This is the first in a series of thought provoking articles about our conferences and how different individuals, overseers, servants, missionaries and believers, approach them.
Before the advent of closed-circuit-TV or other such accessories, a seat in the Minor Hall at the Belfast Easter Conference was less than desirable. The voice of the speakers could be heard clearly but they were not to be seen. For this reason, arriving an hour before the first meeting commenced to get a seat in the main Grosvenor Hall was imperative.
During the forties there was a large group of young believers from many assemblies in and around the city, all in their mid and late teens, who were anxious to get as much out of the conference ministry as they could. To most of them the seats of first choice were located in the two small sections on both sides of the balcony, right at the front overlooking the platform where “the chief men among the brethren” sat and where the podium was situated. From such an advantage point the speakers, men such as Hawthorne Bailey, Win. Rodgers, David (Scotch) Craig, Wm Gilmore and many others, both local and from places further afield, could be very clearly seen. Their every gesture and facial expressions were easily observed. Such men were giants in the Word. They could and did speak to the hearts, minds, and consciences of all the saints sending us away home on numerous occasions with the words of Psalm 139.23-24, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting,” or other such Scriptures ringing in the depths of our being. There were many occasions when it was doubtful if there was one soul out of the over 2,500 believers gathered on the occasion who left without a firm determination to be more for God and for the cause of Christ than ever before.
Much of the ministry given was meant to teach the saints and impart the truth of God which it did. Often, in between conference sessions and on the way home, either walking or riding the tram (electric trolley), older brethren would be bombarded with questions concerning things said which were newly learned or did not appear to be right. Sometimes these question and answer sessions were continued under the light of the lamppost nearest to the trolley stop. In any event, the Word of God thus ministered had its effect upon the hearers leaving marks which, in many cases, remain until this day.
Conference time wasn’t all sitting comfortably listening to the Word being spoken. There were sandwiches to be made and, along with one or two little cakes, to be put into boxes. Preparations for the distributing of the inevitable tea at the intervals had to be attended to as well. All of these activities gave opportunity for working fellowship which was thoroughly enjoyed by all. But in the end the most important aspect of being together with the saints at such times was to be taught, to be refreshed, and to be challenged by the good Word of God. The supreme object in these difficult days of the twenty-first century has not changed one bit.
Having had a very few opportunities to attend such conferences in the “old country” since the late forties I cannot really comment on the general character of the ministry but the simplicity of the catering arrangements do not seem to have changed much indicating that the ministry of the Word of God is meant to have the place of preeminence at such times of holy convocation.
We who are used to a much more elaborate set of arrangements for our comfort at conference time need not feel that we in any way lessen the effect of the ministry by the provision made so kindly by much sacrifice on the part of so many brethren and sisters. The background of this more elaborate hospitality must not be forgotten. In an earlier day many miles and hours of travel were part of conference coming together. Sometimes days would be occupied in travel by horse and buggy and, naturally, the believers responsible for the care of Christians coming from a distance showed itself in what often amounted to “farm meals.” Certainly the kindness of the Lord’s people in assemblies right across North America during the two, three, or four days of conference when hospitality is thus extended for the comfort of the believers, often to the disruption of their own home life, should only be spoken of with the highest of commendation. The saints of the assemblies concerned, in their own most generous way, just as in other lands mentioned, make it easy for us to sit and take in the Word of God with no hindrances at all. Our response should be to allow that Word to have it’s effect upon us to the end that more of Christ, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, will be seen in our lives.
Today it is common enough to hear sentiments expressed such as, “The ministry is not very good. I can spend the time better doing other things!” If such is part of our thinking we are indeed in a spiritually pitiful state. The following story, which is supposed to have occurred many years ago on the Canadian Prairies, is more as things should be. One of the brethren, a farmer, said to his wife, “I don’t think we’ll go to the conference this year. It takes us over two days with the horse and wagon and often when get there the ministry is of a very low quality.” His perspicacious wife answered, “John, we are going to conference for you are always a far better man for a few weeks after we come home from the meetings!”
It is very true that, on occasions, far more often than we are prepared to admit, the ministry received is not of a high standard. The fault may lie at the door of those of us who are responsible for ministry at such gatherings. Closing the platform to all but a select few is not really the answer, but more control, spiritually handled, is surely called for. Not one of us has any “right” to the platform but we do have privileges and responsibilities. If the burden of ministry is not carried out with profit to the saints, then overseeing brethren ought to have the courage to speak to the person concerned, kindly showing him that his ministry is not acceptable. Care must be taken lest the person being spoken is not the victim of personal partiality. This calls for a high standard of spiritual discernment and behavior. On the other hand, a proper humble attitude on the part of the brother spoken to will be to receive his brethren’s estimate and agree to the request. Those who bear the burden of speaking in ministry should seek to be fresh, refreshing and edifying.
While it is very easy to be among the faultfinders, especially in days of weakness, let us remember that what we get out of the ministry given is very often commensurate with what we are willing to put in by way of a godly, spiritual and expectant attitude. May the Lord enable us each one to be helpers in the furtherance of the work of God among His people.