Whatever Happened to the Invitation?

By Mark Atteberry

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.

And another.

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).

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15 Comments

  1. Bill Dinwiddie
    January 15, 2011 at 8:17 am

    While I was raised with an invitatiion, which is actually a “restoration version of an alter call,” I have noticed that churches that do not offer invitations appear to have more people accepting Christ than those who do. While I like the idea of an invitation, it can lead to big surprises, like people being baptized with predetermined results that are foreign from Scripture and people who think that being baptized will undo something they did.

    Yes, the conversion examples in Acts appear to be people who were baptized rather quickly, but they also were receiving the gospel presented in a form where the appropriate response was baptism. The lack of reports of baptism in the Epistles could be used to support that people were baptized apart from their meetings, although that may be a stretch. But, revisiting Acts, the baptisms were apart from “church services.”

    I like invitations, but do not believe they are necessary corporately. However, I do believe that the subject of coming to Christ should be addressed at all services and make it clear that there are people to speak to.

    Bill

  2. January 15, 2011 at 6:55 pm

    I agree with you and this goes back to the leader and the songleader to get this to happen . . . I agree playing songs don’t get it, some folks don’t even know what the songs and words are . . . Words in a song speaks to hearts, they speak to me when I sing, and lots of other times . . . thanks

  3. Al Edmonds
    January 17, 2011 at 2:39 am

    Part of the alter call mentality is based upon two heresies: faith only salvation and salvation by baptism. We of course are concerned with rescuing sinners from the flames of Hell, but we should be just as considered with mistakingly harvesting tares. The biggest problem of Christian churches today is marketing cheap grace like a McDonalds’ 2 for 1 Big Mac special–just get them to raise their hands or dunked in the water and we have done our jobs fulfilling the Great Commission. True Conversion follows a biblical message, a personal realization of sin, a response of repentance and understanding what is required to be a follower of Jesus. Remember the Rich Young Man; he understood what was required, but could not give up his old life. We need to make sure that we also make clear the same message of Jesus to the candidate. The Christian road is not easy and sacrifice is required. Being saved will not solve all your problems or make you wealthy. How do you do this in five minutes at the front of the auditorium while the rest of the audience is worrying about missing Sunday dinner. Obviously, you cannot. I like this format: give the invitation…if you want to know how to come to Jesus, meet with us after the worship service and we will have folks available who will talk and pray with you. Then you connect the prospects with some 1 on 1 tevangelism; have a 101 membership class about basic doctrine, what your congregation is all about, etc. Then have special celebration services where new members are introduced and baptisms take place. We don’t need more attenders, we need committed disciples. Being intentional on how to do this, is the better way.

  4. Brent Crosswhite
    January 18, 2011 at 1:12 pm

    I have to disagree with all the comments. The invitation is powerful in a way that is hard to understand when done right. I remember my conversion experience being tied to the invitation at the end of the sermon. The message spoke about salvation through faith in Christ. The invitation and the invitation hymn were sung to provide an opening for someone to come forward and make a “public” confession of faith. There was nothing uncomfortable about it, but I’m glad the offer was open because I came forward and gave my life to Christ.

    As a preacher I too have been amazed at what happens during an invitation. People come for all sorts of reasons, but it seems to do some healing to their souls when they come in front of others for prayer, rededication, or to accept Christ.

    I sometimes wonder if we are afraid of being public with our faith, even within our church doors. An invitation provides a powerful moment for believers new and old to publicly confess Christ their Lord. In a time of Internet Church Services, Prayers through Websites, and Facebook acquaintances, are we getting away from some “traditional” accountability and “public” faith?

  5. tim
    January 18, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    The invitation is about public confession that Jesus is Lord. Often preceding immediate baptism. The public confession solidifies true faith. One that is based on grace and works combined.

