Reading Services... Are They Necessary?

By W. Visser

It’s Sunday morning. The Pietersma family is eating breakfast. "Reading today? It’s hard enough to follow a sermon when the minister is preaching. But when there are reading services, it’s really impossible to pay attention. What? Elder So and So is reading?" A deep sigh...followed by more words critical of the elder.

No, happily not all conversations will go like this, but it is true that reading services do not rate so very high with our young people. You soon hear things like: boring, drawn-out (??), old-fashioned, and difficult, experiential language. There are even young people (and older ones! ) who leave our denomination because they always have to listen to reading services. They find the sermons hopelessly old-fashioned, far from the real world of our youth, and not meaningful to them. The sermons that are read are dated, not understand- able, not urgent, and there is not enough calling. That is not a light criticism! On the other side you have people who leave our denomination for the opposite reasons. You can read that, as well as the comments above, in "The investigation into reasons for leaving the church in the NRC in the Nether- lands."’ One of the questions was, "What are some of their reasons that they leave for other denominations?" Among the various answers, this one is found, "They only read sermons of recent ministers or of ministers that are still alive, but they never read the Old Fathers. Why not the treasures from the Reformation and the Second Reformation? Why don’t they read sermons of Smijtegelt, Van de Groe, Erskine, Hellenbroek, and others? Are they not good enough any- more? Do the later ministers have more divine light?" This criticism should not be taken lightly!

In other churches?

It is true: in other churches reading services are uncommon, except in emergencies. If suddenly a minister cannot preach, a sermon will be read. There are few vacant churches in those denominations, and sometimes there is even a surplus of ministers or candidates. In our denomination reading services have been common since former days. Many congregations are vacant. Indeed, there is a shortage of ministers, but we should never accept this as normal. If we are honest, we often talk about the need for ministers, but do we truly feel the need? Do you pray everyday that there may be more men called to the ministry? The Lord has said that we may ask Him, yes, beg Him to send forth more laborers into His vineyard. Psalm 86 verse 7 says, "In the day of my trouble I will call upon Thee: for Thou wilt answer me." If your congregation is vacant, do you storm God’s throne, asking if He will give a minister, who may administer the Word? Do we wrestle with these matters? We should honestly consider these questions. As a result of the shortage of ministers, many churches, especially the smaller congregations, have reading services, sometimes week after week. We saw that not everyone appreciates this. Is this right

Disadvantages?

It is certainly true that it takes more concentration to listen to a sermon which is read, than one which is preached. Listening to a minister, who supports his words with gestures and who explains with examples from the Bible, is

’ A Report written for the for the Dutch NRC Synod during the 1990’s, researching why so many of our youth are leaving the denomination.

easier. It is especially hard for young children to grasp the content of a reading service. It seems that in our fast-paced computer age it becomes harder and harder to sit quietly and listen to a sermon. Everything around us goes faster and faster. Also in education and at work, the focus is more on do it yourself. In every possible way one has to gather and structure his own knowledge, and apply it. You can under- stand that in this fast-paced society, it becomes more and more rare to be able to listen to a sermon for 45 minutes. In light of all this, the reading of a sermon becomes even harder.

It is only honest to admit that some elders have received more gifts from the Lord than others. For this reason, Rev. Kersten said that not all elders should conduct a reading service. He emphasized strongly that only gifted readers should lead services. He certainly didn’t mean that the other elders were of no value. Oh no, it could even be that they have been led further by the Lord, but in this case it is more important that the sermon is read in an edifying manner. "There are but few men who have received the gift to read a sermon in an edifying manner. If there are some among the elders who have received these gifts, they should be used, whereas the consistory should hold back those who are not fit for the task. (...) Do not expose the congregations to reading that is not edifying. This will become apparent in the attendance." He wrote this in ’De Saambinder’ of April 13, 1944

Do you know what Rev. Kersten had learned very personally? That the Lord also uses reading services as a means in His hand to convert sinners and to exercise His children in the school of God’s grace. The Lord has used reading services to answer the soul questions and solve the riddles in the life of His people. Really, this still happens today! Even now, I know of people who can tell you how the Lord used a reading service to work savingly in their lives.

