BRETHREN, BELOVED IN THE LORD, It seemed good to the associated churches last year to appoint, as the subject of the present circular letter, “The behaviour becoming the house of God.” Mindful of the apostolic injunction, that all things should be done decently and in order, and fearful that this injunction has in some measure been disregarded in the public services of our sanctuaries, the ministers and representatives then assembled decided to call your attention to it, thus expressly and solemnly, in their annual epistle.
That in everything which constitutes the essentials of public worship, we are evangelically consistent and scripturally right, we quite believe. Most grateful is our conviction that, among the churches of Jesus Christ, we are favoured to occupy a pre-eminent position in respect to sound doctrine and genuine devotion. In preaching, we keep a firm hold of the glorious gospel of the blessed God; and in prayer, we are unfettered by those liturgies whose boundaries must not be passed; in whose precise words men must express themselves, whether suitable of unsuitable to their state of mind.
But, with all our advantages in regard to the essentials of public worship, we are sensible of some disadvantages in regard to its circumstantials. Comparisons may be instituted, somewhat to our disparagement, between the behaviour of dissenting congregations and those of the Established Church. We speak not of invidious comparisons, made by censorious and disreputable men but of those which a person of intelligent piety would be induced to make, when deliberating whether with Churchmen or Dissenters he should cast in his lot. Such persons are found, and found thus employed, on every hand. The circumstances of the times will continue to increase their number; and upon ourselves will depend, to a great extent, the choice they make. Wishing, therefore, as we do to enlist them side by side with ourselves, it becomes us to do every thing in our power to render our services decorous and attractive, conforming them, as far as possible, to the solemnity which is due to the worship of the great God. Wishing, moreover, to promote that solemnity, especially for its own sake, it becomes us to stir one another up by way of remembrance, provoking one another to the performance of this good work. Suffer then, brethren, a word of exhortation, offered to you not by those who have dominion over your faith, but by those who are the helpers of your joy. That our behaviour in the house of God may be such as becometh the gospel of Christ, the following things appear to us worthy of regard: - punctuality of attendance, quietness of behaviour, deliberateness of action, attentiveness of disposition, and prayerfulness of heart.
We recommend, then, punctuality of attendance
In the absence of specific directions from the Master of assemblies, respecting the detail of religious service, it is for each church to devise that detail, according to the circumstances of those of whom it is composed. Of course, all that Christ has enjoined or even intimated, must most inflexibly be adhered to, and in everything must be carried out; whilst, where he has provided no intimation of his will concerning a given act, respect must be paid to those general principles which his word contains, Of the various matters which our churches must thus arrange for themselves, on the general principles of the New Testament, one is, the time of assembling for public worship. Obviously there must be a specific time for commencing divine service, if things are to be done decently and in order. Now, each church must fix for itself what that time shall be. There is no authority to which we can refer. We are to be a law unto ourselves. And when the law is made, it is to be obeyed. When the time is fixed, it is to be observed. Whatever the hour resolved upon, that is the hour of prayer. It cannot indeed boast of an appointment which is divine, but it can boast of an appointment the most authoritative which the nature of the case will admit, and to which, therefore, every member of the church should submit. You, brethren, have an hour of prayer. The time is known to you when, in your several sanctuaries, your fellow members will address themselves to the honourable task of calling on the name of the Lord. You are not left to conjecture when they will do this. It is an affair which has been settled by common consent.
Allow us, then, seriously to advise your careful recollection of the appointed time, and your appearance, at its occurrence, in the assembly of the saints. Be ready to join in the first act of worship. Occupy your place in season. Enter the house of God early enough to give a few minutes to silent meditation and ejaculatory prayer. A void all occasion of that unpleasant haste and hurry which utterly unfit for the earlier portions of the exercises of the house of God. Sojourning still in the flesh, you are affected by circumstances in a high degree. They tell upon your devotions even with mighty power. You are affected by the circumstances of the Lord's day beyond all calculation. If they are characterized by tranquillity and repose, your devotions will be promoted: if by confusion and turmoil, they will be discouraged. The first emotion of the Lord's day morning will give a tone to its subsequent emotions. The first service will impart a character to its subsequent services. The manner of your commencing your religious engagements will exert an influence which will be felt throughout all you undertake. Henceforward, therefore, take care to begin well; and that you may begin well, be early in your attendance upon the means of grace. Let as much as possible of your domestic necessity be provided for before the day of rest arrives, and take care to do betimes what must be done on the day itself. Rise earlier, if it be necessary, in order that you may be able to say, when the great congregation offers its first tribute of thanksgiving, “Praise waiteth for thee, O Lord, in Zion.” By your consideration for the religious comfort of your fellow worshippers; by your deference to the authority of the church; by your jealousy for the honour of the great King; and by your solicitude to enjoy the entire benefit of the sanctuary, we intreat you to imitate the women who arose very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, lest the opportunity should escape them of proving their attachment to the Lord Christ. Let every member of the associated churches vie with his minister in punctuality of attendance upon the means of grace.
