Concerning priestly ministry, I believe the first thing to do is to set forth the basic underlying principle, which is, that all God’s children are priests and all should therefore serve God. If we are governed by this principle, we shall see how to help all the brothers and sisters to function as priests in their local assemblies. In other words, we shall seek how to arrange spiritual activities so that the entire body of believers—both beginners and those who have trusted the Lord for a number of years—may participate. We will now spend a little time together finding out what are the various spiritual endeavors in a local assembly the brothers and sisters can all take part in.
Several Spiritual Activities All Believers Should Do
A few things to begin with which all the local brothers and sisters can participate in are the following:
(1) Preach the gospel.
(2) Visit those who profess to have received the gospel they have heard, and lead them into the right path of being Christians.
(3) Visit new Christians. They have believed, and have been led into the right path; now they need to be helped to go on.
(4) Take care of special needs. In the church there are many such needs. Some have family problems, some are sick. Some experience distress, some have funerals, and some have weddings. All these should have the help of the church. We may put all such activities under the general heading of "care visitation." This is a kind of work in which all the brothers and sisters can be involved.
(5) Care for saints who go abroad or come from abroad. I look upon this kind of service as being a very important one. For after we issue letters of recommendation to brothers and sisters who go to other localities, we still need to look after them. And with regard to people who come from outside, we must provide them special care as well.
Let us take up each of these various works one at a time.
(1) Preaching the gospel. Let us notice that among the ministers of God’s word whom the Lord sets up in the Church is the evangelist (Eph. 4.11). But Paul exhorts Timothy to "do the work of an evangelist" (2 Tim. 4.5). By comparing these two passages, we shall see that some people are called by God to be evangelists whereas some may not be evangelists and yet they are to do the work of an evangelist. In other words, the evangelist must preach the gospel, but whoever is not an evangelist should nevertheless do the work of an evangelist. An evangelist is a special "gift-person" from God given to the Church. If God calls you to be an evangelist, you should preach the gospel with singleness of heart and bring people to the Church. If God has not appointed you as an evangelist, you and all God’s other children should nonetheless "do the work of an evangelist"—even as the word of the Lord has indicated.
To put it another way, "the work of an evangelist" is to be done by those who cannot do it as well as by those who can. This work must be carried on universally. Young people like Timothy should do it. Everybody else should do it.
For this reason, encourage the entire assembly of brothers and sisters to spend time in doing the work of an evangelist. We should never be lazy and forget the sinners, nor should we simply let a few carry on this work alone. Let all the brothers and sisters be reminded that they all are priests and all must therefore serve God.
(2) Gospel care. This is also what we ought to do before God. We expect all the brothers and sisters to learn responsibility in this area too.
This responsibility starts with bringing unbelievers to the meeting and does not cease until they are baptized. The work of gospel visitation includes bringing people from home, school, hospital or office to the meeting, and looking after them until they know the Lord themselves and are baptized.
Bring People to Gospel Meeting
Have the brothers and sisters bring people to gospel meetings. Do not have them bring too many at one time. Though it is good to bring more, yet in order to take care of them properly it is better that only three or four persons be brought each time. This is not a rule, but probably four is a good maximum number. This does not mean that if there is opportunity to bring more, people cannot bring them. In case they wish to bring more, have them seek out the responsible brothers and ask them to arrange some other brothers and sisters to share their responsibility.
Sit with Them
Let us discuss how we should take care of the friends in a gospel meeting. If you bring four people, seat two of them on each of your two sides. When the Bible is read, find the place in the Scriptures for them. When singing, find the hymn for them also. Do not treat them as geniuses. Since they may never have sung hymns or read the Bible before, you must help them.
During the preaching, if someone does not understand, explain it in a whisper. When G. Paget Wilkes was preaching in Shanghai, he told the following joke. An Englishman went to Japan and preached the gospel in a large public auditorium. Many people were there that day. At one point the English preacher said to his audience, "You all know, of course, how the children of Israel came out of Egypt." Paget Wilkes hurriedly went up to him and whispered that he might have to spend two hours to explain to the people who these Israelites were and what the exodus was all about! From this story we should realize that there are many things our unbelieving friends may not understand. Although we cannot spend two hours as humorously suggested by Paget Wilkes to explain, we may at least use two or three sentences to do so.
