on invitations

If you’ve been in the conservative evangelical/fundamentalist world for any length of time, you’ve experienced a variety of invitations in the services you have attended. In some services, the preacher seems to connect with heaven and send a message direct from God to your sinful heart and you bow in confession and respond as the preacher calls for repentance at the end of the service. Some services in particular speak directly to the heart of the lost and are used by God to bring about numerous conversions in response. On other occasions, the preacher may not have seemed so connected with the divine, yet an invitation is given anyhow – and a response ensues, often in large numbers, but it somehow seems to lack the intense spirituality of those other occasions. It seems… routine… manufactured… indefinite… inconclusive… and rarely produces change that lasts.

What is the difference?

Before I explain what I think the difference is, let me make some positive remarks about invitations. I am not against invitations. I think the Lord invited people to respond to his preaching, who are we to refrain? (Mt 11.28-30; Mk 8.34-38; Jn 7.37-38) I think that specific invitations to clear gospel messages are entirely legitimate. If a message is preached on the gift of grace in salvation, the convicting power of the Spirit is accompanying the preaching of sin, judgement and righteousness, then by all means call sinners to respond in faith. Call them to believe, call them to repent, call them to surrender. If a message on the call of God to Christian service is preached, call on the hearers to respond. There is nothing at all wrong with an invitation that is specific and to urge a spiritual response to a spiritual invitation.

But that is just it – so many invitations are vague, unclear, manipulative, dependent on the crowd management of the evangelist, psychologically damaging and entirely unscriptural. Let me give you an example of what I mean. Not long ago, I sat in a service where the speaker was passionate about something. I am not sure exactly what it was, it certainly wasn’t found in his text. But he did make it clear that times were bad and we need people to do something. At the end of the service, the invitation went along these lines: “If you know that you need to be more committed to the Lord and stand for him, raise your hand.” Apparently a lot of hands were raised. Next the preacher said (after a bit more exhorting), “All of you who raised your hands, would you stand up and show you are committed to doing something for the Lord.” Well, a lot of those folks stood up. I don’t know if they all did, but many did. Next (you knew it was coming, didn’t you?) he said, “Now I want all of you standing to come forward and tell the Lord you mean business.” … Or… words to that effect. [Please note: I am paraphrasing the statements, they are close to what was said, but not exact quotes.]

What do you think of that? Was anything really accomplished for the Lord? Well… maybe, who am I to judge? Which is the sophistry behind which manipulators hide. Sometimes serious spiritual decisions are made in such services.

But is it possible that spiritual harm is done by this kind of invitation?

Let’s face it, this kind of invitation is very manipulative. It depends on psychological methods to get people to move. First is the vague question that those who are halfway spiritual feel ashamed not to raise their hands. Next is the call to stand. What are you supposed to do? You just raised your hand. Was it a lie? “Well, no, I mean to serve the Lord, so, OK, I’ll stand. Standing is ok, this service will soon be over, won’t it?” So the spiritual guy who is being manipulated stands. Next comes the call to move, to come forward. What are you going to do? You can’t just stay standing while all those other guys go forward, can you? You could sit down, but everyone still seated beside you will know. What to do? You go forward.

And there you have it. The preacher has seen a “great moving of God” in his service and congratulates himself on a job well done.

Is it?

One of the problems we have had in our ministry is when we have special services with special music. On occasion we’ve had a fair number of visitors who have no real church background of any kind. I find that I often have to teach them not to applaud after the special music in these services. (I realize applause is an evangelical staple these days, but that’s another story…) What is wrong with applause? Applause is a group activity. It is highly psychological. One person starts clapping, it’s a call to everyone else to clap as well. It is not the same thing as an individual “Amen” coming from a sincerely moved heart (although that is also abused). It demands that all agree with me in giving attention to the performance or the performer. In our services, we are after praise for the Lord, an individual thing, a sincerely spiritual thing, not a group thing.

In the same way, these kinds of invitations depend on crowd psychology in order to manipulate responses. Is the response truly spiritual? Maybe in one or two cases. In all? Who can say? I suspect not.

What is wrong with giving an invitation like this: “If you understand tonight that you are a sinner and you can’t save yourself, would you respond in faith to the work of Christ on your behalf?” Or, “If you realize tonight that you have failed the Lord in [specific subject of sermon], would you bow your head and confess your sin to the Lord right now?” Or, “If you are willing to give your life to missionary service [or some other spiritual endeavor], would you raise your hand?” (Don’t make them stand!) You can give an altar call after specific invitations, I don’t have a problem with that. But must you? Will marching down to the altar really make that significant difference that some say it will? What we are really after are spiritual responses to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Let’s avoid manipulating a response and let folks make spiritual decisions without the public psychological display.

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Comments

  1. Well said. I think Chafer’s remarks on the dangers of manipulative invitations from his book “True Evangelism” touch on the very points you raised here.

    This is a relevant excerpt from “True Evangelism,” which highlights Chafer’s concerns about the abuse of the “invitation:”
    —————————-
    “A true decision must depend upon the action of the will of the individual as he is moved by his own clear vision of his place in the saving work of Christ, and that vision must be created by the Spirit. When this is accomplished, there will be little occasion to argue and plead, and methods which are calculated to force a decision will be found to be superfluous; and any method which is superfluous is usually resented by intelligent people.”

    “Such methods create a sense of unreality where there should be a growing reality. To send out workers to plead with individuals in a miscellaneous congregation is not only embarrassing to the people thus approached, but is, in the majority of cases, a service which hardens and repels. Forced decisions sometimes follow such appeals. These, it may be observed, are usually premature and unintelligent decisions; for in such methods there is no waiting for the conviction of the Spirit and no definite dependence upon His leading. On the other hand, the many who have resisted the personal appeal have been hardened or driven away.”

