3) Plan in advance how you will go about it. Give thought to the transition from the sermon, the exact wording you will use and the precise nature of what you are asking people to do. (I recall hearing of a visiting preacher who spoke night after night on patriotism and anticommunism. After several messages, he complained to the pastor, “I don’t understand why we’re not getting any response.” The host minister said, “What do you want them to do—join the FBI?”
4) Work with the worship leader/song leader and/or musicians to accomplish the transition smoothly and effectively. If the minister ends the sermon with a prayer, then asks the congregation to stand and encourages people to come to the altar, the music should begin seamlessly, easily, naturally, without a long pause, without abruptness, without anything to disrupt the mood.
In most cases, I prefer to have the congregation standing with heads bowed in prayer. Any singing is done by the choir or ensemble or the worship leader. Often, we have no singing, just the instruments playing. I want the people focused on the Lord and this invitation, not worrying about the next line to sing.
5) When you use a hymn, it should be familiar to the people. Just as the pastor does not want to be introducing new ideas as he makes his plea, the words of the hymn should not be unfamiliar and draw the minds of the people away from the business at hand, which is responding to God’s call.
6) Even though the plea is specific to whatever you preached that day, it should always include a general invitation for people to come to the altar area for their own personal prayer. They do not have to speak to a minister for this. Pastors should make sure the front of the sanctuary has comfortable places for people to kneel and pray, that church furniture is not blocking the way, and that there is adequate space for them to kneel without being crowded. My church has kneeling cushions across the front of the church where people can kneel and pray. I love that it makes a statement: “We expect people to pray in this church!”
7) The length of the invitation depends. Two primary considerations here are the congregation’s endurance/patience and the people praying at the altar. If this period goes on too long, people get tired. If that happens only occasionally, the congregation is accepting, particularly if people are responding. But if the pastor belabors the invitation Sunday after Sunday with little results, most congregations come to resent it. Likewise, when people come to the altar to pray, they should not be rushed, but encouraged to stay as long as they wish.
8) I encourage church leaders to make coming to the altar and praying a regular practice. It’s good for them, of course, but this also encourages others to come. Jesus nailed this for us: “My house shall be called a house of prayer” (Luke 19:46).