By Reuben Archer Torrey
I. THEIR IMPORTANCE AND ADVANTAGES.
1. YOU CAN REACH PEOPLE WHO CANNOT BE REACHED IN ANY OTHER WAY.
(1) People who cannot go to church on account of family duties. There are a great many people in every city, and still more in the country, for whom it is absolutely impossible to go to church. A mother may have a large family of children and no servant. Many others are detained at home on account of sickness. Few of us realize how many people there are in every place who cannot go to church either on account of their own physical infirmities, or the infirmities of those with whom they have to stay.
A great many cannot go to church on account of age. Who that has ever seen it will forget the joy that lights up the face of these elderly people when you bring a meeting to them? How often such people have asked me if we could not have a meeting in their home. One of the greatest joys in Christian life and service is to hold a cottage meeting for people who cannot go to church.
(2) People who will not go to church. I recall a family who would not go to church at all through simple indifference. They were an intelligent family, a father and mother, two boys and two girls. As they would not go to church, we took the church just as near them as we could get it. We held a cottage meeting next door to their home. They came to it out of friendship to the family where the meeting was held. They were interested at once, came to church, and the parents and grown-up children were converted.
Some people will not go to church on account of their clothes. It is all very well for us to say, "Never mind about your clothes," but at the same time it is not very pleasant to go to a place where almost everybody else is better dressed than you are yourself. But one can go to a cottage meeting in the poorest of clothes and not be noticed.
Some people will not go to church because of their positive hatred to the Gospel, and yet the same people can often be induced to attend a cottage meeting.
2. YOU CAN HOLD COTTAGE MEETINGS WHERE YOU CANNOT GET A LARGE ROOM OR RENT A HALL. You can always get a cottage room. How many sections of the United States today have no church accessible to the population? In the center of the town there will be found two or three churches struggling for supremacy, but three or four miles out in the country there is no church at all. Many churches are trying to maintain possession of "strategic points" where they can glorify the denomination instead of God, while other points are entirely neglected. The only way to reach the people in these far-away and neglected communities is by cottage meetings. I look back upon my early pastorate in the country with great regret. I fancied I was killing myself with preaching three times on Sunday. I kept it up for three years, and people made me believe I would kill myself. I held these three meetings on Sunday, and during the week conducted a class in German, a class in geology, and other things of that sort, instead of attending to my proper business, and now I think with bitter regret of the district I could have worked if I had only known how. There was not another church for miles in any direction. Scores and scores of people could never get to church. There was enough work in that pastorate alone to have kept a man busy if it had been done right. A church which at one time was the largest in that region had almost died because about the only work done was the ordinary preaching. Do not be content with preaching your regular sermons on Sunday, but have services all over your parish for miles in every direction, and work the parish for all it is worth. Search out the destitute places and hold cottage meetings for several nights in the week. Set the other pastors in the district an example of how to work a parish. There is not one parish in fifty today that is worked as it should be. The spiritual destitution of the city is nothing compared with the spiritual destitution of the country. Wherever you get a parish, be sure to work it for all there is in it. If there is any part of that neighborhood where nobody is doing anything, go to work there. Do not be afraid of stepping on someone else's toes, but be sure to go to work.
3. THE INFORMALITY OF COTTAGE MEETINGS. There should be nothing stiff about a cottage meeting. Of course some people turn a cottage meeting into a stiff church service, but that is not necessary. In these meetings you can get people to talk that you could not get to open their mouths in a church prayer meeting, and you can so train them in a cottage meeting that they will soon be able to take part in the church prayer meeting.
4. IN A COTTAGE MEETING, IF YOU HAVE WORKED IT UP AS IT SHOULD BE, YOU HAVE TO PACK PEOPLE TOGETHER LIKE SARDINES IN A BOX, while in the church there is a gulf between the minister and the pews, and the people usually get in pews as remote from the minister as possible.
5. ITS SIMPLICITY -- ANYBODY CAN HAVE A COTTAGE MEETING. It is the simplest thing in the world to hold a cottage meeting, though it is not always the easiest thing in the world to have a good cottage meeting.
