“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.
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 anti-communism. 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 few 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).
In churches where no one has “walked the aisle” in months, only the most courageous soul will be the first to do so. But where people are getting up and walking to the altar every service to kneel and pray, those making significant decisions find doing so much easier.
9. Pastors will want to have working sessions with everyone involved in the service in order to plan the invitation, know how to deal with responders, handle interruptions and understand the pastor’s hand signals. Hand signals? Yes, or some other nonverbal sign he may send to others involved, directing one minister to someone he might have overlooked, telling the worship leader he’s ready to end the hymn, that sort of thing.
10. Pastors do well to keep reminding themselves that they are dealing with the fine china of people’s eternal lives here. This is not about your sermon, not an affirmation of your ministry and nothing that happens here is about you. It’s about people coming to Jesus Christ and living for Him. Whatever you can do to assist them in this, you will want to do it and do it well.
A couple of dangers about public invitations:
1. Public altar calls can be abused by manipulative leaders. Shoppers know about impulse buying. Stores situate impulse-items near the checkout and the bread and milk in the back of the store.
I fear there are those who have come under the sway of a high-powered preacher and “gone forward” during the invitation and then regretted it the moment they walked outside into the light of day. We must guard against this.
Once, before I began pastoring, our church had an evangelist whose invitation consumed a good 15 minutes every night and consisted of the same sequence: “If you want the Lord in your life, raise your hand.” “If you raised your hand, look up at me.” “If you are looking up at me, stand to your feet.” “All of you who are standing, walk to the front.” (I guarantee you after a night or two of this, people learned not to raise their hands to this guy!)
2. There is not enough time during the typical altar call to deal with people sufficiently. That’s why churches should have trained counselors ready to help those who respond and in many cases to invite them into an adjoining room for an unhurried visit.
3. The minister must do nothing inappropriate as he transitions into the invitation. The most common mistake that I’ve noticed is telling a joke or delivering a humorous line that just occurred to him. He must learn to squelch that if he wants people to come to Christ.
All thoughts and eyes and words should be about this time of commitment. This is no time for the pastor to tell the custodian to turn down the thermostat, the youth minister to come to the front and assist him, or someone to see to the crying baby in the balcony. Tough it out, preacher. Lives hang in the balance.
I hope someone will find this helpful.