January 15, 2009
Evangelical bookstores are piled high with books on how to live the Christian life. Authors cover every conceivable topic from parenthood to prayer times. One of the more neglected topics is the relationship between the Christian and church. There are some notable exceptions. These include Donald Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines Within the Church: Participating Fully in the Body of Christ (Moody, 1996) and the more recent book by Thabiti Anyabwile, What is a Healthy Church Member? (Crossway, 2008). Another little book worth every Christian’s attention is Joel R. Beeke’s The Family at Church: Listening to Sermons and Attending Prayer Meetings (Reformation Heritage Books, 2008).
At first glance, this book seems too quaint to be helpful, too short to be profound, and too traditional to be of any value. After all, when pastors from Houston to Seattle are raising the eyebrows of the mainstream media by preaching adult-only sermons on sex, how much use could seventy-seven pages on preaching and prayer be? Much.
If Christians spend four hours in church a week (divided between Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and a weekday service) that means roughly two hundred hours of their year are spent in the midst of other believers. Whatever type of church you attend, that time is going to be divided up listening to preaching and Bible teaching, praying, and singing. It seems wise for us to set some time aside to thoughtfully consider how we should approach this time. Let me put it another way: the average Christian probably spends more time deliberating over questions like where they will eat, what they will see, and what they will wear than how they will listen and speak to God in the presence of His people.
In the section entitled, “Listening to Sermons,” Beeke offers some practical instructions on how families can prepare their hearts and their mind for the preaching event. There is nothing earth-shattering here, but his suggestions make so much sense readers will be ashamed of their own neglect: “Before coming to God’s house to hear His Word, prepare yourself and your family with prayer” (9). “Come with a hearty appetite for the Word” (10). How do you gain this appetite? Devote even a small portion of Saturday evening to reading that will be relevant to the Sunday morning service. “Come with a loving expectant faith” (13). I particularly appreciate this exhortation. When God speaks, things happen. When the Word is preached, lives are changed. Believers should come with faith that God’s Spirit will move.
A few years ago I heard Ravi Zacharias make the point that God had a purpose in revealing Himself through His Word. With no small degree of sarcasm, Zacharias said, “It wasn’t ‘In the beginning was the video.’” Sadly, many of us who are convinced that the Word is important neither listen nor preach with the conviction it will work. So Beeke writes, “Many people listen halfheartedly to sermons, as if they were not compelled to hear the Word of God; likewise, many preachers preach as if they were addressing empty pews instead of people with eternal souls” (15). Preaching is not what happens before lunch on Sunday—it is God’s plan to save and feed His sheep.
In the final section of the book, “Attending Prayer Meetings,” Beeke makes a case for congregations having meetings that are largely devoted to prayer. He argues that God’s people have always met corporately for prayer. Whether it is David and his men (Psalm 41:13, 14; 66:16), exiled Jews (Psalm 137:1-2) or the New Testament believers of Acts 12—extended prayer with other believers ought to be a staple of the Christian’s life.
I first started going to prayer meetings in 1994 in Washington, DC, at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. As a young Christian the whole experience seemed strange to me. It was quiet. We prayed for everything from sick grandmothers to unrepentant friends. There was nothing flashy but something authentic, something real took place. I saw men and women taking Christ seriously enough to lay before Him their families, their work, their souls. When my family and I joined Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, we had a prayer meeting there as well. Pregnancies were announced as well as stillbirths. We rejoiced over couples recently engaged and prayed for international student ministry on the University of Louisville campus. Talking together with God became the best part of our week. We might not have been doing everything right, but we knew God was listening to us as we pled with Him to make something happen in our midst. As a new pastor in Atlanta, I recently led my church to (re)start its Sunday evening prayer meeting. It’s nothing fancy, nothing large, and in the world’s eyes nothing special. But for me, it is demonstrable evidence that Christ is the head of the church and we are dependent upon Him for everything.
Pastors are supposed to be devoted to preaching and to public prayer. I want to be part of a congregation full of people committed to the same. Beeke’s book, The Family at Church, moves us an important step in that direction.
Aaron Menikoff (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Senior Pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA and a contributing writer at 9Marks Ministries and Common Grounds Online. Dr. Menikoff and his wife Deana have three children, Rachel, Jonah and Natalie.