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.
Next thing you know you’ll be telling us not to count converts or baptisms, How will we know if our church is being effective if we are not getting an appropriate number of responses to alter calls, conversions, and baptisms.
But Seriously, Tim, I completely agree with you on this one. I grew up in southern baptist churches where the members, particularly the younger members, would get saved multiple times, were constantly redidicating their lives, and even were being baptised multiple times just to make sure they had done it correctly. This never lead to more confidence, only to more doubt.
My favorite line here is “‘a properly conducted church meeting will have an evangelistic effect upon an unbeliever, should one come in.”
This is so true, when we really are living out Christ’s life as part of His body, people will see it, and want to be part of it. Thank for this post.
Men of Praise Motorcycle Ministry
Good one! Yet another example of what you demonstrated in your two previous posts about Fred. It all comes back to our view of God, doesn’t it. Not what we say we believe, but what our actions actually demonstrate about our belief. We can preach unconditional grace, but our actions continue to speak not of a loving God pursuing us with His redemption, but of a fierce God that we must appease by our right action i.e. walking an aisle.
I especially appreciate the idea of treating others from the assumption that they are believers rather than not. “Treat the assembled Body as the Body, rather than challenging each person to doubt his standing in the Body.” This adds a certain added respect as we tend to go into interections as equals and not just trying to “evangelize”. This can help us to open our ears and work on building a relationship with those around us rather than focusing on our agenda. Again this is a tough concept in a world that thrives on observable and measurable proofs that we are successfully sharing the gospel with people and lives are being changed. This is the mindset that is difficult to change, but until it does our actions and words will not match.
Thank you, sir. The question of how we measure effectiveness is an important one. Granted that we need to scrap the old scorecard, we also need to replace it with a new one. We need to be thankful and celebrate the hallmarks of successful ministry — Paul certainly did (see the “I thank my God for…” sections of his epistles).
Thank you for your kind words. Yes, addressing that mismatch is one of today’s crying needs. Often the questionable practices were never subjected to any sort of theological analysis to start with. They were adopted unthinkingly because they seemed to work. (By which, of course, we mean that they generated nickles and noses, and suppressed scandalous living.) We need to go back and do the spadework to make sure we’re not inadvertently sending mixed messages. (As we do when we preach salvation by grace, and then divide fellowship over miniscule differences in COSF, for example.)
Boy could I write a volume of books on this one! Very good bro. Tim. How many thousands of services have I endured with this as its obvious purpose, treat everyone present as an evangelistic case, & seek to fill the “altar” with those now anxious about their standing with God. And if one does not “respond” then it may be their last chance & they will go out to be struck by a Mack truck in front of the church as a warning to other hard-hearted lost church members. Something has recently crossed my mind as a possibility that may contribute to this mess. It could be that so many churches are now “seeker-friendly” & want to make the curch service feel so much like where the seekers live 24/7 that it is anything BUT church, & sure enough a mixed multitude comes to see what is going on, & of course the message then becomes even more convoluted to “reach” them. I’m just thinking out loud. But I really appreciate your proposed solutions, especially in treating the church AS the church, & if perchance one is lost, then no brow-beating is necessary to “win” him/her, the Holy Spirit is perfectly capable. I could write pages & pages more, but I’ll stop here. Thank you again & God Bless you.
Very thought-provoking and insightful article! I have attended churchs where practically every service ends in a Billy Graham style altar call, and I agree that it tends to confuse the gospel. In the Old Testament, Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness and told those Israelites who had been bitten by the serpents to simply look and live! In John chapter 3,Jesus uses
the incident to illustrate how to be “born again”. The unsaved don’t have to drag themselves anywhere to receive eternal life, they simply have to look to Christ crucified. Look and live!
To use the language John uses in the Gospel of John, look to “the Son of Man…lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:14-15, NKJV).