New Life in the Old Prayer Meeting

By John F. Cowan, New York, 1906


Most churches hold at least two prayer-meetings a week:- the congregational prayer-meeting, and the young people's prayer-meeting. Connected with both are problems that perplex pastors and church workers. Many of the problems of both meetings are identical, for fundamentally the meetings are the same-based upon .prayer, and Christian song, and-testimony. The same help is therefore suited to both meetings, in the main, and to all other prayer-meetings, in the Y. M.. C. A., the Y. W. C. A., in schools, and elsewhere.

In this book of plans and helps for all the prayer-meetings, this fundamental similarity of all prayer-meetings is kept in mind. Much of this matter is presented with the conviction that it will have value for the congregational prayer-meeting, the young people's prayer-meeting, and the various other prayer-meetings; what is good for the one is good for the other, with reasonable exceptions. We believe, especially, that the congregational prayer-meeting, and the young people's prayer-meeting should not be so radically unlike in method and atmosphere that it will not be natural and easy for the young people to graduate into the regular church prayer-meeting. To this end there should be occasional joint meetings, and an interchange of leaders and ideas. If any of the helps offered in this book shall promote such a happy result, or shall give new interest to any decadent prayer-meeting, the writer will rejoice.

However, certain suggestions in this book may seem pertinent only to the congregational meeting, or to the young people's meeting. Such suggestions have been so differentiated from the others that no one need lose time. Most of the practical plans have been tested. The book is a clearing-house for prayer-meeting plans that have been successful. Everything is so fully indexed in the back of the book that the busiest people will find it easy to get at definite things.

Lest it may appear presumptuous in the writer to seem to take it for granted that the prayer-meeting is in a bad way, and needs his help to set it right, the result of extended personal observations is given here, in an impartial way. As it will be awkward to carry on this narrative, speaking impersonally, the first person will be adopted.

just to feel the pulse of the regular church prayer-meeting, I visited consecutively twelve churches, in six denominations. I was surprised and pained at the woeful lack of interest in the prayer-meeting, but convinced that the explanation, too often, was in the poor quality of the meeting. To be honest, the meagerly-attended Service was not the kind of service that one would want to go to the second time. The indictment may not seem so harsh when the facts upon which it is based have been told.

Prayer-meeting Number One had an attendance of fifty, filling less than one-third of the room. Probably the morning congregation of that church numbers four hundred and fifty. The best feature was a young layman as leader, a custom once a month. I counted four prayers, including two by the leader and one by the pastor. There were eight testimonies, including two by women, who constituted half the audience. The singing was weak, and little of it. The remarks and prayers of the leader, and a sermonette try the minister, consumed considerably more than half the hour. Regarding the theme, "Our talents," I could recall, a few days later, but one practical suggestion. Being accompanied by a member of the church, I was introduced to several persons, and received a warmer greeting than the stranger gets in the average city prayer-meeting. This church, I may say, is one of the leading in its denomination. On the whole the meeting gave the impression of a. second-rate performance-weak and nerveless.

Prayer-meeting Number Two was led by the two pastors of the church. The seventy-five present were a larger proportion of the Sunday congregation than in the first instance. Four prayers were offered, and six testimonies besides those of the pastors. One pastor announced the hymns, and prayed and spoke, and the other pastor read the scripture and prayed and spoke twice. The two ministers took half of the time, but were rather less professional than ministers usually are in their tone and manner; one even wore a sack coat. The theme was, "How to express our thanksgiving," and there was considerable warmth and spirit in the responses and the singing. This is one of the struggling down-town churches.

Number Three was the congregational prayer-meeting of the wealthiest and most noted church of one denomination. The attendance, seventy-five, was probably about one-tenth of a Sunday morning congregation. They were mostly the middle-aged or elderly. But one prayer was offered, and the pastor lectured on Palestine. I am told that the lectures were designed to attract a larger number, so we may surmise what the attendance on a prayer-meeting proper would have been in this prominent church.

Number Four had an attendance of sixty, the Sunday morning congregations being from three hundred to four hundred. The pastor announced the prayer-meeting theme on the church calendar. He had asked certain persons to discuss assigned phases of the topic, and others to read selected Scripture passages. The responses were good. There was more of an effort to make it "the people's service" than in any of the twelve ,meetings; but the machinery was rather too obvious. Half a dozen prayers were offered, and twice as many took part in other ways. The theme was "How we enjoy our religion." One brother who had been assigned the topic, "The peace we have in Christ," took the "off" side, and asserted that what most church members needed was not peace, but warfare. Just before closing, the pastor remarked, with some perturbation, that he had been the target of a good deal of criticism about the length of his sermons and other things. It was very easy, he warmly protested, to pick prayer-meeting topics to pieces, and more to that effect, which gave rather a peppery ending to the meeting; but perhaps that was better than the impression of stagnation given by the previous meetings. This church, which is suburban, has more than average prayer-meetings, and the pastor is unusually sweet-spirited and earnest.