  6. Tim Hazlette
    January 21, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    I have read this article and the subsequent comments with great interest. All have exposed some really good points and have raised questions about the “condition of the Church” today.
    I have come to the conclusion that many Churches are engaging in “Covert Christianity” — said another way, being “undercover Christians.” From my reading of the Scriptures, the Great Commission is our mission. Proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost and dying world.
    Is it any wonder that Churches have forgone the invitation? Most won’t even utter the term Hell and rarely mention Heaven — but both are real places and each and every person will spend eternity in one or the other. All of this is a product of the Contemporary church movement now approaching nearly 20 years in experimentation. Now I read of a greater danger — that of a New Age movement or Emerging Church — emanating from the “megachurches”. I’ve visited a few — and I don’t recall anyone ever getting Saved in one of them.
    In my estimation, what Churches and Preachers have done (or allowed to happen) is lost one of the Fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22) that being longsuffering (patience). If a new strategy is tried, then instant results are expected. This is probably why Christian Churches no longer use gospel tracts and knock on doors. If they get turned down a few times, they say “this won’t work anymore in this day and time” we need something new. That is exactly what Satan hopes is the reaction. Ever wonder why Jesus used so many agricultural illustrations or parables? I believe He equated the work of the Great Commission to farming. The Church (or workers) spread the Gospel (seed), allow the Holy Spirit to work (growing season), and then harvest the outcome (Salvations). If you’ve ever planted a garden, I doubt you place the seed in the ground today and have a corn stalk tomorrow.
    They have also gotten too smart, or enlightened, and therefore have taken the posture of “needing to help God.” So many worship services are designed as “men pleasers” rather than God pleasing. Unfortunately, the result is a “rock concert,” a sermonette, and no invitation.
    I believe in the Bible-God way according to the Book of Acts. As one writer stated, Baptisms were apart from Church services. That is correct — and the person’s surrender, repentance, and conversion were also apart from Church. I can’t find in the Bible where the only place folks got saved was in Church. But today, that seems to be the only place some (or most) believe it can occur.
    I believe there needs to be a return to the fundamentals of the Bible and a return to the basics. Salvation is so simple “that even a child can understand,” but man has made it complicated. Some Churches seem to take on a near Catholic approach — requiring certain classes before allowing a person to accept the free gift of Grace. By returing to the fundamentals and basics, I mean, allow the Holy Ghost (Spirit, for those who are afraid of Ghosts) to come back into the Church. And if someone gets under conviction and wants to be saved, we need to let the Holy Ghost work and quit trying to evaluate the person’s understanding of what they are doing. All that is needed is this; (1) I’m a sinner; (2) I need a Saviour; (3) I have a sin debt that I can’t pay — thereby committing myself to Hell; (4) Jesus has paid my sin debt; (5) I want/desire for the Lord to save me. Anybody who gets in the way of that will stand before the Judgement Throne and wish they had a “millstone tied around their neck.”
    But in fairness to the subject, invitations are only beneficial after Preaching. If the service involves a “spiritual speech” or “teaching,” then an invitation may not be worth the effort. My reasons for this are simple, Preaching requires (or compels) a “decision” — either I will accept the call of the Holy Spirit and be obedient, or I will reject the call. Anything less does not extend such a decision point.
    So in closing, I stand by Preaching which illuminates sin, brings a sinner to “conviction,” and offers the plan of Salvation (good news). This followed by convicting songs of Zion — the old hymns (I strongly recommend the Church Hymnal — look it up on Amazon), concluded by an Invitation.

  7. January 31, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    In the book of Acts new life came about in the context of everyday life and community. Maybe it was because there were not thousands of churches dotting the landscape, or before they discovered the “invitation” methodology. It seems to me that we should always be offering next steps to the people who are on the journey with us, and in different ways. In New England, we have found that if we strive to make the gospel as clear as possible then people will understand what it means to receive Christ as Lord, and then they make their desires known to us in a way that seems natural. And since we do not offer a regular invitation, this happens more in everyday life. We’ve had several who informed us of their desire to take that next step during a small group, or as a result of our starting point class, or in a personal conversation. My feeling is that regular invitations have the potential to isolate the decision apart from the journey, or place too much emphasis on a one time decision, or place all the emphasis on what happens on a Sunday morning. I am not sure either perspective is wrong or right on this issue, but it’s best if we could keep the idea of community (and not just Sunday morning community) a part of this discussion.

