From the cradle Johnny was raised to love Jesus and trust Him, and he does. But every Sunday, Johnny hears the same words at the end of the church service: “Maybe you’re with us today and you’ve heard all these things before. You know all the facts about Jesus. But you’ve never truly trusted in Jesus’ promise that He saves you, that He gives you eternal life. I’d like to invite you to do that now. You don’t have to raise your hand or walk an aisle; this is not about works. It’s just about you trusting Christ as your Savior, today.”
Johnny is beginning to wonder if maybe, the preacher is talking to him. He thought he believed in Jesus, but how can he be sure? Maybe he just knows a lot of facts about Jesus. Thus begins a long, disheartening spiritual journey in which, for the next decade or two, Johnny struggles with doubts about his salvation, even though his church teaches a clear gospel.
Or does it?
We are all familiar with the idea that a man may say one thing, and do another; a man may loudly proclaim the virtues of honesty and then cheat on his taxes, for example. We would quite appropriately say that this man proclaims a mixed message: honesty with his mouth, and theft with his life.
I want to suggest to you that Johnny’s church unwittingly does the same thing. Their doctrinal statement is clear and accurate on the gospel in every respect. The words uttered from the pulpit, including the contents of the invitation itself, are doctrinally correct. However, the church’s practice of issuing an invitation to Johnny at the close of every church service proclaims a different message: a message of doubt, not faith; of anxiety, not assurance. A message that is not good news.
How is this possible? How could something so clearly and obviously Christian as an invitation actually work against the gospel it is supposed to be proclaiming? To answer that question, we need to backtrack two centuries and look at the history of the practice.
The invitation as commonly practiced is not, in fact, biblical at all. There are many great instances of evangelistic preaching in the Scriptures, but not a single instance of an evangelistic invitation being offered in a meeting of the church. In the New Testament, evangelistic preaching takes place in the highways and byways, the markets, the philosophy department of the University of Athens—in short, in places where unbelievers congregate. A meeting of the church is another matter altogether.
How, then, did we come to the point where an invitation is a normal part of a church service? The answer lies not with the apostles but with the revivalists of the Second Great Awakening, who believed that revival was not primarily a move of the Spirit, but could be orchestrated by men through a series of techniques. Chief among these techniques was the “anxious bench,” a place at the front where those anxious about the state of their souls could come and be prayed for by the assembled people. The preacher would call those who wanted prayer to come down and sit on the anxious bench. This practice rapidly transformed into a Billy Graham style ‘altar call,’ and it made its way from tent meetings to churches, where it became an institution. To this day, many churches will close every service with an invitation to come forward and receive Christ as savior—and woe betide the minister who fails in his duty to deliver a stirring invitation.
The practice poses an obvious problem: “Salvation is completely free. You don’t have to do anything but believe Jesus. If you’d like to do that now, get up out of your seat in front of everybody and walk down here.” Concerned that the practice confused people by asking them to perform a work (walk the aisle) in order to receive a free gift, many churches have done away with the altar call in its common form. However, a great number of churches still close every service with an invitation.
Is this a biblical thing to do? In one sense, clearly not. There is no biblical precedent for the practice as a regular part of church. But someone will say, “Hey, there’s no biblical precedent for driving your car to church, either. Doesn’t make it a bad idea.” That is, there’s perhaps no biblical precedent for ending the service with an invitation, but is it actually contrary to biblical principles?
Yes. It violates practically everything we know about the church meeting.
To see this more clearly, take a close look at what Hebrews teaches us about church:
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.
When the church assembles in worship, Hebrews tells us, the roof opens, the walls grow thin, and we enter into the Holy of Holies of the heavenly tabernacle. There we serve before the throne of grace as the Lord’s priests, offering our sacrifices of praise to Him and hearing His word to us. How could an invitation fit into this? Can you imagine trying to evangelize priests in the Holy of Holies?
Of course not. The invitation clashes terribly with the priestly aspects of our worship.
Priestly service, however, is not the only purpose of the church meeting. As Paul makes very clear in 1 Corinthians 12-14, God also intends the church meeting to edify the Body of Christ. A properly conducted church meeting will have an evangelistic effect upon an unbeliever, should one come in (14:23-25). But this is not because the service is bent toward winning him; rather, it is because the service is conducted according to Paul’s instructions, which is to say, it is aimed at edifying the Body.
It does not edify the Body to bend every church service toward an invitation where the preacher attempts to bring about some sort of crisis experience. That is not how the Christian life is supposed to work. God calls us to a life of victorious obedience through His Spirit, not to a life of constant crisis experiences where we’re forever seeking to get saved again or rededicate the rededication of our rededication to the Lord, or whatever.
So to return to Johnny, the young man at the beginning of this article, can you see the problem? He is coming to church to worship God as a priest and to edify and be edified as a member of the body. Instead reinforcing those things, the invitation asks him every single week whether he ought to doubt the validity of his service and his membership in the body of Christ. This is neither edifying nor worshipful, nor does Scripture give the slightest reason to do it in a church service.
Of course many churches have ended every service with an invitation for decades, and the prospect of reform poses a serious practical problem: what to do instead? How should the service end?
Here are two suggestions: First, how about the Lord’s Table? Instead of trying to induce a crisis of faith every week, and inevitably bending every sermon to that end, what if every service closed with Christ inviting His people to fellowship at His Table, and every sermon bent to that end? Treat the assembled Body as the Body, rather than challenging each person to doubt his standing in the Body.
For churches that observe the Lord’s Table infrequently and aren’t ready to make the change to weekly communion, here’s another possibility that still ends the service on an evangelistic note. Rather than treating the congregants like potential unbelievers, treat them like believers. Invite them to stand, read the Great Commission, and dismiss them to go out and fulfill it. A church could even do both: have communion and then dismiss with the Great Commission.
Of course these are just two of many possibilities, and each church will have to choose a course of action that is right for its own circumstances. But in doing that, let’s be obedient to the Scriptures’ teaching about church, and end the service in a way that doesn’t treat the assembled believers as potential unbelievers, but rather as what they are: the family of God, the Body of Christ, a holy priesthood gathered for their good and God’s glory. That is good news.