We recommend moreover quietness of behavior.
However large or mixed a congregation may be, every individual composing it is required to join in its services, and for himself to take a part. Hence a duty belongs to each, in relation to the whole, namely, the duty of avoiding every thing whereby the attention of others would be distracted, or, whereby they would be prevented from entering fully into the several parts of the service as it proceeds. Of the persons who make up our religious assemblies, we may, say, “They are members one of another.” If one member is restless, the others are in danger of becoming restless also. If movement be made, and noise be created, and intercourse from one seat to another be carried on, there will be annoyance to those who are devotional; interruption and discomfort for those who would worship God. And, as devout worshippers will be distressed, so will the minister be too. He is a man, brethren, of like passions with yourselves; and needs, in the conduct of his argument, in the process of his exposition, and in the enforcement of his appeal, all that can be given of quiet and undisturbed attention. If that attention be given, it will not be advantageous merely to the minister: if it be withholden, it will not be disadvantageous merely to himself. The advantage will be relative. The effect will be visible in its operation, for the good of all who are convened. If all were well behaved, if all would aim to preserve that decorum which the apostle enjoins, suppressing the noisiness which otherwise indisposition would occasion, and watching against the occurrence of noisiness of other kinds, there would be a collectedness of mind in the minister, and an enlargedness of heart conducing to ineffable results. Expositions would be yet more lucid. Argumentation would be yet more intelligible. Appeals would be yet more fervid. Expostulations would be invested with far greater power. No pen can describe the effect of a quiet congregation upon him who ministers in holy things. No mind can estimate the consequent benefit which those to whom he ministers may derive.
Cultivate, therefore, quietness of demeanour. Having taken your place in the sanctuary with gravity and sedateness, retain it in a manner that may be denominated devout, just indeed as men who are keeping their hearts with all diligence. And if, under providential circumstances, you may be in danger of creating inconvenience, have recourse to every available precaution that it may be diminished, if not suppressed; remembering how many other persons are affected with yourselves; remembering also what solemn interests are involved with every service; remembering especially that holiness becometh God's house for ever; that the Lord is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, and to be had in reverence by all them that are round about him.
We recommend, furthermore, deliberateness of action.
Altho ugh attended to at the same time, every service is made up of several parts, Take the service of a Lord's day morning. First, there is a prayer, intended to seek more especially for the communication of the Holy Spirit upon the engagements of the whole day. That prayer, brethren, is offered in your name. Rightly understood, it must be regarded in fact as your own prayer. You do therein acknowledge your insufficiency to think anything as of yourselves, and you gratefully remember that your sufficiency is of God.
Then there is a song of praise. The dealings of the divine hand are celebrated. God's marvellous loving-kindness is proclaimed. In strains of cheerfulness, with joyful lips; or in thoughts of thankfulness, with melody in your heart, do you magnify and adore the Lord. Then there is the reading of the Holy Scriptures, the annunciation from the oracles of God, of the things which are most surely to be believed, with this exercise you are identified. Though another be the reader of the injunctions and the promises, to you, quite as much as to the man who reads, do they all at the very time apply.
Then there is another prayer in which supplications and intercessions, with giving of thanks, are made for all men, especially for the household of faith. Then there is another song of praise, wherein you call upon your souls, and upon all that is within you, to bless God's holy name.
Then comes the exposition, or the discourse intended to build you up on your most holy faith, and to open the Scriptures to the understanding of the people, that they may become wise unto salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. Then there is the conclusion, in which the favour of the Triune Jehovah is entreated, and the blessings of the everlasting covenant are invoked. Now though these various acts may correspond in many respects, they are distinct one from another, some of them most distinct. The reading of the Scriptures is one act. The singing of God's praise is another. The presentation of prayer is another. The exposition of the eternal oracles is another. The acts are specific; and our counsel to you is to make your attention to them specific also. We have sometimes noticed great hurry and confusion in our assemblies. Ere the reading of the Scriptures has been finished, the congregation have been rising up to pray; and before the prayer has been well concluded, they have been getting ready to begin to sing. The latter evil we have noticed, particularly among our choirs, a great part of whose whole time in the sanctuary has appeared to be taken up in consulting about the tunes. We call these things evils, on account of the influence which they assuredly exert against our improving by the means of grace. When one thing is thus blended, even confounded with another, the impression left upon the mind is vague and indistinct. Nothing is treasured up, because nothing has been really received.