Number Five had an attendance of thirty, in a room that would seat two hundred. The pastor led, beginning late because the pianist had not come. He led the singing, which dragged. Five prayers were offered, and ten testimonies given. The minister spoke fifteen or twenty minutes, and then, with what looked like an effort at facetiousness said, "Now you must talk; I am all in." A retired minister prayed for five minutes, and exhorted for about the same time. The theme was, "The birth of Jesus," but there was no atmosphere of gladness. There were few young people. While waiting for the pianist, the pastor attempted to get acquainted with the stranger, and transfixing him with his eye, in the meeting, said, "Will that brother please pray? "The atmosphere of the room was close and musty, the lights were dim, and on the whole, the effect of the few in the large, inhospitable room, was depressing. The church is in a residence and tenement-house district, surrounded by foreigners.

About twenty-five persons were present at Number Six, and the room would easily hold ten times that number. A retired minister, supplying the pulpit, led the devotions in a delightfully informal way. Several times he addressed persons by name, and carried on conversations. "I met Mr. So-and-so on the train, to-day," he broke out. "You know him, Brother Smith; he spoke of you, and I told him I would tell you. Maybe you will look after him a little, and try to get him to come to church." After another had spoken, he asked, "Where have I met you before?" There were three prayers, and four testimonies, but the genial, sincere personality of the leader left a refreshing aroma, and helped to make Christian brotherhood seem very real. So much does the unaffected whole-heartedness of the leader count!

There were two ministers on the platform, in prayer-meeting Number Seven, and it was a very high platform, and the seventy-five people seemed almost a mile away. Three prayers were offered, only one from the pews. The Scripture-reading and exposition by the pastor, and "remarks" by the visiting minister, with some business, left no time for testimonies on the interesting theme, "Why I know I am a Christian." More's the pity. This is a down-town church, with a Sunday evening congregation of a thousand.

Number Eight was not a church prayer-meeting, but in a rescue mission, on a street five blocks long, with seventeen pawn-shops, and eight places in which liquor is sold. The room was small, and very plain, but brightly lighted. More gas would help some prayer-meetings almost as much as more prayer. The opening singing could be heard two blocks away, and it lasted fifteen or twenty minutes, until every one in the neighborhood knew that there was "something doing." Two persons stood on the sidewalk to invite passers-by -to come in. Some fifty men and women, many blear-eyed and "boozy," gathered. On the platform a little company of workers backed up the leader, a railroad man, who spoke five minutes, chiefly in telling how Christ had saved him from drink. A few prayers and songs, and he called for testimonies. They came thick and fast until twenty had been counted. Nine of those speaking told how they had found Christ in that room. More prayer and singing, and an appeal to those that wanted the same Christ, accompanied by some earnest personal work in the rear of the room, and three men came forward to make a new start. One of them gave up a bottle of whiskey. The whole meeting was electric. One was conscious of a power that accompanied the songs and prayers and simple testimonies. These men are not the easiest to move: sin has a powerful grip on them, yet every week some give up the old life. One could not help feeling, as some expressed it, "This is the 'real thing.'" In summer this little room is intolerably hot and foul, yet from thirty to fifty come into the prayer-meetings, every night, while churches are closed, or left with a corporal's guard.

Prayer-meeting Number Nine was led by a deaconess, the pastor of the church being ill. Seventeen persons were present, and there were five prayers and four testimonies. The singing, though limited in volume, was spirited, a precentor stimulating all present to do their best. There was considerable spiritual warmth, but one felt from the meager attendance that the church did not prize this service very highly, or was treating it shabbily. The end of the church fronting the street was in total darkness. There was absolutely nothing to indicate to a passer-by that an important religious service, at which Jesus Christ was pledged to be present, was going on within.

