The evangelistic invitation - is it Biblical?
I grew up in Churches where giving an ‘invitation’ (also sometimes referred to as an ‘altar call’) was quite a common feature. To be frank, I think this is because of the huge influence of Billy Graham who famously closed his crusades with a mass call to step forward for Christ. And people did; in their thousands, usually to the hushed tones of the well rehearsed choir.
I was surprised one day when a friend pointed out that there is no such thing in the Bible and in the years since I have often pondered this as I have witnessed the apparent success of ‘invitations’ to receive Christ.
Now, I wonder if we haven’t in fact confused the invitation to come forward with the actual process of conversion, as though there is no conversion unless people get up out of their seats.
I have occasionally asked people who are a part of this sort of evangelism about their thoughts on the matter and the feedback is interesting. Whenever the question is posed about why the invitation is necessary at all, the response usually has something to do with counseling and follow up.
In the case of the ’59 Billy Graham Crusade (and subsequent attempts to repeat it) it was deemed necessary because of the large numbers of totally un-churched, non-Christians attending. In this case, I think we all have to agree a method was needed to round up these new converts and get them into a fellowship. It just didn’t seem right to preach the gospel and then walk away, leaving them to sink or swim.
But as I think about it, I often wonder if the kingdom of God would be any worse off if Billy did exactly that. If the gospel really is “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16), then surely God has his own way of directing the paths of these new born Christians. He would not have just left them to their own devices to wander back into the world.
Come to think of it, many people who did go forward under the direction of Billy Graham or a multitude of others since, did that very thing. They quietly slipped back into the world, just as before. Not all of them; perhaps not even the majority, but some did.
So the invitation is no guarantee of conversion, but it’s still a good way to engage seekers and get some serious pastoral follow up happening isn’t it?
To describe something as “biblical” usually means it is in accordance with Scripture. In practise, what that often means is that an example of it, or some instruction on it can be found in the Bible. The corollary is that if it cannot be found in the Bible, then it is “unbiblical” and should be abandoned asap.
But I question that logic. Many of the things we do in Church cannot be found in the Bible: we don’t find anything remotely resembling our music teams, nor do we find bulletins or even the particular way we do communion. Surely the Lord’s supper was originally a meal, not a piece of bread 1cm x 1cm?
We seem to accept all these things on a Sunday, so why not the “appeal” to come forward? It may not be found in the Bible, but does that mean it should not be done at all as though it is anti-biblical?
Dr Martin Lloyd-Jones was once asked about it at a ministers’ conference in America. His answer was lengthy, but basically acknowledged the whole business was an American phenomenon, started by Charles G. Finney in the 1820’s and then exported to the rest of the world.
One reason is that there is no evidence that this was done in New Testament times, because then they trusted to the power of the Spirit. Peter preaching on the Day of Pentecost under the power of the Spirit, for instance, had no need to call people forward in decision because, as you remember, the people were so moved and affected by the power of the Word and Spirit that they actually interrupted the preacher, crying out, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" That has been the traditional Reformed attitude towards this particular matter. The moment you begin to introduce this other element, you are bringing a psychological element. The invitation should be in the message. We believe the Spirit applies the message, so we trust in the power of the Spirit. I personally agree with what has been said in the question. I have never called people forward at the end for this reason; there is a grave danger of people coming forward before they are ready to come forward. We do believe in the work of the Spirit, that He convicts and converts, and He will do His work. There is a danger in bringing people to a "birth," as it were, before they are ready for it. 1
So you can see the problem. Nobody can prove that it is anti-Scripture so it cannot be banned in any sense, but there is a great danger it will give ‘results’ based on emotion rather than true conviction and conversion.
To be honest, I think that is why the ‘appeal song’ is so important (e.g. Billy Graham’s Just As I Am). It sets the right mood for people to come forward. But surely Lloyd-Jones is right when he argues that the only mood needed is created by the Holy Spirit as the gospel is preached.
How bad would things be if no one ever gave an appeal or invitation to receive Jesus at the end of an evangelistic sermon? It’s just about unthinkable in some circles, but I wonder if some evangelists have ever thought to let the gospel do its work in people in the days following the event rather than taking their names down that night.
Could it be we need to have immediate results and that’s why we have appeals? Come to think of it, who said we needed to have any results at all? God keeps the score doesn’t he?
I have never actually given an appeal, invitation or altar call at the end of a message. I have certainly asked people who had questions or wanted prayer to come and see me, but I think we all know that is a different thing.
My attitude has always been to let people have a sleepless night after hearing the gospel. So what if I don’t get their name there and then? So what if I don’t know how effective my sermon was? So what if we don’t add anybody that day?
Surely if the Holy Spirit is alive and active as the message is preached, those people will not be able to resist doing something about it. It will gnaw away at them until they make a response.
I can sum it up by putting it like this: I feel that this pressure which is put upon people to come forward in decision ultimately is due to a lack of faith in the work and operation of the Holy Spirit. We are to preach the Word, and if we do it properly, there will be a call to a decision that comes in the message, and then we leave it to the Spirit to act upon people. And of course He does.2
And I think here lies one of the motivations behind the whole invitation business.I have observed that most of the people who are big on invitations are from the Arminian end of the spectrum. Perhaps not totally sold out on it, but with strong Arminian tendencies nevertheless. Maybe this is one of the reasons Calvinists are so often accused of being anti-evangelistic.
Of the evangelists I have known (and I have actually been on tour and worked on stage with one or two), some are happy to do the preaching but will not meet with the people afterwards. It’s as though they have one job to do and somebody else takes over at the end and does their job; usually counselling.
I would not presume to tell them how to be an evangelist, let alone what their gifting is, but I cannot help thinking how different this attitude is to that of Lloyd-Jones who would rather not give an invitation, but then hang around to see if anyone simply cannot leave the building without doing business with God.
I suppose the result is the same: someone counsels a seeker after the gospel message is preached; it just doesn’t happen with so much fanfare. Come to think of it, it wouldn’t happen with so many counsellors either. And would Lloyd-Jones like to have some singing on the night or not? Surely we can use the band and choir at some point!
It’s very confusing, isn’t it?
I guess it comes back to the old saying that you should not criticise an evangelist for his method if you do not have any alternative: at least he is evangelising!
1. You can read the full response of Dr. Lloyd-Jones at Banner of Truth.