We think there has been a decline in the enthusiasm of an earlier generation for lectures. It may represent to some extent the circumstances of today. Lectures as such were popular a generation ago: the decline is general.1

Many brothers and sisters, perhaps even ourselves, express sentiments along these lines. Naturally we are keen that ecclesial preaching activities should be as effective as possible: poor response to our preaching efforts can be discouraging. It is only right that we should challenge our assumptions about the methods and processes by which we seek to discharge our responsibilities as servants of our Lord, including preaching the Word, if we perceive that there might be better alternatives.

Are lectures past their use-by date?

If “lectures as such were popular a generation ago” but enthusiasm for such meetings has declined, we might be well-justified in abandoning them as a means of preaching. Before we do, however, we should think carefully about what we are seeking to achieve and whether we have an alternative method which will be more effective in meeting our needs than the public lecture.

The comments above about the popularity of lectures are not recent—they were published in 1942. And even 75 years ago, such comments were not new. In 1937 Brother John Carter was asked by a correspondent to respond to the following:

Owing to the absence of strangers and as a reason for giving up lectures, some brethren quote Mark vi. 11. What is the true explanation?2

Ecclesial intelligence from Slough in 1919 lamented that “attendance at lectures, although well advertised, is very disappointing”.3 Similar observations about poor attendance were made by brothers even earlier and from ecclesias in various countries:

  • Melbourne, Australia in 1908 – “attendance at lectures is still meagre”4
  • Pomona, USA in 1907 – “attendance at lectures is small, and very few have come to hear what we have to offer”5
  • Blackburn, UK in 1898 – “attendance at lectures is small”6

This last entry takes us back to the nineteenth century and the last year in the life of Brother Roberts. These comments demonstrate that, although even in recent years you can find reports of lectures attracting dozens of attendees, meagre attendance has always been the norm. The question we must ask is this: is the style of the meeting the problem, or is there a more fundamental reason for the limited interest in lectures?

Brother AD Norris commented in 1945 on the underlying reason for a lack of interest in lectures:

[Preaching] is hard for the reasons which have of late made our public lectures so unproductive, that most people are indifferent to God, and loath to lend an ear to the good Word of the Gospel. Our discouragements do not lie mainly in hostility or the strength of men’s opposing views—many of us would be delighted if they did—so much as in this blank lack of interest. We do well to bear in mind this position at the outset, and treat it, not as a reason for leaving off the work, but one for preparing the more thoroughly, and seeking with greater intensity the strength to endure.7

Lectures have never been out-of-date, but they also have never been the only means by which information is imparted. When you analyse the response to advertisements, preaching seminars or (having taken account of the hours during which it was open) a Bible exhibition, attendance always is meagre. Let us not, therefore, turn our back on lectures merely because of the paucity of response from the public.

Can we improve lectures?

There is always room for improvement and variation in the presentation of the Gospel. The message is unchanging, but “traditional” lectures, inter-active seminars (one-off or a series), films and other audio-visual presentations, preaching booklets and other media all have a place in the witness program by which that unchanging message is imparted. Some respond better to certain formats than they do to others. The medium is important, but the content is even more fundamental.

Ecclesial preaching programs need to be comprehensive. They must cover Bible first principles, apologetic material upholding the Bible’s accuracy and integrity, and key prophetic themes which outline God’s plan and purpose and the nearness of our Lord’s return. Titles—especially those which are publicly advertised—should be clear and direct; through this means some basic information will be imparted even to those who do not come to the meeting. In whatever format it is presented, the material should be direct and unambiguous and leave all listeners in no doubt as to their position before God.8 It also needs to be recognised that, while one objective in holding such meetings is to introduce the gospel message to those in darkness, they are not the only audience we seek to reach. Whatever format we use, these meetings must address the needs of our members and young people as well as strangers by reiterating and repackaging Bible teaching.

Poorly prepared lectures are ineffective and unenjoyable, but the same is true of any poorly executed medium of instruction. Group discussion easily descends into pooled ignorance if the discussion leader has not prepared adequately or fails to direct the discussion. Handling God’s Word and seeking to impart its message to others is a solemn duty which must not be taken lightly. Those assigned to deliver public addresses in whatever form must always seek to do their best as ambassadors of Christ.

Does it matter?