Strengthen and Help the Preaching with Prayer
The greatest work any of the brethren can do is to support the gospel preaching. For the preaching of the gospel is not for believers to hear or to criticize. It is aimed at the sinners. So that while you sit by the people you have invited, and as you sense that certain words spoken carry a great impact, or that the spirit of the preacher is being released, you should silently pray, saying something like the following: "O Lord, send this word into people’s hearts. Use this word to save this person. Lord, use this word to save even these two people." Thus you add weight to the word preached with such prayer. And you also pray for the people in your care.
Accept Seating Arrangement
Some who have not brought anyone to the gospel meeting may help by taking care of those who have brought more. It will be good if all the brothers and sisters sit either on one side or at the back, or stand near the door so that the brothers in charge of care that day may make the necessary arrangements. The friends from outside who attend need to be escorted. They are coming to hear the gospel, hence we can keep them company. Even if they are not brought in by you, you can still be one of those who sit with them. Gospel care is therefore twofold in nature: one is to bring people in, the other is to take care of them in the meeting. We who are responsible for the management of the church must so work until all the brothers and sisters are serving in the assembly.
At Time of Drawing Net
At each gospel meeting, there should be "the drawing of the net" so to speak. To cast a net is one thing, to draw a net is another. When the gospel net begins to be drawn in either by asking people to raise their hands or to accept the Lord, brothers and sisters need to join in and help. The ways of drawing in the net are varied. There is much liberty as to the ways, so long as the net is eventually drawn. At that time, there are many things one can do. Some hitherto unconverted ones need a little nudging and then they will come in. Others need to be pushed and then they fall in. Brethren should pray on the one hand and persuade on the other. If you know for sure that your friend’s refusal to stand up is due to pride, then you should exhort him to humble himself. Or if you know it is the love of the world that hinders him from standing up, you can plead with him by saying, "Why do you still long for the world? Why will you wait until the next time? If you feel you are ready, do not wait".
Do Not Wait Till Four Months Later
One matter which is of great importance in the preaching of the gospel is this: do not wait till four months later. Many people involved in gospel preaching have the wrong concept of waiting four months; but the Lord Jesus declares this to us: "Say not ye, There are yet four months, and then cometh the harvest? behold, I say unto you, Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields, that they are white already unto harvest" (John 4.35). How very strange is the Lord’s answer here. We need to see that the harvest of the gospel far exceeds human expectation. Do not be so foolish as to imagine that there must necessarily be four months until harvest once the seed is sown. The Lord Jesus views it differently here, for He says that whenever you sow, you may harvest immediately! There is no such "four months’ principle" in His thinking!
Some people may appear to be totally ignorant. Yet keep in mind that whether their understanding is opened or not does not depend on you but on the enlightening of the Holy Spirit. I know of at least a few brothers who pretended to believe but who nonetheless ended up being really saved. We therefore must encourage them in season and out.
After the Meeting
After the meeting is over, brethren can stay with their friends, praying with them and conversing with them. Bring them to the Lord, lead them in prayer, and help them to accept Christ. Then you can obtain from them their names and addresses. Be sure the address is correct, since this will save the time of those who do gospel visitation. If possible, ask them when they will be free and what will be the most convenient time to visit them. Write all this information down quickly lest they get bored. Then give the record to the responsible brothers as reference for future visitation.
Instill Need and Knowledge
Some people accept Christ out of felt needs, but they do not have any gospel knowledge. Other people have gospel knowledge but they do not sense need. Still others have both need and knowledge, yet they cannot make a decision at once. All these people must be helped. Create need for those who feel no need, supply knowledge to those who have no knowledge, and help the hesitant ones in making a decision.
Tell Them of Baptism
After people have been brought clearly to the Lord, they should be informed immediately of baptism. Look after them, seek them out many times until they are brought to the place where they are ready to be baptized.
