For a period of years I have observed something which may explain why a large percentage of those whom we might term the "better class" of people do not return to a series of evangelistic meetings after the opening night. While it is true that some of the honest in heart in this class do return, yet in proportion to the total percentage, they are greatly in the minority. We wish to reach this class as well as those of other types. It must be admitted that some things which may be accepted generally by the other classes are quite as often objectionable to the more refined.
It has been observed that some of our men have a steady increase in their attendance, rather than a decrease, after the opening night. Others seem to be forced to rely on bigger and larger ads as the meetings progress, to have even a dwindling attendance. There must be a reason for this.
In analyzing various opening nights that I have attended, I have wondered whether others might not have had the same reaction that I did, and never have returned unless person ally acquainted with the speaker or interested in our message.
If the timing is right and God is leading, the proper advertising will usually bring a sizable audience to the proper place for the opening meeting. But no amount of advertising will bring the same people back if the evangelist fails or disappoints his audience in his opening lecture.
Many fail on the opening night on two counts. First, with too many preliminaries and announcements, book sales, and what have you? I remember one opening meeting when the program began at seven-thirty, and the speaker began his sermon "promptly" at 9:10. Needless to say, that was his largest crowd of the series. If he had started speaking promptly at eight o'clock and finished at nine, many more would have gone home with a desire to return. (It seems that a trend has started among some to develop more and more of a burden for drawn- out preliminaries, rather than to place the emphasis on the message of the evening. When this is done the emphasis is surely in the wrong place.)
The second mistake of that same evening was the one which I wish to emphasize. At the close of a very good sermon, delivered to a large but very tired audience which was already beginning to break up, the speaker began trying to get the names and addresses of all present (at 10:20 P.M.!) The point I wish to make is not that he made this unforgiveable attempt at the close of his sermon, but that he did it at all on the opening night.
The average businessman and the better class of people in general will be embarrassed by such an ordeal, and as a rule will resent it. But you say, "They may never come back." You are probably right—after an evening like that. I know I did not feel like returning, and it was only respect for the speaker that kept me from leaving by nine-thirty.
Listen, friend, if your very soul is on fire for God, and your lips are touched with a live coal from off the altar of heaven, the Spirit of God will be there. If that be true, every honest- hearted spirit and thirsting soul will be stirred by your message, and by that same Spirit they will be prompted to accept your invitation to return for the next meeting. Many will come and tell you that they could hardly wait for the next meeting night. Let this type of service be repeated until the second or third Sunday night, making general calls only, such as a showing of hands of those who want to be ready when the Lord comes. Then, after you have gained their confidence—after they know you well enough to tell all their friends about you, and begin to ask you questions—would not this be the time to call' on this class of people ? Let things shape up in a natural way, rather than under pressure. If this is done, the better class of folk will not feel you are trying to force yourself upon them, and they will stay with you.
The Third Mistake in Evangelism
The only thing I can think of that is worse than these two major mistakes in evangelism, is that of sending the worker out calling the first week after the opening meeting. After having been worn out by preliminaries, announcements, and book sales, et cetera, then preached to for another hour, and perhaps having traveled a long distance to get home, the people get to bed about twelve-thirty or one. Then, lo, and behold, the next morning, while the lady of the house is finishing a late breakfast, she hears the doorbell ring, and when she opens the door, there is someone with a copy of the sermon that wore her out the night before. She listens awhile to the unwelcome visitor and says firmly, "No, thank you," and closes the door—wondering what on earth possessed her to venture out to the strange new meetings in the first place and secretly vowing it will never happen again.
Wonder of wonders that we ever get anyone at all from the upper class of people. With the less-educated element it matters little. They drift in and out regardless of what we do. And the poor we have with us always. We are very glad for them. But why present the message in such a way as to exclude the more intelligent by forcing ourselves upon them after they have condescended (at least in their thinking) to come and hear us? Let us wait until we see a little flicker of spiritual fire in their lives before we roll on additional logs of truth. Deep thinkers are usually not overly zealous or quick to make a decision in something which involves a revolution in their entire life's program. Therefore, let us not force them to make the wrong decision prematurely, by sending a messenger to their door soon after they have arrived home.
Let us bear in mind that "there is a time for everything." Let us not drive people away the opening night by feeding them so many preliminaries that when the main course comes they are too full to partake of it, and are aware only of their weariness and desire to retire. Let us, instead, provide for them a short, stirring song service (thirty minutes, perhaps), including two or three specials. Keep announcements as brief and to the point as possible; make them interesting. Let us dissolve half the extracurricular preliminaries, keep our public prayers short, and our sermons limited to forty-five minutes—an hour being the exception rather than the rule. Wait at least a full week before permitting promiscuous visiting. Two or three weeks are much better. If this plan is followed, surely in most cases the resultant outcome of the series of meetings would be more productive.