I grew up attending a Gospel Hall – the designated name for most Brethren Churches in Northern Ireland. Yesterday was the first time I have preached in a Gospel Hall for a while (I have spoken over the past couple of months in churches that may still be classed as Brethren or certainly have Brethren roots, but which don’t call themselves Gospel Halls).
A significant part of Brethren spirituality is reflected in the importance given to what other traditions would call the communion service. The Lord’s Supper is observed every Sunday morning. Traditionally it is an open service in the sense that no one ‘leads’ it; participation is open to everyone who is part of the fellowship, at least to every male, as most of the churches hold conservative views in relation to the involvement of women. Although they tend not to be charismatic (in the commonly understood sense of practicing all the gifts mentioned in the New Testament), they hold to a 1 Corinthians 14 style of meeting where someone can suggest a hymn, pray (with a clear focus on the work of the cross), or share a reflection on Scripture. The bread and wine are usually shared after about 45 minutes of this open worship, after which someone will bring some teaching. There are no titled ministers/pastors in the congregation, so the teaching part (as with the other parts) is open to someone who feels led to share.
This open participation is probably one of the strengths of Brethren churches, in that there are many opportunities for developing teachers, but may also be one of the weaknesses in that when the floor is open, it can invite the ungifted or those with an axe to grind.
Like a number of other Brethren churches, Carryduff Gospel Hall has made some changes in how they approach their Sunday morning teaching, attempting to bring more structure by inviting a designated speaker to bring the teaching for half an hour or so on a Sunday morning.
Hence my visit yesterday – the first of a double visit with them – when I spent some time talking about the scandal of grace from the story of the father in the “Prodigal Son” story in Luke 15.
Interestingly – and this is an example of the open participation working well – one of the local leaders had shared earlier in the service from the story of Zacchaeus (the diminutive tree-climbing ta collector): so a nice emphasis on tax collectors (of which there was a real live one in the congregation!).