Some pastors are skilled at giving an evangelistic invitation. They spend time thinking of ways to issue an invitation that will be different and will entice the lost in the congregation to respond. Other pastors seem to tack the invitation on to the end of the message. You can almost guess what they will say,
“perhaps you are here this morning, and you need to accept Jesus as your personal savior … or maybe you need to rededicate your life to Christ … or you need to join this church; whatever your need, the church doors are open and we invite you to come.”
One problem with such an approach is the evangelistic invitation becomes blended into the mix with at least two other familiar ingredients: rededication and church membership. But should all three appeals be issued the same way? Does it appear by the way the invitation is given that all three categories stand on equal ground? Certainly they are different appeals. But pastors tend to place them together in a menu of choices that leaves the hearer somewhat unsure what to do. And most people will not walk to the front of the church to ask for clarification.
What happens in a congregation at the invitation when the hearers can already guess what the minister is about to say? Most church members can recite almost verbatim what is going to be said by way of the appeal. Eugene Lowry, of Saint Paul School of Theology, says that when a congregation can predict what you are about to say, they will tune out. For them the sermon is over.1 This also applies during the invitation time. Many will tune out. While they reach for their hymnals, their coats, hats, and purses, they may make assumptions that are not true about their spiritual condition and about what they heard in the sermon.
Most pastors have struggled with the need to be more creative in issuing an evangelistic invitation. The whole process of making a decision is deductive. Broad issues are addressed in the sermon but the process can narrow quickly at the invitation time with a specific response called for, such as a decision for salvation. The problem is that some people are dealing not only with the facts in the sermon, but a host of other personal needs that are also competing for attention during the invitation.
Recently, I heard a pastor say that he knew there were people in the audience who needed to make a decision for Christ but they just wouldn’t respond no matter how lovingly he gave the invitation. He was frustrated. He could not see how lost persons could turn a deaf ear to what he had said in the sermon about their need for Christ.
Pastors sometimes assume that when a person makes a decision and her name is recorded on the decision card, she has understood all she needs and has made a correct decision. This is especially problematic in churches that have done away with an educational or discipleship program. It used to be that people learned about their faith in such training, and they learned not only the language of churches but what that language meant. The secular person who comes to church today has little understanding of the language of Zion.
Not long ago I heard a teenager nervously trying to give her testimony before the church. She came from a background of little faith and had become a Christian only recently. Her testimony betrayed the fact that she was still learning what it all meant. She told the church, “Last year I got saved. This past year I rededicated my life. Next year I wonder what I will do.” I could not help but wonder also. Further, I could not help but wonder what kind of experience she had had and what the church had done to nurture her decision.
There may be some problems underneath the whole process of issuing an invitation in a way that asks people to make a decision based entirely upon a deductive approach to the options that are given to them.
First, church language may be a hindrance to what we want to communicate. Language that asks people to “join the church” or “give their lives to Jesus” can confuse some in the audience, especially the person who comes from a secular background. This person, as George Hunter reminds us, is “essentially ignorant of basic Christianity.”2 He may know a little about the teachings of Jesus but is essentially ignorant about Christian matters.
Hunter continues by quoting Donald Soper, saying that secularization has “produced a situation in which those to whom we preach are not in any suitable condition to receive what we have to say.”3 We speak thinking they are always ready to hear.
Pastors routinely speak in the pulpit about receiving Jesus or giving lives to Jesus, assuming that people understand exactly what that means. Most evangelistic appeals that rely entirely upon pulpit proclamation are approached this way. The facts of how to be saved are stated broadly during the message, and sometimes again briefly at the invitation time. It is then assumed that people can deal with the facts in terms of their lives and their individual needs for Jesus — that they can make proper application.
A second issue has to do with assumptions made by the congregation. Sometimes congregations understand the invitation to be for people who need to respond in one of only three areas: conversion, re-commitment, or church membership. So, they watch to see who is going to respond rather than taking seriously the ministry of intercession for the lost who may be there. How many people are praying during the invitation? How much of a distraction is the hymn of invitation to the intercessory prayers of Christians who pray for non-Christians in the audience?
