The elders at my church very graciously gave me seven weeks off, a kind of mini-sabbatical. It was during the summer and my wife and I had a trip planned anyway, so we laid out a plan to visit a different church every weekend. We chose a mixture of large and small churches, city and rural churches, and Restoration Movement and denominational churches from Florida to the mountain west.
Overall, it was a positive experience. We heard some fine sermons, met some nice people, and picked up a few good ideas. There was, however, one big surprise that I found very disappointing. In seven weeks, visiting seven different churches, we never heard a single invitation to accept Christ.
The sermons all ended with a prayer or a song or, in one regrettable case, with the preacher simply walking off the stage while a staff member walked on to make announcements before dismissing the service. The announcements took almost 10 minutes and included several inside jokes the staff member thought were hilarious, but 90 percent of the congregation didn’t get.
Their Reasons, My Response
Since then I’ve spoken to many preachers about the invitation. Those who do not include it in their services seem concerned about three things:
Time. “We have multiple services and it’s important to get one group out and the next group in so the services can run on time.”
Psychology. “If we give an invitation and no one comes forward, it’s a downer. It feels like we played the game and lost.”
Seekers. “We don’t want people to feel pressured; we just want them to hear the gospel. We trust that it will do its work in their hearts so that, at some point, they will want to accept Christ.”
And of course, all the noninvitation folks seal their positions by pointing out that the Bible doesn’t mandate that we quote the plan of salvation and ask people to accept Christ at the end of every service. It’s a tradition, they say, and they are right.
But it’s a tradition I love and one I intend to continue.
Here’s the simple reason why: I’ve seen too many people answer the invitation.
Yes, there have been hundreds of Sundays in my 36 years of ministry when no one came forward. And yes, sometimes that can be discouraging. But I couldn’t begin to count the number of Sundays when people did come forward. And many times when I, and even they, didn’t know ahead of time that anything was going to happen.
I’ll never forget the day that a couple I previously had counseled answered the invitation. While the invitation song was still being sung, I met them in front of the pulpit, shook their hands, and congratulated them on their decision.
While I was talking to them I felt a tap on my shoulder.
I turned around and found another couple, close friends of the people who’d already come forward. They were moved by their friends’ decision and decided to accept Christ themselves.
While I was talking to them I felt another tap on my shoulder.
I turned around and saw yet another couple. Same deal. They’d been wrestling with their own decision, but when they saw their friends stepping out they felt the time had come for them too.
Then I felt another tap on my shoulder.
That day I baptized 12 people when I had only planned to baptize two. And consider this: two of the couples that came forward were in their 70s. Think of all the pleas to accept Christ they had heard and rejected during their lifetimes. But one day, during the Sunday morning invitation, those walls of resistance came tumbling down.
Would those people have accepted Christ without that invitation?
Maybe. Maybe not.
My Conclusion and My Concern
Here’s what I know for sure: Every one of them said they felt the Holy Spirit working at that moment like never before.
I find that interesting because I don’t remember what I preached that day. I have no idea what songs were sung. I’m pretty sure it was all very ordinary, but the Holy Spirit used it.
Here’s my concern.
I’m afraid we might be outsmarting ourselves by doing away with the invitation. I know all the noninvitation churches have their reasons. But I wonder if, on the way to keeping our schedules and avoiding any embarrassing moments and making sure our seekers feel comfortable, we have missed out on a lot of experiences like the one I just described.
Let me come at it from another direction.
I know in most churches an incredible amount of work is done to make the Sunday morning service extra special. Preachers spend many hours on their sermons. Worship teams rehearse every chord change over and over. Media techs make sure the sound and lights are just right and that every slide and video clip is cued up and ready to go. If you add up all the man hours that go into a single worship service in most of our churches, it’s amazing.
So what if we do all of this, and do it well, and the Holy Spirit uses it to touch a lost person’s heart . . . and what if that lost person is brought to a place where he or she wants to accept Jesus? Haven’t we fumbled the ball by not offering an opportunity to do just that? It’s called “striking while the iron is hot.”
There are moments in life when everything is set up perfectly for a desired result. If you let the opportunity pass, how can you be sure you’ll ever get back to that moment again? The lost person might have every intention of following through after the service, but any number of unforeseen things could happen to thwart that intention. Surely, Satan himself will be waiting at the door to try to sabotage everything that was accomplished during the service.
What They’ll Know and What They’ll Have
At one of the churches my wife and I attended during the minisabbatical, we found the following note in tiny print at the very bottom of the back page of a large, multipage bulletin:
If you would like to talk to someone about accepting Christ, please call the church office.
Every other page of the bulletin was filled with eye-catching art and detailed announcements about how to do everything from joining the church softball team to volunteering to work in the nursery. I’m 100 percent in favor of church softball teams and nursery volunteers, but it made me a little sad to think that a lost person visiting that church like we did would walk away knowing exactly how to become a member of the softball team but not how to become a Christian.
You’ll notice I haven’t used any Scripture in this article. As I said before, I don’t believe the Bible mandates an invitation at the end of every service. I do, however, want to mention a verse that motivates me to keep offering an invitation week after week, month after month, and year after year. It’s Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile” (New Living Translation).
If there’s one thing I want a lost person who attends Poinciana Christian Church to know, it’s that Jesus saves. If there’s one thing I want him to have, it’s an opportunity to accept Jesus. If we offer an invitation and no one accepts Jesus, I can live with that. What I can’t live with is that someone might have been ready to accept Jesus and wasn’t given the chance.
Mark Atteberry is senior minister at Poinciana Christian Church in Kissimmee, Florida. He has written six books, including Let It Go and So Much More Than Sexy (Standard Publishing).