R.J. George was a predecessor of mine by more than a century, having served as a pastoral theology professor at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary from 1892 until the time of his death in 1911. George wrote a three-volume set entitled Lectures in Pastoral Theology that contains a treasure trove of pastoral advice. In his second volume, entitled Pastors and People, he explains with wisdom, care, quaintness, and even some humor how a pastor should go about encouraging people to come to a prayer meeting (pages 32-34). I have reproduced this short section below with some editing.
If interested, you can view these volumes online (Vol. I, Vol. II, Vol. III). George goes on after this section to explain how to conduct a prayer meeting, the exercises that should take place within the meeting, and the helps then the hindrances to a prayer meeting, That the church would have such precise care and practice today!
1) Arrange carefully as to the place of meeting.
a. If possible have all meet together. It is always heartsome to have a good-sized meeting. It promotes a warmth, and sociability, and congregational spirit.
b. If necessary, district the congregation. You must study the convenience of the people. They cannot be expected to come regularly from long distances. Even when the main body of the people meet at the church, it may be well to arrange cottage prayer-meetings in the outskirts, both in city and in country congregations.
c. If there are several prayer-meetings, let them unite on special occasions. For instance, this would be well once or twice during the week of prayer, and in the meetings preparatory to the communion.
2. Aim to have the place of meeting attractive.
Such provisions for the comfort of the worshipers are means of grace. People dislike to leave their comfortable homes and cushioned furniture and walk for miles to do penance sitting on a hard board, shivering with cold or stupefied and sickened with foul air.
Dr. Wilcox says: “Do your best to make it a cheerful, social room. Give it the air of a home-parlor. Have a carpet or drugget on the floor.” Especially, whatever else is lacking, let the room be amply lighted. A dingy place is enough to take the life out of any meeting that ever was gathered.
3. Reserve a time for the prayer-meeting, free from all other meetings.
It may be weekly, or semi-monthly, or monthly, according to circumstances: but let it have a stated time, and guard it from interference. This is of great importance in the cities. In and about Pittsburgh, it is well understood that Wednesday evening is prayer-meeting evening. Pastors should agree together that no meetings will be arranged which might draw away members from each other’s prayer-meetings. Determinedly resist any interference with prayer-meeting night by any lecture course committee or by any proposed form of social entertainment…The modern device of arranging weddings for prayer-meeting evening is not from above. My advice is: Exalt the importance of the prayer-meeting in the minds of your people by refusing to yield its place to any ordinary occurrence.
4. Give frequent and kindly invitation to attend the prayer-meeting.
Do not scold. It does no good. Invite and persuade. Let your invitations be marked by seriousness and solicitude. “Come early and get a back seat” is a modern pulpit witticism which is in very bad taste. It vitiates the appeal to the conscience by trifling with sacred things. It is not the speech of moral earnestness.
5. Refer occasionally in your discourses to the good things offered and enjoyed at prayer-meeting.
This doubles the appreciation of those who have enjoyed the good things; and it may awaken a sense of loss in the minds of the absentees. You need not always tell what the good things were. “The secret of the Lord is with the righteous.”
6. Make the meetings interesting.
After all is said, this is the only way to have good attendance. A few saintly souls will, from a sense of duty or by sheer force of habit, meet from week to week, and “go through” as they used to say in the good, old-time “Society”; but the ordinary modern Christian will not do that. The prayer-meeting cannot live on its good name. It must have worth.
On one occasion, in our Synod, a minister gave a very lengthy and pithless address on how to get the masses to attend church. When, at last, he gradually settled into his seat, another brother sprang up, and, in a quick, alert tone, said: “There are just three things to be done to bring the masses to church: 1) Invite them to come; 2) Welcome them when they do come; 3) Give them something for coming,” and down he sat. It was as if someone had opened a door and let in a blast. It is a good rule for securing attendance at prayer-meeting.
7. Encourage sociability at the close of the meeting.
A general handshaking, with especial attention to strangers, is a good thing. Yet a word of caution may be necessary just at this point. If a meeting has been peculiarly solemn and impressive, it is proper for the pastor to ask the people not to dissipate its good impressions by frivolous conversation, but to cherish them by speaking to each other of spiritual things.