Many years ago when I was in my twenties, I had a “come-to-Jesus” moment.
Previously I had no interest in God and would have considered myself at best an agnostic. But then something strange happened. I began to bump into people who were, well, different. In an intriguing way. They told me bluntly that their lives had been radically changed by Jesus. Kind of in the “I-was-blind-but-now-I-see” way. I visited a Pentecostal church (I had no idea what that meant) sometime afterward and for a seemingly inexplicable reason, I responded to a verbal invitation to “ask Jesus into my heart”. I found out later that this was referred to as an “altar call”. Truth is: from that point on I was hooked. I bought my first “modern English” Bible in a local department store and began to read the book of John as was recommended by my new friends. I was mesmerized by the Jesus I found in those pages…and my life began to change in both subtle and spectacular ways. Years later I found myself pastoring a church that had exploded with life. And a number of times I made the invitation to “surrender your life” to Jesus. I didn’t use the word “repent” (that had way too much baggage), but in actuality, I was asking people to rethink their current lives, ask for God’s forgiveness, and allow the Holy Spirit to transform them. But I had a problem with the classic “altar call” that I had seen in my twenties. I understood the concept, but couldn’t imagine ending each weekend message à la Billy Graham-style…even with a boatload of new visitors every week.
Besides, where was the concept of “altar calls” in the New Testament?
Even the archetypal evangelism moment that happened with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit—like three thousand people responding to Peter’s preaching (Acts 2)—was just that: a result of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It’s hard to plan that. And Peter’s message basically berates the Jewish pilgrims for crucifying Jesus (whom they had personally seen working miracles) with the help of other wicked people (Gentiles). Then he tells them that he and others were eyewitnesses to the resurrection—evidence that God had made Jesus both Lord and Messiah—and then accuses them one more time of murdering Jesus. Sheesh, that’s über-contextual. At this point they ask, “We’re in a heap of trouble. What should we do?” That’s really a different kind of “evangelistic” sermon. Peter’s response?—change the way you think, go get baptized somewhere, and then you’ll receive the Holy Spirit. No card to sign. No standing up. No walking down the aisle. No invitation to come to the front. Historically, the “altar call”-model seems to be fairly modern. Some church historians think it was popularized by Charles Finney. It appears that evangelists like Whitfield, Edwards, and Wesley were unfamiliar with the method. And Spurgeon, though aware of the practice, was critical of it. Don’t misunderstand me: I believe in clearly communicating the cross and the demand to respond to it. I don’t think I’d ever given a weekend message where I didn’t explicitly refer to a wholesale surrender to Jesus. I rarely used the term Christian and typically would say “those who are following Jesus” for clarity’s sake. And I tended to not use the word believe but rather trust…only because the word believe could simply imply intellectually assenting to an idea, while trust demands a personal risk. On the other hand, faith is often released when people see others making a decision to follow Christ. It sends a message to the non-intuitive among us that God is moving in this place. Plus, in the transient, cocooning, and let-me-be-anonymous world we live in, shouldn’t we follow up with people to help them navigate this new relationship with Jesus? Isn’t that bad discipleship to let them drift away? Yes and yes. Nevertheless, a steady diet of classic “altar calls” each week would drive me crazy. And it could, in a very weird way, reduce the idea of the Kingdom to a “get-your-ticket-to-heaven”-moment and miss the full power for justice, healing, deliverance, and wholeness delivered through the Church. The Kingdom come. Perhaps the invitational message is: Run to Jesus; He will save you. Then become part of the New Community; she will protect you.
On a scale of 1-to-10, what’s the invitational factor in your context?
But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist... (Apostle Paul to a young pastor he mentored...2 Timothy 4:5a) Dave Workman | ELEMENTAL CHURCHES
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