The Ideal Congregation

F. W. Boreham, Dreams at Sunset

There may be some question as to which is the largest congregation in the world: there may be some doubt as to which is the richest: but there can be no uncertainty as to which is the best. The best congregation in the world is a congregation of one. And the best of that best congregation is that anyone can enjoy the privilege of addressing it.


Mr. Chesterton says that, between one and two there is often a difference of millions. There is certainly a difference of millions between a congregation of one and a congregation of two. A congregation of one takes every word in a direct and personal sense; but, in a congregation of two, each auditor takes it for granted that the preacher is referring to the other. Nathan had a congregation of one when, in unfolding his parable of the one ewe lamb, he looked into the face of David and cried Thou art the man! By means of that clever artifice and lightning-flash application, Nathan brought his congregation of one to its knees.

Shakespeare must have studied this story of Nathan before writing his own Hamlet. Adopting Nathan’s strategy. Hamlet trained the strolling players to reproduce the king’s crime before the royal but guilty party; and, when the monarch saw his own evil deeds enacted on the stage before him, the blood left his face, his heart stood still, the lights swam in blurred confusion before his failing sight, and, pleading sudden sickness, he staggered from the theatre. Every actor seemed to be pointing straight at him. Every voice cried: Thou art the man!

Just occasionally, of course, a preacher finds it easy to make his appeal to the individual conscience. Dr. Lyman Beecher, for example, loved to tell of a memorable Sunday in the early days of his ministry. He had promised to exchange pulpits with a country preacher. When the day arrived, the hedgerows were buried in snow. His horse could scarcely plough its way through the deep drifts.

When service-time came, Dr. Beecher had the building all to himself. He was just about to remount and ride back when one solitary worshipper stole in. Now what ought he to do? After a brief consideration, he recalled the sense of guidance that he had experienced when preparing for the service. He thereupon decided to behave just as if the church were crowded. He did. Twenty years later a gentleman in Ohio, stepping up to Dr. Beecher, addressed him by name.

‘Have we met before?’ asked the doctor.

‘We have!’ replied his companion. ‘Do you remember, twenty years ago, preaching to a single person?’

‘I do, indeed,’ admitted Dr. Beecher, grasping his hand, ‘and, if you are the man, I want you to know that I have been looking for you ever since!’

‘I am the man, sir; and that sermon, leading me to the Saviour, made a minister of me. Yonder is my church! The converts of that sermon are all over Ohio!’

The task of reaching the individual ear and the individual conscience is not always as simple a matter as, on that notable occasion, Dr. Beecher found it.


In the beginning, the evangelism of the Church was done, not by the minister, but by his people. The New Testament never contemplated the conquest of the world by public oratory. To the primitive Church, such a thing was out of the question. Gatherings such as those that we are able to hold on Sundays were never dreamed of. The early Church was hunted and harassed by cruel persecution. Her services were held in secret. Her sanctuaries were places of peril. The only persons present, therefore, were devout believers. The only objects sought were worship and fellowship. An evangelistic address would have been strangely out of place.

Yet, despite the select character of its assemblies, that early Church was nevertheless a passionately evangelistic Church. Its members rejoiced, and its persecutors complained, that its teachings spread like wild-fire. ‘We are but of yesterday,’ wrote Tertullian, ‘yet we have filled your cities, islands, towns and boroughs; we are in the camp, the Senate and the Forum. Our foes lament that every sex, age and condition, and persons of every rank, are converts to the name of Christ.’ And in three centuries, the Roman Empire itself capitulated unconditionally to the triumphant Church!

The Church had conquered the world, not through the attendance of the world at her services, nor even by her public witness outside other church walls, but by the private influence of her members over those with whom, during the week, they came in contact. She brought the nations to her feet, not by public evangelism, but by an exquisitely beautiful representation, in private conduct and conversation, of the merciful and majestic teachings of her Divine Lord. The individual captured the individual. The work of evangelization was done at the bench and at the desk, in the workroom and in the kitchen, during the week; and then, on Sunday, each member introduced his converts to the delighted assembly. The carpenter brought his mates; the maid brought her mistress; the master brought his men. On Monday morning, each member went forth weeping, bearing precious seed; on Sunday, he came again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.