6. THE COTTAGE MEETING SANCTIFIES THE HOME. It brings religion right into the home. It turns the home into the house of God. The home should be a consecrated place, and the cottage meeting does much to make it so. There is no other place like the place where you have come together for prayer, and where, it may be, you have been brought to the Lord Jesus Christ. The home that has been used f6or a cottage meeting becomes a hallowed place.
7. COTTAGE MEETINGS ARE APOSTOLIC. The first churches were in the homes (1 Corinthians 16:19). We are going back to apostolic times when we return to the homes to hold religious services. A very large share of Paul's work was holding cottage meetings.
8. COTTAGE MEETINGS TAKE THE GOSPEL TO THE PEOPLE. There are two ways of reaching the people. One way is to invite them to come to you, the other way is to go to them. The latter is God's way, the former is the twentieth century way.
II. HOW TO PREPARE FOR A COTTAGE MEETING.
1. GET ON YOUR KNEES BEFORE GOD. That does not need any amplification, but it needs a good deal of exemplification.
2. SELECT A PLACE TO HOLD THE MEETING.
(1) Because of the commodiousness and accessibility of a room. If you can get a large room, get it, unless you are pretty sure you are going to have a small meeting. If you get a large room it will be an incentive to you to work hard to have a large meeting. If possible get a room that is accessible. Of course if you cannot do better, you can get a room where you have to climb two or three flights of stairs, but if a room can be had on the first floor, so much the better. There may be reasons why a room that is quite inaccessible will be better in some special case for your meeting.
(2) Because of some one you wish to reach. This is an important point in the selection of a room. It may be there is a father you want to get at -- the wife and children have been reached, but the father will not come to the meeting. The only way you can get him to a meeting is to have a meeting in his own home. Have the meeting in that case in his house. I prayed for one man for fifteen years. I tried to talk with him, but every time I would talk with him he would be worse than ever. I think he used to swear in my presence more than anywhere else just because he knew I was a Christian. But I got him one time where I had him cornered. He was sick for two weeks in a Christian home. He heard the Bible read and heard prayer every day during these two weeks and heard religious conversation constantly. At the end of these two weeks, the day he got up and got out, he took Christ as his Savior, and afterwards became a preacher of the gospel. You must be as wise as a serpent in looking for souls.
(3) Select a room because of the popularity of the family. Avoid as far as possible selecting a home that is unpopular. Many an inexperienced worker tries to hold a meeting and gets for that purpose what appears to be a desirable home, but afterwards wonders why the people will not come to it. Probably the reason is that there is something about the family that makes them unpopular. There may sometimes be reasons for holding the meeting in such a home, but as a rule, if you know a family that everybody likes, that is the place to hold your meeting, other things being equal.
3. WORK UP THE MEETING. Have a great deal of invitation work done, not by yourself only, but by others as well. Be sure not to do it all yourself. Mr. Moody used to say, "It is a great deal better to get ten men to work than to do the work of ten men." Be careful as to whom you invite. If there is enmity existing between the person at whose house the meeting is to be held and some other person in the vicinity, you would better bring about a reconciliation between the two before inviting the latter person to the meeting. A minister should not cater to the prejudices of the people, but he should know their prejudices, and be governed in his actions by his knowledge of them. You have to deal with people on the practical basis of what they are, and not on the ideal basis of what they ought to be. Oftentimes it is well to leave the whole matter of invitation to the lady of the house. In some homes they are willing that you should invite everybody, while in others they are particular as to whom you invite. Reaching the poor in the alleys is far easier than reaching the wealthy people up on the avenues. You can go into the homes of the poor and invite them to come and hear the Gospel, but for some reason you do not want to go into the homes of the people living in the elegant houses. But it is quite easy for people who are rich themselves, and who are Christians as well, to invite other rich people to gather at their homes, and then have someone there to open up to them the Word of God.
4. PROVIDE FOR THE SINGING AND PLAYING TOO, IF IT IS POSSIBLE. Instrumental music, however, is not absolutely necessary. We have fallen into the way of depending too much upon instrumental music. The best singing is oftentimes without any musical instrument. It is well to bear in mind that very poor singing goes a good way in a poor home. As far as possible, you should have the hymns you are going to use selected beforehand, and selected with care.