  8. January 24, 2012 at 10:54 am

    I grew up with invitations being extended at every service and serve at a church where we never fail to offer the opportunity for someone to make a decision for Christ. Thanks for sharing your post!

  9. January 25, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    I have just returned from conducting my fifth Winter Bible Conference with Dr. Jack Martin and the Community Christian Church in Apache Junction, Arizona. May I say that no one I have worked with in 44 years of ministry knows how to extend the invitation better than Brother Martin. He knows how to appeal to the hearts of those who have just heard the Word and always urges people to make a decision for Christ with great passion and love for their eternal souls.

  10. January 28, 2012 at 9:34 am

    I never ceases to amaze me how churches in a movement that made the eschewing of man-made creeds, rituals and traditions one of its signature differentiators so often, at the local level, goes to great lengths to enshrine man-made creeds, rituals or traditions.

    “Altar Calls” were popularized by revivalist Charles Finney in the mid-19th Century, shortly after the Restoration Movement’s birth, and was slowly adopted by many RM churches. Even so, by our own standards, it is a man-made practice based primarily on a premise that the key feature of the Gospel is to act as a fire insurance policy, and that “sealing the deal” is paramount (thus the urgency of an immediate “altar call”).

    There are many ways by which individuals come to accept Christ as Lord of their lives, and no one way is superior. Our churches, in general, and as a movement, have tended to adapt to the underlying patterns that drive our culture. Few churches practice door-to-door “cold calling” on unbelievers anymore for the same reason that door-to-door sales has been on a decades-long downward slide: People in our culture no longer connect to one another that way, and are now hostile to the intrusion of door-to-door peddlers.

    I suspect the pendulum will swing the opposite direction someday.

    This isn’t “bad” or “good” – it just is.

    I believe that the Gospel is best and most effectively spread and accepted via the same underlying means that it always has been – one-to-one relationships and hands-on love from other Christians. The heart of the Gospel is not a fire insurance policy we sit around and wait to collect when we die – it is a way of life, service, love and community under the already-begun Kingship of our Messiah. Pining for old methodologies that are, in and of themselves, pretty “new” (150 years old) and extra-biblical doesn’t really advance the kingdom.

  11. Ryan
    June 16, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    Romans 10:9

    If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

    What’s so hard about offering an invitation of prayer to a congregation each Sunday to confess sin and accept Jesus as your Lord and savior? Some people may never do it until prompted. I’ve gone to three different churches in the last eight years and none of them have offered an invitation. I’m starting to think it’s a conspiracy. When I was young back in the early and late 90’s every church I went to had an alter call or invitation.

  12. Tom Blackford
    August 13, 2012 at 5:39 am

    This is a delightful post and affirms my own observations. I am very happy we have a tradition of giving the invitation and speaking of the steps to salvation in our sermons. It helps to gel in people’s minds what they have heard. However one day a stalwart member of the church criticized the speaker for not having given these “steps” in the invitation. In addition, he on another occasion mentioned from the platform where a speaker missed one of the “steps”.
    Now I see a problem. If we are critical, (if we judge), based on a tradition we are raising that tradition to the level of law. It is not law, but tradition. We need to be very clear on this point.