Even public evangelism is only effective so far as its appeal is individualized. Men cannot be won for Christ in shoals; they must be brought in one by one. The heaven-born evangelist knows that a crowd is a nuisance unless you know how to take it to pieces. A lawyer cannot deal with clients in crowds; a doctor cannot deal with patients in crowds; and, faced by a crowd, an evangelist is just as helpless. A crowd is like a nut. You break the nut to find the kernel; you crack the crowd to find the individual soul. The preacher who has to face a crowd must be a skilful psychologist as well as an earnest evangelist. A crowd has no conscience to be stirred, no heart to be broken and no soul to be saved. The man who stands before a crowd can only hope to succeed so far as he can disentangle the individual from the mass.

Wesley and Whitefield, Spurgeon and Moody knew how to preach to crowds. They conquered the crowd by ignoring it. So far from forgetting the individual in the crowd, they forgot the crowd in the individual. They liked to see a multitude of faces, just as an angler likes to feel that his line is surrounded by a multitude of fish; it enhances his chance of catching, in quick succession, first one and then another; but that is as far as it goes. To the great evangelists, the crowd was simply the multiplied opportunity of individual conquest.

Jean Baptiste Massillon, the man whose preaching terrified yet magnetized Louis the Fourteenth, had an oratorical trick by means of which, even in a thronged cathedral, he secured for himself, not one congregation of two thousand, but two thousand congregations of one.

‘The dome has vanished,’ he would exclaim dramatically, ‘the ceiling has disappeared: nothing now intervenes between you and Almighty God! And see, the walls have evaporated; the great congregation has dispersed; you and I are left alone together! Just you and I!’ And then, like a skilful surgeon alone with his patient, he would probe to the very depths of the heart’s secret being.

Louis the Magnificent used to say that he enjoyed hearing other preachers; he never enjoyed Massillon, for Massillon seemed to tear his very soul wide open. Yet, if he had to select one preacher and hear him only, he would wish that one preacher to be Massillon.

One of the greatest days in Mr. Wesley’s life was June 17, 1739. In the early morning, he preached to eight thousand people at Moorfields; in the afternoon he preached to a similar concourse on Kennington Common. At the first service, John Nelson, the stout-hearted stonemason, was converted; at the second, a soldier was led to the Saviour. It is interesting to compare their testimonies.

‘O that was a blessed morning to my soul,’ writes John Nelson. ‘As soon as Mr. Wesley stood up and stroked back his hair, he fixed his eye on me. It made my heart beat like the pendulum of a clock; and, when he began to speak, I thought his whole discourse was aimed directly at me!’

‘When Mr. Wesley began to speak,’ says the soldier, ‘his words made me tremble. I thought he spoke to no one but me; and I durst not look up, for I imagined that all the people were looking at me!’

On each occasion there were thousands present, yet Mr. Wesley made each hearer feel that preacher and listener were alone together. Every man felt as David felt when Nathan pointed at him and cried, Thou art the man! Every man felt as Louis the Fourteenth felt when listening to Massillon. It is the topmost pinnacle of the preacher’s art.

But why should I have troubled my head about Massillon or Wesley or anybody else? The supreme example still awaits our contemplation. In his exquisite little Life of Christ, Dr. Stalker shows that Jesus ever kept His divine eyes wide open for any opportunity of preaching to the best of all congregations, a congregation of one. He seized any such chance with avidity. Dr. Stalker declares, ‘Although he was worn out with fatigue, He talked to the woman at the well; He chatted with Zacchaeus under the sycamore tree; He received Nicodemus alone at night; He taught Mary in the home at Bethany. Brief as the gospels are, they contain nineteen records of such personal interviews.’ As an evangelist, as in every other respect, He is the model.

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