By Paul J. Casebolt
“Priority 1. Quality of being prior. 2. Superiority in rank, position, or privilege. 3.Order of preference based on urgency, importance, or merit” (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary).
Others have addressed different aspects of a gospel meeting such as the purpose, the preaching, the preparation, and the advertising. But if we cannot understand or make the application of our priorities, all else will be in vain, or at least, compromised. Look at the definition of our term again, and think about it as we make a few observations.
As I write these lines, I am about ready to embark upon my third preaching trip to the Philippines. There will be several meetings conducted at sundry locations on different islands. People will arrive at the meetings by bus, by taxi, by boat, or on foot. Most will walk.
Some of the venerable vehicles will be delayed by lack of fuel, flat tires, or mechanical problems. All will be crowded beyond belief and beyond capacity. No one knows for sure just what the capacity of such vehicles is.
But all who come to the meetings will come with one common commoditypriority. That priority will manifest itself in the hearts, the speech, and the faces of those who attend; in the rapt attention displayed during two or three consecutive sermons; in the questions asked after the sermons; and in the glad reception of the Lord’s invitation to obey and follow him.
Such living definitions of priority can be duplicated in India, Africa, Italy, and now in Romania and other European countries. Long before our English definitions of priority were printed, the principle of the term blanketed Jerusalem, Judaea, Samaria, and “the utter-most part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The early disciples “went everywhere preaching the wont” (Acts 8:4). The gospel “was preached to every creature which is under heaven” (Col. 1:23).
No, all of this wasn’t accomplished by what we have come to call “gospel meetings,” but the definition of priority remains unchanged with the centuries. In some of the earliest teaching of our Lord, disciples were exhorted, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33). Without priority in the lives of those who hear, the seed of the kingdom, the gospel, falls by the wayside.
But some church members are saying, “Things are different in contemporary America. We have television, vacations, camping trailers and boats, a plethora of sporting events, extra-curricular school activities, and many other things which compete for our priorities during a gospel meeting.”
Are we to understand then, that such things as recreation, entertainment, and other “cares of this life” (Luke 8:14), should take priority over “things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 8:12)? Are we saying that folks of other times and places had no “affairs of this life” (2 Tim. 2:4) to put in proper perspective? That it was easy for them to brave the elements, dangers and rigors of the trail, wild beasts and robbers, the threat of persecution, and death itself? If we are attempting to say that it was easier for those mentioned to establish their priorities, then shame on us.
Given the other things which have been written about gospel meetings, I’m taking it for granted that when a congregation plans such an effort, that meeting is considered to be importantimportant to the congregation, the preacher, and to all who are invited to attend. Or am I wrong to assume this? Do I take too much for granted? I’m persuaded that the priority we manifest during a gospel meeting is the same priority that we manifest in other areas of our lives.
The process of scheduling a gospel meeting will vary from one geographical area to another. Congregations try to schedule around other meetings, the weather, shift work, school activities (from the first week of school to graduation exercises), summer ball and band camps, vacations, and sundry fairs and festivals. It is a small wonder that every congregation within a 50-mile radius wants to conduct a meeting during the same week in the spring and the same week in the fall. But even when every possible factor is taken into consideration, some members still can’t get their priorities in order.
I have given congregations the exact date which they thought would be best for their particular circumstances, but several members still couldn’t get the meeting on their private schedules. Some expect members from other congregations to fill the pews left empty by the local membership.
In my lifetime, we have shortened meetings from weeks to two weeks, to one week, to Sunday through Friday (to skip embarrassing Saturday), to mini-meetings of three days or lessand some members still can’t find time to attend. Or they attend one night and think they have done the Lord and the church a favor. No one is trying to establish a set time, length, or number for gospel meetings. I may be infringing on some other writer’s subject, but if a lack of teaching has played havoc with our priorities, then I’m persuaded that we need more and longer gospel meetings, not fewer and shorter.
We wonder why children don’t obey the gospel or manifest an interest in spiritual things, when their parents don’t have their own priorities in order. We wonder why friends and neighbors “just won’t attend gospel meetings anymore,” when the church members who invite them (or fail to invite them) don’t attend their own meetings. We wonder “why we don’t baptize folks like we used to,” when the ones who have been baptized are either unfaithful or still don’t give spiritual things priority over temporal things.
The weather can be perfect for a given geographical area, but some people still can’t seem to get to the church building. Yet, members from other congregations will drive several miles to attend a meeting, while local members won’t walk or drive around the block to support their own meeting. And some of the best meetings I have ever conducted in northern climates were held in the dead of winter. Some folks can get their priorities straightened out in spite of the weather. But it all depends on whether they want to drive over bad roads to a gospel meeting or to a ball game.
The problem isn’t illness or caring for the sick. Some crippled folks come to the meeting while healthy ones stay away. Some use their health as an excuse for not attending church assemblies, but they find the strength to attend sporting events, go to the mall, go to fairs and festivals, or go on vacation.
Working to support our families is a worthy cause. But while work keeps some from attending a meeting, it doesn’t keep them from going where they want to go and doing what they want to do, even if they have to take off from work to do it. Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:21). As the heart follows our treasure, so will our body follow the heart. They generally end up at the same place.
Some preachers have flatly rejected the idea that the church has a mission, a work, an organization, or public assemblies. Others have minimized the importance of public assemblies, while encouraging satellite “group” meetings diluted with parties, fishing trips, and “retreats.” And a little Bible is thrown in for respectability. We cannot expect such doctrines and practices to enhance the attendance at assemblies of the church, including gospel meetingsmeetings where the gospel is preached.
We try to arrange our schedules so that we can perform our spiritual duties at a convenient time. Brethren, if we want to avoid hell and gain heaven, we will need to make some sacrifices, and give the Lord some of our valuable energy, time, talents, and material resources. “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).
It is possible for us to sin by doing that which violates our consciencethat which we believe to be wrong (Rom. 14:23). Conversely, we can sin by failing to do that which we acknowledge to be a good work: “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin” (Jas. 4:17).
If we acknowledge that gospel meetings are a good way to preach the gospel and edify the church; that we are justified in taking the time and money necessary to conduct such an effort; then we need to get our lives, our hearts, our speech, our bodies and our priorities all together.
Guardian of Truth XXXVII: 16, p. 13
August 19, 1993