By Jerry Harris
I admittedly write this column with some bias. Either because of how I was raised or how God wired me, a church service just seems incomplete without an invitation to enter a relationship with Jesus Christ.
When I was growing up, invitations came after the preacher finished his sermon. He would leave the pulpit and come down to the floor—to the same level as his hearers—and invite those in the congregation to come forward and do some business with God. During an invitation song the preacher would scan the audience for movement. Those who came forward—to accept Christ, rededicate their life to Christ, be recognized as part of the congregation, or ask for prayer—were greeted and counseled as to their next step.
I experienced these invitations during weekly church services, at church camp, junior church, CIY . . . pretty much every time Christians gathered. When I entered the preaching ministry, it also became a fixture in the order of worship for me.
I remember a particular invitation from early in my ministry at The Crossing. Two high school girls came forward, and when I asked them why, one of them looked at me and said two words: “You asked.”
Could it really be that simple?
James 4:2 gives us an answer: “You do not have because you do not ask.” While James was referring to asking God for what we need, the principle applies equally well in our human interactions. James went on to explain that when we ask, we need to possess the right motives, and what could be a greater motive than telling someone who would surely die without it about the greatest gift ever given?
Our movement was born out of a desire to restore the church to what it was at its inception—that is, to do Bible things in Bible ways. The sermon that heralded the birth of the church carried an invitation, and that invitation carried a sense of urgency; the Bible says Peter “pleaded” with his listeners (see Acts 2:38-41). It was not a flippant appeal, for Peter also used “many other words.” The Spirit-filled message “cut to the heart” (v. 37). And Peter’s sermon was fruitful, as about 3,000 people responded that day.
These days, churches of all stripes have relegated invitations to the church attic (along with hymnals, pulpit furniture, pews, bulletins, banners, and bulletin boards). Some say an invitation is too confrontational, that it makes people uncomfortable, and that we need more subtle ways to move people for lasting change. I don’t agree. I think that having a time during worship for people to respond to the message is critical. It serves to remind the congregation of why we do what we do and what the desire to change looks like.
In our May/June issue, Chris Philbeck wrote about the necessity of preaching the gospel. Under the heading of “Zero for Thirty-Six,” he described a recent study.
I read [an article] by a man who wrote about listening to four sermons each from the nation’s nine largest evangelical churches (accessible at www.9marks.org). Colton Corter wrote, “Let me begin with the most important observation: In 36 sermons, the good news of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection was unclear 36 times.” A little later he wrote, “I don’t mean to say various elements of the gospel weren’t occasionally mentioned; they were. . . . But none of those elements [were] articulated or explained.”
Chris stressed that he didn’t want to call these churches or their preachers into question, but it left a striking impression on me nonetheless.
It occurred to me that an invitation to accept Christ at the end of a message during a worship service forces the speaker to articulate who Christ is and what it means to accept him.
As ministers, we were commissioned not only to preach, but to preach the gospel. The apostle Paul made very clear what that gospel is in his first letter to the church at Corinth:
Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).
In Romans 1:16, Paul clearly said the power of our preaching is in the gospel, and in 1 Corinthians 9:16, he made clear the preacher’s woeful position if he fails to do so.
In 1977, Wayne Smith concluded his message at the North American Christian Convention with these words:
Preach the gospel, brother, preach it!
Put it high, where men can teach it;
Put it low, where men can reach it,
But preach the gospel, brother, preach it.