What we do and how we do it determines our success or failure as ministers. We may be slow to sense it, but things have a strange way of rebounding upon us. Thackeray stated it well when he said, "The world is a looking glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face." If that be true inordinary life, it is doubly true in a minister's life.
One may be sincere, devoted, and tireless in his work, but unless he performs it with grace and dignity, his work will be seriously discounted. Every service of the church may be improved by a little thought and the application of better techniques. Although techniques are important, our words are still more important, for words are the colors with which we paint our pictures. This simple quatrain of Anna Hempstead Branch gives food for thought:
God wove a web of loveliness, Of clouds and stars and birds, But made not anything at all So beautiful as words.
This issue of THE MINISTRY comes to answer many requests from different parts of the world field. Often we are asked to make suggestions as to the best methods of performing the different services of the church. While these requests have been coming we have also been receiving articles from a number of other workers. They have been grouped together, and form four main sections: baptism, the Lord's Supper, marriage, and the funeral. It is impossible in the brief compass of a single issue to do full justice to any of these particular services, yet we are confident that our readers will appreciate our sharing these ideas at least they will stimulate thought, and the suggestions may help us to improve our techniques.
No attempt is made to lay down certain rules, much less to build up a ritual. But order and balance are vital, and we must never overlook the importance of seeming trifles, for as Shakespeare said, "Art is known by the little bit." Every minister should at least aim to be an artist as he performs these sacred functions of the church. But whatever techniques one may develop, he must be sure that the technique as such is not obvious. "The perfection of art is to conceal art."
Studying how to immerse a candidate may seem of little consequence, but if the service is performed with grace, it may well be the deciding factor in the experience of one or more of those who witness it. Many times the spirit of worship has been destroyed because of the clumsy and awkward movements of the minister. After witnessing a well-conducted baptismal service, one who had been prejudiced remarked, "Now, if I had witnessed this baptismal service instead of the one I saw, I would have thought differently about the whole thing. But what I saw was revolting, and that is the reason I have refused to be baptized." Continuing, she said, "In fact, having been here today makes me feel that I would like to be baptized sometime, but when I am, I want the service to be just like this one." Crude and clumsy methods actually hinder our evangelistic results.
Then let us take the wedding service. On such occasions relatives and friends not of our faith are usually in attendance. The sermonet and the way the whole service is conducted may decide their attitude toward the truth. Looking at it, therefore, from the purely evangelistic viewpoint, we should determine to conduct these services of the church in such a way that people are attracted and not repelled.
More important still, perhaps, is the funeral service. There is no time when hearts are more easily impressed. The way the Scriptures are read, the tone of voice in which the obituary (if any) is given these can either invite or repel. One of our ministers who today is carrying heavy responsibility came into the truth with others of his family as the result of his being impressed with the service at the funeral of his friend. This family were ardent members of another Christian body, but had been definitely prejudiced against the truth. But the sympathy of the Adventist minister and the spirit of kind Christian fellowship that pervaded everything, together with the uplifting message of the resurrection, created in their hearts a spirit of inquiry, and in just a few weeks they all embraced the message. The decision was not easy, because they were leading members of their own church. It was not through a series of meetings, nor through the purchase of literature, but rather through the simple but well-conducted funeral service that these dear folk found the truth.
But the minister's message is not the only important feature of the funeral service. Everything about such an occasion should be a symbol of our faith. How easy it is for dear ones in the shock of grief to permit extravagance and outward show, which really is out of harmony with the true spirit and Christian concept of death. Actually some of the customs that cling to the funeral service are carry-overs from old pagan or Jewish ideas. For example, the custom, still practiced in many places, of burying the deceased with his face toward the east is really an old pagan custom, but one which the Jews had also accepted to a limited degree. However, instead of facing the east they faced Jerusalem.
In the United States we have done much to ease the shock of death, yet exhibitionism and commercialism have all too often supplanted Christian simplicity, which is so appropriate on such occasions. The mortuary business in recent years has reached tremendous proportions, being a half-billion dollar industry annually. And the floral tributes amount to another hundred million dollars. Small wonder, then, that the cost of funerals continues to rise! A minister is not exceeding the bounds of propriety if he prudently suggests to the family that simplicity is always in keeping with their faith. To do this, however, requires much wisdom and tact.
The Lord's Supper
And now let us think a moment of the beautiful service of the Lord's Supper. No service in the church can mean so much in the building up of the faith of the members as the communion service. And for this service a minister needs to prepare himself. One's table manners reveal more of his training and culture than perhaps anything else. At no time is his background on parade so much as when he is at the table. If this be true in ordinary life, it is just as true, and maybe more so, when a minister is serving at the Lord's table. The one leading out in this symbolic meal should be a master of flawless technique. At this sacrament of communion we reach the peak of Christian worship. The occasion is made more impressive if our words are few and well chosen. Words are the most valuable currency in the minister's mint. But at the table of the Lord not only words but every act should be an act of worship. There must be created a sense of oneness with God and with one another. It is not our table, it is the Lord's table, and the minister is serving in Christ's stead. Nothing coarse, crude, or clumsy should be permitted there. Jesus was the Saviour of the world, but He was also the embodiment of true culture.
Then the cup itself is not only a cup of suffering, it is a cup of grace and of hope. We are "saved by grace," declares the apostle, but he also says, "We are saved by hope." In this symbolic service grace and hope combine. Grace is God's attitude toward us, hope is our response to Him. God's grace therefore becomes man's ground for hope. Yet both grace and hope stem from our Saviour's sufferings. So when our people gather at the table of the Lord, everything should be so inviting that they will be unconscious of all else save Him. Happy indeed are they of whom it can be said as they leave this beautiful service of worship that "they saw no man, save Jesus only."
To have left such an impression one must be gracious. When we conduct these sacred services, then, our method is almost as important as our message. "What you do sounds so loud in my ears, I cannot hear what you say." To be graceful is good; to be gracious is better. Gracefulness speaks of an outward attribute of beauty, whereas graciousness speaks of a quality that flows from a cultured and beautiful soul.
Let us, then, as ministers of the Lord, emulate Him of whom it was written that "grace was poured upon His lips, that He might convey to men in the most attractive way the treasures of truth." The Desire of Ages, p. 254.
When we invite guests to partake of a meal at our home, are we not careful to see that everything about the table makes the meal inviting; and when we serve the food, do we not strive to do it with grace? Then dare we do less at the Lord's table? In all these services we are representing our Lord. To do service for a king is an honor. But to do service in place of a king is exaltation. To be an ambassador of the King of heaven is an honor that demands the very best in culture, training, and consecration.