Before Meeting Begins
Another thing to be added here is that sometimes it may be embarrassing for people in a gospel meeting. For example, long before the gospel meeting has ever started people may already be sitting there. Some of them may come as much as an hour early. I can assure you that there are two places where time seems unbearably long: one is in hell, the other is in the church. For the one who goes to hell, he finds time intolerably long there. But to the unsaved who come to church, he too feels that time is terribly long. If these people come early and the gospel is not being preached yet, they may go away or they may sit there wondering what it is all about. At times I have a deep feeling inside me as I have looked out at the faces of the people sitting there waiting: they have always appeared to me to be like sheep without a shepherd. They surely need to be taken care of before the meeting starts.
One of the ways they can be taken care of is to not let the unbelievers sit together. Instead, try to arrange at the beginning to have one or two believers sitting on either side of them. All who participate in such work must be fully equipped with tracts, gospel messages, and a Bible. If because of our neglect these unbelievers just sit there unattended, even the most enthusiastic among them will turn cold.
All Function As Priests
None of the work already described can at all be accomplished without the entire body of believers participating in it. Show the brethren they all are priests, and that accordingly everyone has something to do. This will make the gospel meeting strong, for this will be the entire church preaching the gospel rather than just the few. Unless all are involved, where is the church?
As Many As Are Priests
Let me underscore what we have said before, that as many as are the people who serve, so that many are the people in the church—as many as are priests, so that many are the people of God. Do not invert the order and say that as many as are the people of God so that many are priests. That is the wrong order. It should instead be: as many there are who serve, so just that many are the people of God.
When I was in England, a brother once said to me: "Many in the body are functioning members, but many others are functionless members." To this I replied, "According to the Bible, all are functioning members, there is none functionless. If there is any who is functionless, that one probably is the appendix." My response caused that brother to laugh. But is it not true that in the thinking of many brethren some members in the body of Christ have functions while some other members have no function at all? But may I ask this, Where in the physical body is there a functionless member? Where can you find any? Let me answer that in the whole body, the only functionless member to be found is probably the appendix. Can it be that in the spiritual body the appendix happens to be you? Let me remind you that all members have functions. And so it follows that as many as are functioning members, that many are the members in the body of Christ.
We Are a Priesthood
Let us correct our thinking here. Today we must see that service pertains to the whole church. It is the church preaching the gospel and not just a few brethren. Priesthood includes all the brothers and sisters. As many brethren as are serving, just that many are there who are brethren in the church. Let it be that the number of those who serve determines the number of brethren who are in the church. We cannot let it be that only a few serve among five thousand brethren or even among just a thousand brethren. We cannot allow any non-functioning members. All are members of the body of Christ; and therefore each of the brethren must be reminded that he or she has his or her function; none can be functionless. This fundamental principle must be seen and maintained. Otherwise, this work that we are about is not New Testament work. It is but a modified form of Catholicism—a system of limited priesthood. Since all are priests, we all belong to the priesthood.
(3) Care for the beginners.
Meeting for Beginners
After a person has believed and been baptized, he should be brought into a series of meetings for beginners. In such meetings, a special subject involving one single aspect of basic truth and conduct will be presented every week.
Help and Care
After a person starts to come to the beginners meetings, he should be assigned a more advanced brother to take care of him. How will that brother take care of him? By helping him to enter into every subject lesson experientially.
In case of absence, the advanced brother should go and give him the lesson(s) he missed. Whenever he attends the beginners meeting, the advanced one should find out afterwards if he understands what has been taught. On this point, let me share my feeling with you workers, especially with those of you who are ministers of God’s word. I think we all have had that painful, shameful, and even indignant experience of having preached a rather deep message in a meeting, but later as you made contact with the brethren you discovered that your message had been like the wind which blows over the roof—it did not touch the ears of the audience. If you do not believe this is true, then you should try to encourage them to ask questions after you have finished speaking. I have often observed that asking questions reflects the condition of the hearer, while giving a message reflects the condition of the preacher. How frequently it is that when a most spiritual message has been given it has fallen a thousand miles distant from the mind of the hearers.