5. GO TO THE PLACE OF HOLDING THE MEETING, EARLY. If when you arrive you find the chairs arranged in a most formal way, looking like a funeral, get things a little disarranged. Do not put the chairs in straight lines, but arrange them as for a social gathering.
Another reason for going to the place early is to be ready to welcome people when they come. When they come do not leave them to take care of themselves; get them talking, and open the meeting in an informal way before they know it has begun. Make everybody feel as much at home as you can. While people are still talking you can suggest a song, and when that is over, have some one lead in prayer. Oftentimes it is well not to let people know that it is going to be a prayer meeting; call it a social and make it a social, but give it a religious turn.
III. HOW TO CONDUCT THE MEETING.
1. ALWAYS BEGIN PROMPTLY. That is if it has been announced as a meeting beginning at a certain time, be sure to begin at that time. In regard to the form of beginning the meeting, it is not necessary to have any particular form.
2. BE AS INFORMAL AS POSSIBLE.
3. GET EVERYONE TO SING. People like to sing. Oftentimes the people who have the poorest voices and the least knowledge of music are the ones most fond of singing. Encourage them to sing. This will shock the really musical people present, but not one person in a thousand is really musical, and you can afford to shock them. If necessary sing the same verse over and over again until the people learn it; do it with enthusiasm. Comment on the hymns. Use for the most part familiar hymns, though a new hymn with a catchy tune will often take well.
Everything about the meeting should be made cheery and bright. There are hosts of people in the world who have very little brightness in their lives, and if you have a bright cottage meeting, they will find it out and come.
4. MAKE EVERYTHING BRIEF. Have no long prayers, no long sermons and no long testimonies. One man went to a cottage meeting and read a chapter with seventy verses and read the whole chapter. I have heard of a man praying fifteen minutes in a cottage meeting. Those were doubtless extreme cases, but not a few cottage meetings have been killed by long-winded leaders.
5. TAKE A SIMPLE SUBJECT TO SPEAK UPON. Some foolish workers take the cottage meeting as an opportunity for displaying their profound knowledge of theology. Such people kill the meeting. Do not preach, but talk in an informal, homely way. Do not talk too loud.
6. DRAW THE PEOPLE OUT. One of the advantages of a cottage meeting is that you can draw the people out. Be sure to use this opportunity of getting people to speak in meeting. To you it may be a very simple matter to speak in meeting, yet most of us can remember when it was a very difficult thing to do, but it is far more difficult for those plain people among whom we hold most of our cottage meetings. It is, however, very easy to draw them out by simply saying, "Now, Mrs. Jones, what do you think about this matter?" "Mr. Brown, what have you to say of this?" Before they know it you have got them to talking on the subject of religion just as they would talk about their sewing or washing or everyday work. A young lady used to attend a service that I conducted. She warned me beforehand that I must not call upon her to speak, that she had heart trouble, and if she got excited, it was dangerous; at the same time she was unhappy because she did not take part in meeting. One day when a meeting was going on, quite naturally I turned to her and in an informal way asked her a question upon the subject that was under discussion. Without thinking at all, she got up and expressed her opinion upon it. Afterward I said to her, "You have spoken in meeting, you did not seem to have much trouble about it." She now enjoys speaking in meeting and her heart trouble has disappeared. Perhaps you could not do this in a church or chapel meeting, but it is the easiest thing in the world in a cottage meeting to get everybody talking on the subject of religion just the same as on any other subject. It is a remarkable fact that when you go into a house and approach the subject of religion after having talked about other things, the people immediately begin to talk in another tone of voice, and in a different way. You must break up that sort of thing. Cultivate the habit of gliding into the subject of religion as naturally as into any other subject.
7. DO NOT HAVE A STEREOTYPED WAY OF CONDUCTING A COTTAGE MEETING. It is not well to have a stereotyped way of doing anything. Go to some churches and they put into your hands an order of service. Every part of the service has its fixed place. It gets to be an abomination in the church service, but it is far more of an abomination in a cottage meeting. One of the greatest advantages of a cottage meeting is its informality. Some men get into the way of uttering stereotyped prayers. When he gets to the point where he prays for the Jews, you know that his next prayer will be for the sick of the congregation, etc., etc. That sort of thing is unspeakably tiresome even in church, but it is utterly unendurable in a cottage meeting.