A third issue may involve the power of what we do not say. Most invitations are intended for those we believe to be in need of what we are offering. We offer people an evangelistic invitation and ask them to receive Jesus as Savior. It is possible in this kind of appeal for a person to entertain various positive images that may confuse the issue. They may remember, for example, when they felt particularly religious on an occasion. This they may interpret to mean they have met the requirements we espouse when we invite them to receive Jesus into their hearts. Secular people in the United States are quite religious, so they may remember walking down an aisle, watching a religious television program, or having some other experience that they equate with salvation. When we offer people a chance to respond, it is possible for some to say, “I have no need” or “I have already done that,” and then dismiss the appeal.
Is there a way to approach the invitation from a different angle? Can a more inductive approach be used? Recently, I gave people an opportunity to accept Christ, to re-commit their lives to Christ’s calling, or to join a church. But I conducted the invitation in a slightly different manner.
When I finished my sermon, I asked the congregation to bow in prayer. I led them in a time of focused prayer thanking God. Rather than offering them something I felt they needed, I approached the invitation on the basis of thanking God for what they had. Below is the prayer I led them to pray.
“This morning, take a few moments to thank God for your salvation. Remember that time when you asked Jesus Christ to be your personal savior. A time when you repented of your sins and asked Christ to forgive you of all your wrongs. A time when you told Him that you were ready to let Him be Lord in your life. And a time when you followed Jesus in believer’s baptism. Remember, and thank Him.
“Thank Him for that person who shared Christ with you. Thank Him for the one who witnessed to you about Jesus. The person who took you under his or her care and ministered to you so that you said yes to Jesus. Remember, and thank the Lord.
“Thank Him for the time that you joined a local church, like this one. Remember what it was like to put your life in a place of service to Jesus. Remember how you offered your time, talents, money, and loyalty to a local church like this one. Remember, and thank Him.
“Thank the Father for the times you have witnessed and ministered to others. When you have spoken a word for Christ to an unsaved person. And when you have cared for one who was in need. Remember, and thank Him.
“Now, for some of you here this morning, you know that you cannot pray a prayer of thanks to God. You have searched your mind and you cannot remember a time when you personally asked Jesus to become Lord of your life. Or you cannot remember when or if you moved your church membership from your home church to this city where you now live. Perhaps there are others here who cannot remember ever telling anyone about Jesus or ministering to another in some way.
“Lord, help us to think on these things. And help us to decide what our needs are and in what way we need to respond to what you are telling us as we think together this morning. We ask you to help us remember and help us to respond to your calling, in Jesus’ name. Amen.”
The interesting thing about this kind of invitation is that some in the congregation were not able to thank God for salvation and they realized that they had never been saved. Some came seeking answers to questions that were raised in their minds. Some had remembered they had never moved their church membership and they came. As they reflected over the prayer several were reminded of specific needs and they came.
Sometimes when the invitation is generally focused, too much room is left for people to assume all kinds of responses. But when the congregation is asked to consider whether specific events or actions have occurred in their lives, what they have not done may speak louder than what they might have assumed was done sometime in the past.
Giving an evangelistic invitation may take on a new meaning for people if we will sometimes move away from an “if you need” appeal to a “thank God when you remember” appeal. Paul, the apostle, told the Philippians, “I thank my God in every remembrance of you …” When we remember events in our lives, those things we have omitted or overlooked can surface and convict us quickly.
Obviously, this kind of invitation can grow stale if you use it too often. Remember, variety is the spice of life. Try to find creative ways to help people make a decision for Christ. Experiment. But next time why not try to ask your congregation to remember?
1. Notes taken at the Mullin Lectures, Southern Baptist Seminary, 1992.
2. George Hunter, How to Reach Secular People (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992), p. 44.
3. Hunter, p. 45.

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