Once a boy went to a service to hear a ’popular’ minister. However, there was a reading service instead, and they read a sermon by Rev. A. P. A. du Cloux. It became an unforgettable service!

Critique

It would be good to look critically at ourselves in regard to reading services. It is much easier to point the finger at somebody else: "Why does that elder always read such long sermons? Or why do they let him read? He reads so slowly! Or that elder? He reads so fast! Or him? He can be so emotional! Why do they pick such old fashioned sermons? Or such ’light’ sermons?" No, let us examine ourselves first. Do we go to church with a longing heart? Do we prepare for the Sunday? What time did I go to bed on Saturday night? Was it so late that it was nearly impossible to stay awake Sunday morning? Am I busily serving the world, but with a pious overcoat? No, then we cannot and may not expect a blessing, and then it is dishonest to blame the elder. First we must look inward. How do I prepare myself for the reading service? Did I pray to the Lord to help and bless this elder? Did I beg the Lord if He would also use these feeble means for my salvation? Did I ask the Lord to help me listen, to give me attention and concentration, also if it is a sermon of one of the old fathers, which can be harder to listen to, but yet have such a rich content. You’ve never done this? Then you may start now. The Lord wants to be asked, also by you!

Preparation

Let us now look for a moment in the house of that elder of whom everyone is so critical. You won’t find him in the living room. No, he is in his bedroom on his knees. There are several books with sermons before him.

Which sermon must he read? This one...the other one? How much he needs God’s guidance to make the right choice. Is this sermon too long? Does it confront the listener? Is it balanced? Is it understandable for the youth? Will God’s children be edified by it? Does Christ, the Lamb of God, have the central place, also in this sermon? Is He proclaimed and exalted, so that poor sinners would take refuge in Him? However, here we must also be honest. There is not an elder who will tell you he always selects his sermons in such a tender and dependable way. Yet ...that is the way it ought to be! For he stands on the pulpit before God’s countenance, and bears full responsibility for the sermon he chooses. He needs your prayers so much!

The apparel of His Word

Maybe you often have reading services in your church. Maybe you have the privilege (do you see it as such?) of having a minister, but even then you have reading services once a month. Do not see it as of lesser value, and do not skip your own church service for this reason! Also then the Lord walks in the church in the apparel of His Word. Also then you hear that you can have no expectation for the future outside of Christ. Also then it is proclaimed to flee from the wrath to come.

Also then the Lord says to you, "Oh, if thou haddest known the things that belong to they peace!" Also then it is depicted what the solemn end is of the broad way, but also the salvation of the narrow way.

It is set before you that there is but one Name given under heaven whereby we must be saved. To be sure, God speaks to you...also in the reading services. Do you have reading services in your church this Sunday? I wish you a blessed service!

"It is our ignorance in the Scriptures, that makes us such preys to Satan. Ignorant persons cannot possibly stand before Satan. All then must labor for knowledge in the Scriptures, even those of young years: for their age is an advantage against them to Satan in his temptation, and therefore they have special need of the Scriptures." Daniel Dyke

Reading

How one can especially look up against praying on the pulpit, to be the mouthpiece of the congregation, to find the right words, and not to forget anything. And then the sermon.... You might say, "Well, that’s printed on black and white. You only have to read what it says." Still, if only the congregation knew what it says between the lines. "Why don’t you stop. Look at yourself! If the people knew who you were, they would all leave." And then your thoughts: "It is too sharp, it is too free, you should have picked another sermon." Then it becomes lonely on the pulpit, and a cry can go up, "Lord, Thou knowest I have not sought this place. Hasn’t Thou brought me here? Help this undeserving officebearer." Then it may sometimes become good. Then it becomes warm inside. Then it is a service of love. You wish you could give it to everyone. Then it is a rich labor; one that we fear, but also love.

An elder