For this reason, do not assume that people understand what they hear. These beginners must be visited and helped until they clearly understand these words.
Beginners to Look After Unbelievers
All the beginners should be engaged in looking after unbelievers. Put a few stronger saints in their midst to help them do the work. Show them that since they have believed in the Lord, they are now priests of God, and all priests are to serve. How well these beginners shall serve will depend on how well they are helped.
Be a Foreman
Today it is no longer the workers who go out to work, it is instead the workers who help others to work. If the worker always does the work, he can never finish the work. I repeat, if you go out to work, if you yourself only work, you are a failure. Paul not only works with his hands, he also is a foreman. Learn to work and learn to be a foreman. Learn to train other brothers and sisters to work.
(4) Care for special needs. In this regard do not have too many brothers and sisters involved. In gospel work, in gospel care, in care for beginners—almost all the brethren should be mobilized. But caring for special needs is a different matter. It should be done by a few brothers and sisters who carry spiritual weight before the Lord.
When a brother encounters difficulty, let him be helped by these few. In case of joy or sorrow, again let these few help and pray with such ones. Or if there is a family problem, let these few pray and comfort them. Or if there is need for relief, let it be done through these few brothers and sisters.
As soon as brothers and sisters hear of anything of this nature, notify those who are responsible for special needs. They will distribute money to the poor, send food to the hungry, give clothes to the naked, render comfort to the troubled. They will visit prisons, pray for the sick, and help solve problems for the family.
A Foolish Concept
I do not know when this foolish concept commenced, but many seem to have the thought that the church ought not to have any problems. But do not forget that from the time of the early apostles the Church of God has encountered many difficulties. Do not fancy such difficulties as being abnormal for the local church. The Church since the apostolic days has been marked by many, not a few, tight situations.
Let us recall that not long after the day of Pentecost, there occurred the affair of Ananias and Sapphira. This was followed closely by the matter regarding the Hellenistic widows. Not many days after that, Stephen was martyred; and then Peter was jailed. Such problems have continued on without ceasing. So that from ancient times till now, the history of the Church has been full of obstacles and problems.
In this regard, we need to look more closely at the seven Asian churches mentioned in Revelation: five of these local churches were corrupted and seemed to have no difficulty; yet one of them received no reprimand—even the church in Smyrna, but it was a suffering, "martyr" church; and there was one church among them that was praised by God—Philadelphia; but interestingly, the Lord said to it, "Thou didst keep the word of my patience" (Rev. 3.10). That is the word of the Lord the Church of God is always to keep—not the word of success, but the word of patience and "steadfastness" (margin). A local church must pass through many difficult times requiring patience in the face of many problems and hardships. Only a worldly church will meet with less hardship. A true church will encounter many problems and some defeats.
So never say if a local church is always peaceful and uneventful that that is the sole evidence of the blessing of the Lord. What usually happens is that it is blessed on the one hand and encounters difficulties on the other. A church may undergo many hardships, yet still have the Lord’s blessing.
(5) Care for those who move and for the brethren from abroad. When a brother has departed for another locality, the writing of a letter of recommendation on his behalf is not the last responsibility of the church. At the very least, there should be some people responsible for corresponding with him to keep him informed on the condition of the local assembly as well as to supply him with the gist of the messages spoken during his absence. For quite a long period of time I felt ashamed and as though I had sinned, as I thought of the many brothers and sisters who over the past five years had gone to other places without anyone having corresponded with them. We could not and did not know how they had fared.
Let us today see that whenever a brother or sister goes out from us, there should be one or several of the brethren taking up responsibility to do some correspondence: a letter a week or a letter every other week or at least a letter a month. In that letter inform the brother or sister of the condition of the church and of the other brothers and sisters. If we send out ten letters of recommendation today, we must find two or three people to take up the responsibility of corresponding with those ten or so who go out. No matter how busy we are, we must correspond; for this is a service unto the Lord. And in writing such letters, they should not be just chit-chat, but a summary of the spiritual condition of the church. And in so doing, we will be blessed by God, and all the brethren who go out may perhaps stand even more firmly in the Lord.