8. DO NOT LET THE MEETING GET AWAY FROM YOU. We have said to draw the people out and get them to talking, but if you are not very careful they will get to talking, and the meeting will run away from you. Let your ideal be perfect freedom and at the same time perfect control.
9. OFTENTIMES HAVE A SEASON OF SENTENCE PRAYERS. Sentence prayers are one of the best things that our Young People's Society of Christian Endeavor have introduced into our church life. Of course, sentence prayers can become formal and stereotyped and meaningless. When I first began to go to prayer meeting there were three or four good old men who monopolized the whole time. To begin with, the minister would give out a hymn, and then make a long prayer, and then sing another hymn, and then read a long chapter, and talk fifteen or twenty minutes, and then throw the meeting open. This meant that brother Brown would grind out a long prayer, and then brother Jones would grind out another long prayer, they would sing a hymn, and then brother Smith would pray anywhere from ten to twenty minutes. Another hymn would be sung and the minister would pronounce the benediction, and the affair was over, and all would go home glad the thing was through. Many people cannot pray five minutes in public, and it is a good thing they cannot, and they fancy that it is impossible for them to pray at all unless they can get off an elaborate address to God. But anybody can ask for what he wants. Make it clear to people that this is real praying, asking God for what we really want. How near God seems to draw during a season of sentence prayers! You can say, "If there is one thing you want today more than anything else, just put that in your sentence prayer. Never forget that prayer is simply asking God for what you want, and expecting to get it."
10. OFTENTIMES HAVE REQUESTS FOR PRAYER. Do not be mechanical about that. I would not always have the same kind of a meeting. I knew a man who was very successful in cottage meeting work who used to have the people get up and move around and talk with one another, and then sit down and go on with the meeting.
11. HAVE PERIODS OF SILENT PRAYER. Oftentimes the most hallowed moments in a meeting are when all the people are silent before God. Before having these periods of silent prayer, you must be careful to warn people to keep their thoughts fixed upon God, and to keep pouring out their souls before God in prayer. You and I may not need that warning, but many Christians do. If not warned, Mrs. Jones is likely to spend the time thinking about Mrs. Brown's hat, and Mrs. Brown about Mrs. Jones' dress. They would not be thinking about God at all.
12. DO PERSONAL WORK. A cottage meeting that does not close with personal work has been mismanaged. The cottage meeting offers a very unusual opportunity for this kind of work. The meetings are small, it is rare indeed that there are more than forty people present. You should find out how many of these people are saved. It does not follow that because a person is saved, we do not need to do personal work with him. Saved people can get help in these meetings that they cannot get in a large meeting. It is the easiest and simplest thing in the world to get a mother to talking, say about her children. Draw her away from the crowd, and then lead her on the subject of her soul's salvation, or her spiritual condition. People feel more at home in their own house, and you can get into their hearts as you cannot in a more public gathering.
13. CLOSE PROMPTLY. Be sure to do that. If nine o'clock is understood to be the hour of closing, close promptly at that time, if possible. It is a good thing to establish a reputation for beginning and closing promptly. In this way you will get many people to go to your meeting who would not otherwise go. They can stay to a certain hour, and if they know you will close promptly at the hour appointed, they will go to the meeting. If the interest is so great that you wish to continue the meeting, close the meeting at the appointed time, giving all those who desire to leave an opportunity to do so, and then have a second meeting. You must never forget that a great many people have to get up early in the morning, and in order to do so, they must go to bed early. It is very embarrassing for timid people to get up and leave a meeting while it is going on. Then again, the woman of the house where you are holding the meeting may be obliged to get up at five o'clock in the morning to prepare breakfast, and so must go to bed early. Furthermore, it is far better to close the meeting while there is good interest, than to wait until the interest dies out. If you close at high tide, people will want to come again. If people desire to stay around and chat at the close of a meeting, be sure to have them chat on the subject of religion. If people are disposed to hang around after the meeting is over and make themselves a nuisance, you can say pleasantly, "It is getting late; and Mrs. B. wants to shut up her house. I guess we must be going."
As to the time of holding the meeting, the evening is the usual time, but sometimes the afternoon is a good time, especially in country districts.