“Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden” (Matthew 11:28).
“As though God were entreating you through us, we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (II Corinthians 5:20).
A pastor I once knew said Second Corinthians 5:20 changed forever how he extended an invitation following a sermon. “We beg you on behalf of Christ,” Paul said. As a result, the pastor said, he no longer gives unemotional and passive invitations, but pleads with people to come to Jesus.
In the wing of the Christian faith where I dwell and minister, when a pastor preaches, he expects people to respond, either publically at that moment or later in private. Or both.
A lot of good churches do not follow the sermons with invitations, however. It’s probably just a personal thing, but when I visit in a church where the sermon is followed with a hymn or a prayer and nothing else, I feel unsatisfied, like the salesman has spent the last half-hour selling us on his policy, then got up and left before asking if we would like to sign up.
My Mississippi church once had a Canadian pastor down for a revival meeting. I was young, and all I knew was holding to the typical pattern for our annual revivals, so we did everything the same way we did the following year with Adrian Rogers—great promotion, enthusiastic gospel singing and public invitations.
Later, the minister from Canada told someone (who passed it on to me) in his delicious accent, “I couldn’t believe it! They gave an altar call in every service!”
We did, but we may as well not have for all the response we had. Not all preachers and every sermon call for this kind of action inside the sanctuary.
There are times when not giving an invitation is the right thing to do, I’m sure. (In my case, those times are rare.) The only way to know for certain is to ask the Lord and obey the Spirit.
It is reported that Dwight L. Moody once preached, then sent his flock home without an invitation, telling them to think about these things and come back next Sunday. However, the Great Chicago Fire occurred that week, taking many lives and destroying hundreds of homes and scattering his congregation so completely they would never be reassembled. Mr. Moody reportedly regretted for the rest of his life not extending that invitation.
I surmise that this same fear is what keeps most of us preachers giving invitations. We worry about “what if I don’t and someone is there who needs to be saved.”
Entire books have been written on this subject and we cannot begin to do it justice here, but I have a few suggestions on public invitations, lessons learned over decades of ministry …
1) Do not surprise the congregation. Tell them early in the sermon and again in the middle that you will be asking them to do whatever it is you’re going to be asking them.
In his great crusades, at the front of Billy Graham’s sermons, he would often say, “Now, tonight I am going to be asking you to commit your lives to Jesus Christ,” or something similar.
When I preached in a British church two Sundays in a row without any response to my invitation, a deacon explained later, “Our pastor gives the altar call only on Sundays when we have communion, so we expect it then. You surprised us when you did it. Had you announced when you began that we would be having a public invitation, the congregation would have been prepared.”
2) Make it appropriate to the message. Your plea, the wording of your invitation, the music, the manner and the length, everything should work together harmoniously.