Another thing which can be done is to send to them the gist of any special message given during the week. It is not necessary to relay the whole message but simply give the central thought. Nor is it needful to record all the messages spoken during the month but to share merely the essential points. This will at least supply the needs of the absentees. Some may have gone to places where they have no fellowship or perhaps they are lonely and in precarious situations. Except they are kept by God, they have no way to grow. How can they grow if they receive no supply? Therefore, such sharing of the principal thoughts of messages will help stabilize the spiritual condition of these brethren.
Write to Local Assembly As Follow-Up
I often consider the writing of a letter of recommendation as not being the last thing for us to do. So far as the church is concerned, after a month or two a letter should be written to that local assembly where the brother or sister goes, making an inquiry about him or her and asking for a reply. In the letter, such questions as the following should be included: What is the current spiritual condition of that particular brother or sister? How do you help him or her to grow? How do you take care of the person? Let me say that the lazy church will find itself unable to answer such questions as these. Frequently people are lazy, and sometimes churches may be lazy too. Laziness is what we are fearful of. Let me say, in addition, however, that such letters as the above will awaken some of the churches from their laziness, for they must answer them.
Take Care of Brethren Coming from Outside
Brethren from abroad need to be taken care of too. I hope there will be many people in the assembly serving in this area, for this also is to be included in the various priestly functions of the church.
Let those who are responsible for taking care of the absentees take care of the brethren from abroad as well. And why? Because they read the reply letters from other assemblies, and this thus enables them to know the problems of those who have gone out from those same assemblies. It is therefore most convenient for them to take care of the brethren from abroad.
Such care does not need to be prolonged beyond two or three months since by that time these brethren from abroad will have now become local brethren. As local brothers and sisters, they should by that time have begun to fulfill their local functions.
I wonder if you have now seen what is the ministry of the church? The local church is to serve in all of these areas. These five areas which we have just discussed pertain to the spiritual side of the church. There are many other miscellaneous things which can be added to this list, but these that have been mentioned already are only meant to serve as a suggestive outline, but even these few need to be done well.
THE WAY OF SERVICE
Rather Not Have Sunday Morning Preaching
I do not know if you have ever thought about what I am going to say next, but I would like to have a heart-to-heart talk with you all. Are you able to see that perhaps the Protestant churches currently put too great an emphasis on Sunday preaching? I for one consider this emphasis as contributing to today’s problem. I hope you will think very carefully on whether you would like to maintain such Sunday preaching. I myself would rather have no Sunday preaching if I could witness the fact of every brother and sister busily serving: if I could see everybody involved at the time when the gospel is preached; if I could see everyone engaged in gospel care, if I could see everyone taking part in harvesting, and after harvesting, everyone participating in gospel visitation; and if I could see that the various kinds of needs were being met by brothers and sisters assuming their responsibilities to meet them. This that I have just described is the church. Let me illustrate it in this way. Suppose in a certain locality, the Sunday preaching is very strong but not all the body is serving. That is Protestantism. If only four or five brothers are active there and the rest of the body is passive, that is the priestly system of the Roman Catholic Church or the pastoral system of the Protestant churches. It is certainly not the church as God would have it.
No Non-functioning Member
Our future lies in the whole church serving. I hope all the brethren will pay special attention to this rule. Although this vision may easily be forgotten because of much activity, we must put it before ourselves each time we go out to work. With vision we can work. Without vision we cannot work. Brothers and sisters must rise up and serve. We need not be anxious about the greatness of outward difficulties or the amount of people’s resistance. The real issue lies in whether we have truly seen the way of service. If we are clear, let us focus our entire strength on it. And never mind the number of people, as long as all of them serve; for it is bewildering if in an assembly of, say, two thousand people, only five hundred serve and the rest do not. Let us see that if there are five hundred brethren in a local church, all five hundred of them must serve. (The Church and the Work: Church Affairs, Volume III, CFP white covers, 37-52, by Watchman Nee.)