The imperative to preach is clear. Our Lord commissioned his disciples to preach the word and make disciples (Matt 28:19; Mark 16:16). Jesus said, “everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God” (Luke 12:8 ESV). Paul exhorted Timothy to “preach the word” (2 Tim 4:2, a passage especially applicable to modern circumstances), while he commended the brothers and sisters in Thessalonica that “from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad” (1 Thess 1:8).

Each disciple has a personal duty to preach the word, but the seven ecclesias in Asia in Revelation 1 to 3 are described as lampstands. This suggests each ecclesia has a corporate responsibility to provide light to those in darkness. Thessalonica certainly did this and modern ecclesias are no less obliged to shine forth the light of God’s Word. Formal gospel proclamation meetings play a key part in discharging this duty.

Vigorous and consistent gospel proclamation greatly benefits an ecclesia. Brother Don Styles made a pertinent comment about this based on his experience as editor of The Christadelphian Tidings:

In processing the ecclesial news, we have noticed an interesting pattern. Those ecclesias that are vigorous in special efforts, lectures and campaigns, regularly have more baptisms than those that are not. Yet the baptisms rarely come from the special efforts. Most of the conversions come from personal friends, family contacts or “chance” encounters at work, school or in the neighbourhood, all opportunities available to less active ecclesias…. If we do what we can, it appears God blesses us with interested people whom we can effectively instruct in the way of life.9

Each member has a part to play in optimising the effectiveness of their ecclesia’s preaching work. We should not leave the work up to the speaker or the committee responsible for organising the meeting. Our support for the meeting will benefit us and provide its own complementary witness to our young people and any strangers who attend. As one writer observed:

There is a temptation to a sort of lukewarm faith which leaves the Bible Class to those who like to go to it; which, in its lethargic appreciation of the glories of the gospel message, permits us to invite our speakers to labour in preparation, to travel in discomfort, to strive in delivery as our mouthpiece, while we ourselves sit at home with our feet on the fender.10

Paul’s words to Timothy quoted earlier did not just encourage him to preach: Paul told him to “proclaim God’s message, be zealous in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2 Weymouth). That sound advice in the First Century remains sound in the Twenty-First Century.

Alternatives

Paul was “all things to all men”, and there is no doubt we must be prepared to present the Gospel’s unchanging message in different ways to different people. We need to exercise discretion, however, to ensure the message is clear to its intended recipients. There may be a place for performing arts such as drama and music in the presentation of the Bible’s message, but the subjective way people respond to art means there is a risk that the clarity of the message will be compromised. It will be noted that, while drama was employed as a teaching tool by several Bible prophets, overwhelmingly the message of the prophets was delivered through the spoken and written word.

If we were to conclude the lecture no longer has a place in our ecclesia’s gospel proclamation work, let us be sure we replace it with something which is at least equally effectively. More importantly, let us ensure that any activities we put in place are well supported.

Conclusion

In these last days prior to our Lord’s return there is an urgent need to preach the Bible’s message of hope to those otherwise without hope. Bible-based lectures are one means by which we can reach out to the world about us. Even if no “strangers” attend the lecture it will reinforce in our own minds and the minds of our young people the wonder of the hope embodied in the Gospel, the power of the love of God and the nearness of our Lord’s return. By all means, let us constantly look for fresh and meaningful ways to present God’s Word, but let us not assume that this must be at the cost of abandoning a method which is tried and tested.

(Reprinted by kind permission. The Christadelphian, October 2018)

References:

  1. John Carter, Editorial, The Christadelphian, 1942 (Volume 79), page 287.
  2. The Christadelphian, 1937 (Volume 74), page 75. Brother’s Carter’s reply is well-worth considering.
  3. The Christadelphian, 1919 (Volume 56), page 189.
  4. The Christadelphian, 1908 (Volume 45), page 238.
  5. The Christadelphian, 1907 (Volume 44), page 431.
  6. The Christadelphian, 1898 (Volume 35), page 130.
  7. AD Norris, Preaching the Word, page 126.
  8. Brother Harry Whittaker argues lecture titles and content need to be “robust” (Reformation, pages 29-30)
  9. Don Styles, Essays to Believers, pages 87-88.
  10. FW Reynolds in an exhortation entitled “Difficult Days” in At the Breaking of Bread, page 54.