Quite different was the case with Number Ten. The front of the church was brilliantly lighted ,end, facing the street, was a bulletin-board announcing in bold type the prayer-meeting and its theme, and cordially inviting strangers to enter. This was the only church in the number that took the public into its confidence in this openhearted way. I believe Number Two has a bulletin-board, but the style of announcing the themes is so hackneyed and so utterly divorced from any suggestion of practical religion, that I have felt as I read them in passing that they must disgust and repel practical men. - In the vestibule of church Number Ten, strangers were greeted by a hearty hand-clasp and a cordial invitation to feel "at home," while even the regular attendants received a pleasant nod of recognition. Such a reception thawed the stranger out and prepared him for what he saw when ushered within - fully two hundred people at a prayer-meeting! And the rest of the meeting was as quickening. One forgot to count prayers and testimonies. The spirit of prayer was abundantly manifest. The pastor was absent in revival services, but the church had a revival swing and thrill in its prayer-meeting. This is a down-town church that is being crowded by the influx of foreigners, and is supposed to have hard lines. It is the only prayer-meeting of the twelve that satisfied the visitor's conception of the strength and helpfulness there ought to be in such a service, in normal conditions.

Number Eleven was much like the first seven. The attendance was about one-tenth that of the Sunday congregation, which fraction, it will be noted, seems to be the average. In interest and animation, the service would rate not more than one-twentieth the Sunday services. The pastor, in his full ministerial garb, delivered a ten-minute discourse, in a sing-song tone, and afterwards sharply scolded those present for the remissness of those who stayed away. He declared that it was a shame and disgrace that so few came out, and talked vaguely about discontinuing. He offered no suggestion for improvement. Some hung their heads, and others bit their mustaches and scowled. There was a hopeless, dejected air. There were two desultory prayers, besides the pastor's, and many, who had been craning their necks to watch the clock, seemed glad when the meeting closed.

Number Twelve was the village prayer-meeting. The church boasted no separate prayer-meeting room, but the meeting was in the same room in which the Sunday services were held. The pastor compromised, however, by standing in front of the pulpit, instead of behind it. A small organ belonging to the Sunday-school was used, in place of the "pipe" organ. The front pews were conspicuously empty, with the exception of one occupied by Deacon A. who always sat in that particular seat, at funerals, on Children's Day, and every other occasion. Another front pew was occupied by an elderly woman, evidently partially deaf. In the rearmost pew were the younger people, some of them whispering and smiling. A bat found its way into the room and flitted from side to side, causing the young girls to dodge and all but shriek when it dipped near their heads. The prayer-meeting droned along, after it once got started. The people were late coming in. As long as there was any daylight lingering, the men stayed outside, leaning against the churchyard fence, talking about the crops, the weather, and the elections. The minister spoke of heaven, and duty, and love, and obedience, purely in the abstract and in unnatural tones. He seemed a sublimated and vastly different man from the one who, after the meeting was over, would take folks by the hand and ask in his natural voice, "Good-evening, Sister Smith; how is Mary getting along with the mumps?" or, "How do you, Brother Jones; I hope you won't lose the colt that was hurt," or, "Hello, Bob! Home from college? Heard good reports of you." The prayers and remarks were mostly of that same other-worldly type, that really mean little to a healthy mind, and have no point of contact with the every-day life. For the most part, the deacon prayed as he had heard his father pray, and the Sunday-school superintendent spoke in phrases he had heard the minister and others use. There was little that impressed one as real talking with God, or little that sounded like fresh and living experience with His power. I don't say it was not there: it did not seem to get expression in a way that would impress an unbeliever that there was some supernatural force and personality in the meeting.

I do not say that this was a typical village prayer-meeting. I know there are some vastly better. I do not hold that counting the number of prayers is an adequate test of any prayer-meeting: prayers are weighed in heaven. I may be urged justly that there is a great undercurrent of unexpressed devotion in every prayer-meeting; that the real prayer-meeting is within the soul and not without. I firmly believe that. But that for which I shall contend, in these pages, is that the prayer-meeting needs to be more truly the exponent of the church life. There may be a vast deal of spiritual earnestness that will find expression outside the prayer-meeting, but never make itself known there. But to the world, the prayer-meeting is the spiritual pulse of the church, and just as there must be something wrong with gold dollars which one could not sell for fifty cents, so there must be a fault in a church with spiritual energies for other things, whose prayer-meeting lives at a "poor, dying rate."

In conclusion let me express a hope that these frank statements may lead many others who have been observing and thinking on this problem to make known to me their views. I invite correspondence. Particularly I am desirous of getting into touch with a larger number of ministers and lay prayer-meeting workers who have tried innovations on the set ways of the prayer-meeting, and who have plans which they think will be helpful to other churches.

By John F. Cowan, New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1906, BV285.C85

John Franklin Cowan,1854-1942, also wrote "Big jobs for little churches".

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New Life in the Old Prayer Meeting

By John F. Cowan, New York, 1906

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