    “Public methods which embarrass any person or class of persons are not only useless but intrusive.
    There is little gained in inviting all Christians in a public gathering to stand, thus forcing all others into a conspicuous position, causing them annoyance and creating an occasion for prejudice. It is not strange that intelligent unsaved people avoid meetings where these methods are employed. By adopting such a programme the evangelist or pastor is positively hindering the very work of God he is attempting to do. Where the spectacular element in public soulwinning is eliminated there is little opportunity to count supposed results, and the test of conversion is taken wholly out of the sphere of profession and made to rest on the reality of a changed life afterwards.”

    “The sincere evangelist who fearlessly judges, before God, every method he employs—judging them
    as to their exact value or possible harm in their influence on immortal souls—will find that many methods are more a habit than a necessity in evangelism, or that they have been employed in an effort to produce visible results, rather than to create a means by which sin-burdened souls may find rest and peace through a personal and intelligent faith in Christ as Saviour.”

    (pgs. 30-32).
    —————————
    Good article!

    • Thanks for the Chafer quote. I haven’t read the book, so nice to have you add it to my article.

      Maranatha!
      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  2. Used on Sharper Iron here

    The check’s in the mail ( ;) )

  3. Mark Smith says:

    Don, you seem to be mainly addressing invitations to Christians to get them to do something or modify behavior. Is that correct?

    How do you handle invitations to salvation in a church service?

    • Hi Mark, thanks for the comment. I mention invitations for salvation briefly, but perhaps I can write a follow-up post that will be more specific.

      Maranatha!
      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  4. More Chafer. This is what Chafer says about how to do an invitation; I remember reading these words and having them strike deep within my soul (no hyperbole!). This is surely how a proper invitation ought to be done, that avoids all temptation for manipulation:
    ——————–
    “The real value of public methods will be secured and many evils avoided if, after explaining the way of life and during a season of silent prayer, the unsaved are simply asked to accept Christ by a conscious act of the will, directed in definite silent prayer to God. After such an appeal, an opportunity should be made for personal conversation with any who believe they have accepted Christ by faith, or any others who may have honest difficulties. In this conversation the individual’s exact understanding of the step can be ascertained and his faith strengthened. Such conversations can easily be secured in an after-meeting, or by offering some attractive literature suited to beginners in the Christian life. When it is clear that an intelligent decision has been made, confession of Christ, as a personal Saviour, should be urged along with the other duties and privileges of the new life,” (33).

  5. Good post, Don. I defended some kind of invitation as a circumstance of worship several years ago, here:

    http://jackhammer.wordpress.com/2011/01/31/the-altar-call-james-121-and-the-circumstances-of-worship/

  6. Excellent post! I think you give a balanced approach. Such manipulation of people by high-pressure evangelists and well meaning pastors has resulted in false professions and false hopes.

  7. Dena says:

    I have a question and It has been bothering me all day. Last night I attended a Night of Worship at my church. It was wonderful music for two hours. I was on cloud nine. At one point, I felt so overwhelm with the love of the lord. I went to the front and lift my hands to the Lord with such Praise for him. I was loving him. After the music end. The Lead of the Praise and Worship Team. Ask, everyone to come up front and wanted to share what was on her heart. It was just a few of us left. So we went up. Then she was saying she felt the Lord was telling her that someone was struggling with addictions, hurt and Sin. No one was doing anything. So she push, and push the subject, on how you need to ask for forgiveness. While the whole time she was staring at me. The good out of it, is someone started crying, and we ended up praying for her. After we prayed for the young Lady. He husband started speaking about sin, and telling his story about how the Lord has helped him. Then he proceeds with, He feels the Lord is speaking to him about someone in the room needs to be prayed over to confess. As he is looking at my husband and I. We are new to the church, and the church is Very Small. I can’t help but feel they were pointing me out. I have been a Christian and born again for ten years. I am not perfect. However, my relationship with the Lord is amazing. And, yes, I confess when needed. I also know, when you confess, the past is the past. I just need help to understand, if I was being bullied, or was the Lord trying to speak to me through them. I went from feeling so good and feeling so blessed to be a part of an amazing time of Worship to feeling uncomfortable. dena

    • Hi Dena

      I am sorry to hear your story. That sounds like the kind of manipulation I am talking about, although there may be other problems in that church as well. Sometimes small churches can be very clannish, any outsiders that come in must overcome suspicion before they become truly “one” with the group. Of course, that attitude can keep churches like that small as well. (I don’t know if that is the case in the situation you describe, it is just one possibility.)

      I would also disagree with a woman in leadership in a meeting like that, I hold to a strictly complementarian view of church leadership. That is, I believe that God designed men and women to fulfill specific roles in the home and in the church. When those roles are ignored, the Christians involved are disobeying the Scripture.

      Last, from what you say, I suspect that my music philosophy would be far more conservative than your experience, so I would also see that as a problem in the church (though you may not).

      I’ll pray for you today that the Lord will grant wisdom for you to make godly decisions about your church situation. By saying that, I am not trying to suggest any decision in particular, but if you continue to find the kind of pressure you describe here, you may need to seek the Lord about whether he would have you continue in that church. It’s not an easy decision and we are all prone to making mistakes, so we really need the Lord’s wisdom for it. As I said, then, I’ll join with you in prayer asking for wisdom about this situation.

      Maranatha!
      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

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