In the very latest spat between Mark Jones and DG Hart (at time of writing), the dispute centres on the status of midweek prayer meetings. Whereas Jones regrets that more people don’t value midweek meetings more highly, Hart is concerned that people shouldn’t be pressurised into attending meetings which aren’t after all mandatory. (Jones, Hart.)
Here I have mixed feelings, because although my heart is with Jones, my head is with Hart.
When midweek prayer meetings go well, they are an extremely valuable form of fellowship and joint edification. It helps you to keep things in better perspective if your week includes an extra service half way between one Lord’s Day and the next. It’s helpful to hear fellow believers pray out loud in a public setting – all the more so, the more their prayers prioritise spiritual rather than providential blessings, and plead Christ’s merit and worthiness rather than our perceived neediness, and feature more confessions of our sinfulness than complacency over what restraining grace has kept us from. You can face the rest of the week better after being reminded of God’s grace, including the accessibility of the throne of grace, and the graces of other members of your congregation. This is what my heart says.
But as my head knows, the basic source of spiritual help from one week to the next is the Lord’s Day itself. This is the day which the Lord has singled out and set apart for people to gather together to worship him. Whereas on other days of the week we’re allowed to gather for worship, on the Lord’s Day we’re required to gather for worship. That’s required not just in the straightforward sense that it’s the fourth commandment, but also with the implication that we’re licensed to look for the Lord’s blessing in a special way when we trustingly obey what he requires. The Lord summons his people to gather for his worship in his house on his day, because that’s the way he has chosen to bring them so many of the benefits of redemption. On the Lord’s Day the Lord’s people gather in the Lord’s name to hear the Lord’s Word read and preached by the Lord’s servants, to sing the Lord’s praises, to call on the Lord’s name in prayer, to participate from time to time in the sacraments the Lord has instituted, and to receive the Lord’s benediction – these are the means of grace which the Saviour has established, and they’re all meant to be enjoyed on the Lord’s Day. The ‘assembling of ourselves together’ which we must at all costs avoid forsaking is the official, corporate, authorised, authoritative assembly of the Lord’s people in the Lord’s name on the Lord’s day. This is the day when we’re meant to worship him – the day we’re meant to praise him – the day we’re meant to pray to him – and all day long, in fact.
Meanwhile, the other six days God has allowed us ‘for our own employments’ (SC 62) or ‘for our own affairs’ (LC 120). The six days are for work and worldly things, as distinct from the one day for rest and heavenly things. And here there’s an important point about the limits of ecclesiastical authority and how seriously we take the regulative principle as a safeguard against imposing burdens on our consciences. Clearly, the church is authorised to call people together for worship on the Lord’s Day – that’s what the Lord’s Day is for – and members of a congregation can rightly expect to be challenged if they negligently fail to attend the Lord’s Day worship. But the church doesn’t have the power to make any of the other six days into holy days (or days with holy times) when people can be summoned together, even for such an apparently blameless purpose as worship. We know this from the traditional Reformed objection to Lent, Easter, Christmas – festivals like these, vulgarly known as holy days, have no warrant in the Word of God – and when the church insists that they need to be religiously observed, it’s an abuse of churchly authority and an illegitimate imposition on the consciences of the Lord’s people.
Of course, the principle of six days for worldly employments and recreations doesn’t exclude a spiritual dimension to our lives (just as the heavenliness of the Lord’s Day includes provision for works of earthly necessity and mercy). So it is that on the six days, everyone is supposed to read the Bible for themselves and in their families, pray with and for others, reflect on scripture truths they’ve read or heard, have fellowship with other believers, and so on. This is distinct from the official corporate worship of the Lord’s house on the Lord’s Day, though – it’s personal, family, and/or group devotions. Even though these activities may be exceptionally edifying and highly spiritually beneficial, they have to be fitted in to worldly schedules, with time being carved out for them around our worldly commitments as best we can, instead of being the whole purpose of our time for the whole day, as is the case on the Lord’s Day. In other words, whereas worship on the Lord’s Day is churchly (mandatory and corporate), worship on the other six days is non-churchly (discretionary and personal/familial).
Midweek prayer meetings, then, fall into the category of the discretionary. Unlike the Lord’s Day worship, they are non-compulsory and non-corporate. Non-compulsory in that, completely unlike on the Lord’s Day, it’s legitimate to have worldly business on a weekday that prevents you attending the service. You’re allowed to be sensible about whether you can make it along this week and pragmatic about a cost/benefit analysis of weeknight exhaustion to likely spiritual refreshment, and the church, which has no authority to summon people for worship not on the Lord’s Day, has no power to discipline people for not attending midweek meetings. And they’re non-corporate in that they’re an expression of personal or group devotion, but not an authorised part (or authoritative act) of the worship of the church as such.
Obviously, this isn’t to say that prayer meetings are pointless or that everyone should stop attending them. The only thing it means is that we need to keep clearly in mind what we’re doing when we gather for midweek meetings, and value them in the right way. For groups of believers to agree to meet for the purpose of praying together at a convenient time in the middle of the week is perfectly legitimate. It will usually be edifying and an encouragement to persevere in personal and family prayer and in growth in grace generally. (You could of course make the same argument about reading devotional books or admiring some aspect of creation so as to reflect on divine power or researching some aspect of history so as to reflect on divine providence or having friends round for food and fellowship or keeping spiritual diaries and prayer journals, or any number of everyday activities that can be done in a way that allows Christian graces to be manifested and developed.) But it would be a mistake to look to things like these, which are ultimately only optional expressions of personal or group piety, for the kind of blessing and strengthening which God has ordained to be sought and received in the actual means of grace in the courts of his actual house on the day he has actually set apart for himself and his worship.
People can’t, therefore, measure their own holiness or the holiness of others by their attendance on midweek meetings. So it can’t be fair to say that it’s laziness that drives non-attendance, or lack of acquaintance with the power of prayer. It could be diligence in your lawful calling (job, family/friend relationships, caring responsibilities) that prevents you getting to the service. Or, if most of the prayers are going to be lugubrious updates on people’s latest hospital appointments and routine moralising about the predictable latest instances of societal breakdown, perhaps it’s a sense of the real power of prayer that makes it more attractive to stay at home and go on your knees in your own closet. Obviously, though, this line of reasoning is inadmissible if we’re talking about the services of the Lord’s Day.
Midweek meetings are valuable and can play an important part in the life and growth of a believer and a congregation. But only up to a point – they’re not the Lord’s Day worship that the Lord requires. If we had a higher view of the Lord’s Day and the mandatory services of the Lord’s house, and greater confidence and firmer expectations about their effectiveness as his own designated means of grace, we would perhaps be less distracted by the optional extras that grow up around them in different communities of believers, and less inclined to invest them with meaning and powers and holiness which they only have derivatively (drawing on the graces which are really nurtured in the ordained means of grace) not in and of themselves.