How should we do an invitation? How should we bring an evangelistic service to a close? How do we establish an evangelistic ministry in the life of the church? I believe that these are vital questions for every pastor and church member to consider. Dr. Dever once said “False conversions are the suicide of the local church.” I do believe that answering these questions is a matter of life and death. If the local church is a visible witness of the gospel to a dark and dying world, then the glory of God is at stake. For this reason, I will give at least three dangers of reducing the invitation to what is commonly called an “altar call,” and then I will explain why I think there is a better way to establish an evangelistic ministry in the life of the church.
The first danger with reducing the invitation to an altar call is that it often replaces repentance and faith in Christ with the act of “coming forward.” I have had countless conversations with Christians about their testimony who equate the moment they became a Christian with “I walked the aisle and accepted Jesus.” Certainly, God has used this form of evangelism to save many souls, but in my opinion the overall damage has been more severe. The language used by many Christians alone should be enough to frighten us. Rather than hearing biblical language such as “When I repented of my sin, and trusted in Christ”, we hear language used that is nowhere in the bible to describe conversion. The evidence of the damage can be seen most clearly in the membership rolls of the church. Too often the gospel is not presented clearly, lost people are told to walk the aisle, and instant membership is given. We hear of the sad statistics of churches with 500 plus members on their rolls and with barely over one hundred people attending Sunday morning worship. I believe there are exceptions; there are pastors who preach the gospel faithfully and offer an altar call. Sadly, I think too often that is a rare exception in regards to this kind of invitation.
The second danger of reducing the invitation to an altar call is that it can give false assurance to the unregenerate. Too often people find their assurance in the moment that they walked an aisle, rather than faith in Christ and the ongoing repentance that characterizes a genuine believer. Rather than people heeding the call of 2 Corinthians 13:5 “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith.” Instead, people look back to that one time they responded to the preacher in coming forward. The message is not Matthew 3:8 “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance,” but instead “Did you write down the date in your bible when you walked the aisle?” Often, it seems that the altar call undermines the need for personal holiness. In the gospel, Christ makes us holy, but the evidence of this reality is that his people will be marked by holiness. A false convert cares little about Hebrews 12:4, and I fear reducing the invitation in this way is to welcome confusion and false assurance regarding one’s salvation.
The third danger in reducing the invitation to an altar call is that it makes salvation look like a man centered effort. I once heard a preacher say, “Salvation is not a moving of the feet, but a turning of one’s heart.” When our church made the decision to no longer perform an altar call at the end of the service, there was some initial push back. But, the arguments seemed to imply that God could only save people in the preaching if we have them come forward at the end. If people don’t come forward, then it is concluded that the gospel didn’t save anyone. If this were true, then it would be easy to assume that our preaching wasn’t successful. I believe we were not meant to endure this sort of pressure, knowing our role from God in evangelism is vital. I believe that because of the misunderstanding of these roles is why many manipulate the whole system to make the altar call appear more effective than it actually was. Salvation is a work of the Lord, and the Holy Spirit is shooting one hundred percent from the floor. We should faithfully preach, persuade, and plead with the gospel. The Apostle Paul makes this clear when he says in 2 Corinthians 5:11 “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others.” We should preach this way from the scriptures, trusting the Lord to move hearts, rather than us trying to move feet.
So what is the alternative? How should we do an invitation? We may sprinkle the gospel on the end of our sermons, but this is still less than ideal. I agree with the answer Dr. Allen gives on this matter when he says “A better way—and, I believe, a more biblical way—is for the sermon to be an invitation.” If the bible is about Jesus, then our job is to show how the text looks forward and points to his person and work. Throughout the sermon, we should be pleading and persuading men and women to put down their idols and joyfully submit under the Lordship of the savior. When we preach this way, people are confronted with their sin from the beginning to the end. Furthermore, in a church where a healthy gospel centered culture exists an unbeliever will have heard the good news in more than just our preaching. This leads to the answer of the question being considered, how do we establish an evangelistic ministry in the life of the church? And how do we bring an evangelistic service to a close?
First, to have a healthy evangelistic ministry we must keep the gospel crystal clear in every area of the church. We want to lead with the gospel in child care, Sunday school, community groups, order of worship, the songs we sing, and through the preaching of the word. By making the gospel central in the life of the church, we aim to create a gospel fluent body of believers. And at the same time, we want lost people to leave our church having heard the gospel multiple times. We want to evaluate as a church everything we do in order to be gospel centered. If we start to assume the gospel, it won’t be long before it fades to the background, and we loose it altogether. In having a healthy evangelistic ministry, we must keep the gospel central for not only the unbeliever; but the believer as well.
Lastly, we should close with some sort of follow up. I agree with Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and his way of concluding a service when he says, “I tell them that I am ready to see them at the end of the service or at any other time. Indeed I believe that the minister should always make an announcement in some shape or form that he is available to talk to anybody who wants to talk to him about their soul and its eternal destiny.” I believe these matters to be extremely important to consider. Every pastor and church member should think through these topics carefully. We want to evaluate every area of the church on how we conduct ourselves with the question “Is this biblical?”, rather than “Does it work?”, because the reputation and glory of God is at stake in our churches.
Steven Leatherbury is the Director of Gospel Community Groups for Liberty Baptist Church in Liberty, Missouri and is working toward the Master of Divinity at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Stephanie and they have four children. You can check out Steven’s blog here.