  13. Bill
    December 21, 2012 at 8:02 am

    I cannot find something in the scriptures that looks like an everytime-we-meet “offering of the invitation”. I can find that brethren met to break bread; pray; everyone has a song, a word, a message; and the pragmatic, but somewhat confusing 1st day of the week laying by in store. Invitations belong in that world of where the synagogue came from and the organization of a choir during David’s days, or the development of the day of remembrance called Purim. Here’s a question, I assume every church you visited and every Christian you know failed/are failing to obey the command(found at least 5 times in the NT) to greet one another with a holy kiss. Wouldn’t it be just like us to say to God,” OK, I see what you have “suggested”(greet with a kiss)- I’ll trade you, God….we’ll call the invitation our effort to obey the command to greet one another by name and with a kiss and call it even”. The best Bible example of restoration I know of is when Nehemiah came back to Jerusalem, along with Ezra and the others. Remember after the initial fury of action, they slipped back to some of their old ways. The Church of Christ(groupings of believers with 5 steps to salvation/5 acts of worship down pat, meeting in a building with a located PowerPoint preacher, treasury with 2 years basic expenses covered, etc.) is not the restored church that Jesus started, just like every animal with 4 legs, 2 horns, and a tail is not a cow. Do you honestly think God wants us to offer the invitation every time we meet? What happens when someone comes to the bulding, listens to a good Bible class lesson and tells the preacher(you), ” I want to be baptized”> do we make them wait until the invitiation, because that’s the God-appointed time to come forward? I know you wouldn’t do that. Just like any election, God works with what He has(us) and is working to make us what He wants, thank God that Jesus is our Saviour. I heard the other day about someone what responded to a sermon with invitation offered at a funeral. Does that prove that invitations should be offered at funerals, too? My workmates prayed together the other day after the mass murder of the young children in Connecticut. They are Baptists, Catholics, Bible churchers. Does that prayer make them Christians?

  14. Ron
    May 7, 2017 at 5:10 pm

    I am so tired of going to a church which offers an invitation after the preaching service for folks to come forward to pray about whatever need they have, but then there is no specific plea to the last to come forward to find out about being saved and about asking the Lord Jesus Christ to come into their life so that they can have a home in heaven one day. I cannot and will not ever become a member of a church that does not choose to keep the main thing the main thing and that is inviting people to except the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior. I attend the church, sing in the choir, and give my tithe there, but I cannot and will not become a member there. Thank you for taking the time to write your fine article.

  15. May 8, 2017 at 11:04 am

    It is not only unbiblical, an invitation is antibiblical. This article is conflating two things: being inviting vs. an altar call. An altar call is denominational gobbledygook from the Great American Revival. It was based upon evangelistic methods designed to bypass the mind into the heart. It was designed to make an instant decision, not to make a disciple. (Google Charles Finney and Altar Calls).

    The modern invitation is rooted in revivals that were outside of the church, during an era right before worship bands, asking Jesus into the heart, tongue speaking and dispensationalism came in about 120 years ago. If you except the invitation you must also accept these other nonbiblical practices, as well, to be consistent. They all work hand in hand to bypass conviction and replace it with emotionalism.

    The church is for Christians and the worship of God, not a place to beg people to join your club. It is truly distasteful.

    Now, please understand, we can be inviting. We can acknowledge guests. We must not waste an opportunity to reach these people, but let’s not let it come from a modern practice outside of the Bible.

    One idea, I have had, is to share the gospel during the beginning of service! Acknowledge that there may be questions and people are here to talk to them. This is more natural, it allows us to worship God, and not to bend a service for nonbelievers based upon the latest church fads. This is what happens anyway, most people come up to me after church to talk to me. They never come during the invitation.

    I have talked to lots of fellow preachers and it seems someone coming forward is never a surprise. The person has been talking to the preacher for weeks before. Sure, you may not have known which week, but you knew the person. You have a track record with the person.

    Do you really want to baptize a person you just spent one minute explaining the gospel to after preaching 25 minutes on tithing with music playing in the background? Please look at all the converts in the book of Acts, none of them were done this fast. Instant conversions are a myth. We are to make disciples, not quotas.

    Second, I don’t want to baptize anyone I haven’t really spoken to. I don’t want instant decisions based upon my trembling voice, repetitive music, and sad pictures on PowerPoint. I want a person to understand who Jesus is and to be ready to die with Christ.

    Church, we have set the bar too low. There was a time the early church kicked non-Christians out as it was time for Communion. Now we change everything we do based upon what the nonbeliever likes. Church, the nonbeliever does not like anything Christian; he is at war with God. We are to worship God in spirit and truth and then if the nonbeliever is convicted he will cry out and say, “Surely God is with you” (1 Corinthians 12). There is never a need for an altar call or his anemic little brother the “invitation.”

    Let’s just be inviting instead. Let’s talk to people, and when they are ready they will ask us “What must I do?” because the only invitations in the New Testament are when people invited themselves. They never waited till the last song.

    Frankly, we have got to make up our minds, Are we Bible-based churches or just Protestants in denial.

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