Permit us then to suggest, that there be a larger amount of time given for reflection as our services are going on; a longer space between the successive parts of which our worship is composed. When the prayer has been offered, let a few moments, at least, intervene before the singing is commenced; and when the singing is finished, let a few moments, likewise, intervene before the sermon is begun, and so on throughout the whole service, until the benediction has been implored; and then let there be a few moments again before we depart, not spent in listless or restless unconcern, but in silent invocation and meditation in your own hearts; and doing this, we believe you will not so often let slip the things which you have heard. Marking and learning, and inwardly digesting the spiritual provision of your father's house, it will become incorporated with your regenerated nature. You will grow thereby, even in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
We recommend, in addition, fixedness of attention.
If we succeed in securing punctuality, quietness, and deliberation, we shall have occasion abundantly to rejoice. The hearts of your pastors will rejoice, and their ministrations for your benefit will become possessed of increasing power. But we want to secure more than these. We want you, beloved, to give all diligence to what is said in the sanctuary, whether in preaching, in praise or prayer. We want you to employ your minds, so that you may discern for yourselves, severally, those things which are excellent, and treasure them up for further examination, or for future use. The exposition of your ministers may be correct, or incorrect. If it be correct, you should know that it is so, even upon your own convictions of its coincidence with the oracles of God. If it be incorrect, you should know that it is so, not upon hearsay or vague supposition, much less upon its disagreement with any formularies or creeds; but upon its perceived contrariety to the Scriptures of truth. You are to take heed how you hear; not thoughtlessly, not indolently, not superstitiously receiving whatever may be advanced, but receiving it with observation and care. And you are to take heed what you hear, distinguishing between things that differ, and applying them as your emergencies may require. We respectfully ask you to do this. With much urgency we ask you to do this. It may be a difficult task; to those who have never disciplined their mind, it may seem to be a hopeless task. But it is no such thing. Make the effort and you will succeed. When a distracting train of thought would intrude upon your minds, repel it. By a prompt and peremptory decision, let its occupation of your hearts be refused; or rather by the preoccupation of your hearts with the subject which the preacher may be discussing, or with the prayer which he may be offering up to God, give no opportunity for the intrusion to occur. Think, from the first moment of your entering within the sanctuary. Meditate upon the things which, from time to time, are set forth. Consider what the preacher says. Give yourselves wholly to the service of the Lord's house. Transfuse the influences, and the sentiments of devotion and of instruction, which are in circulation, through your own character. Regard the Lord's day as a day of engrossing business for your souls. With the hidden man of the heart seek to worship God, who is a spirit, in spirit and in truth. And thus preparing to mingle faith with that which you hear, you will most amply profit; and your profiting will appear unto all men. Honouring God by thus serving him acceptably, with reverence and godly fear, God will honour you.
We recommend, lastly, prayerfulness of spirit.
It has ofttimes been the case that, where the most praiseworthy attention has been given, so that every thing has been observed, and every thing understood, no parts of our public services have profited the heart. Individuals have come, and have behaved with the utmost decorum, until they have gone away; but they have obtained no benefit. Your own experience will perhaps bear testimony, that it has occasionally been so with yourselves. Promises the most animating have been brought forward. Prospects the most exhilarating have been opened up. Anticipations the most triumphant have been entertained by those around you, but with yourselves all has been monotony and gloom. You have been unaffected and unblessed. And, brethren, what has been the cause? Sometimes, doubtless, the cause has been physical. The body has been diseased. Barring such causes, however, there are others, of which unprofitable sabbaths have been the effects. Of these the principal is negligence of devotion. You have not waited upon the Lord. You have waited upon man, rather than upon the Lord. You have depended upon the human instrument, rather than upon the divine agent. You have thought of the servant of God, rather than of the Spirit of God: and in deadness of emotion and darkness of perception, you have had your miserable reward. Be prevailed upon then to act with greatest care in time to come. Look forward to the sanctuary, enter within the sanctuary, remain until you depart from the sanctuary, baptized in the purest spirit of dependence upon the grace of God. It is Paul who plants, and Apollos who waters, but it is God who gives the increase. The treasure is in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God and not of us. The weapons of our warfare are mighty only through God. Unaided by the Spirit of truth, you cannot comprehend the things which are of God, because they are spiritually discerned. The prayer, the psalmody, the argument, the appeal, the Scriptures, the ordinances, are not grace—they are only the means of grace, the mere vehicles through which the God of all grace sends down the communications of his love. Rely then, implicitly, and consciously, not in word only, but in deed and in truth, upon God. Begin and continue, and end every service in the Lord's house, as seeing him who is invisible. In all that you do acknowledge him. For doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, look exclusively unto him. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: but they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; and they shall walk and not faint. Hence, brethren, we fervently beseech you to wait only upon God, for your expectation is from him.
Thus decently, and in order, let all things be done in your assemblies, so that if there come in those who are unlearned, or unbelievers, they may take knowledge that you are earnest, intelligent, and sincere; and, wrought upon by the Holy Spirit, may themselves worship God, and report that God is among you of a truth.
[Norfolk and Norwich Association of Baptist Churches booklet, 1845, 24 pages. Document from Google Books On-line. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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