The Public Invitation

I recently read a very brief article, titled, “Proper Use of the Public Invitation.” In it, Pastor David Brumbelow affirmed the use of a “Public Invitation,” but I was disappointed to find no explanation of such a thing, nor any defense of it in the article.

Even though Pastor Brumbelow did not present any real argument for his statement, I think I might (at least partially) agree with him. I too believe that there is a proper and good use of a public invitation, but at the end of my Sunday morning services I do not include the kind of invitation Pastor Brumbelow is talking about.

The ‘Traditional’ Public Invitation

In my experience, many Southern Baptists today have a deep connection to a sort of liturgical formula which concludes a Sunday morning service with something called an “invitation.” Oh, I know… most Southern Baptists would not know what “liturgical” means, but we are still a highly liturgical bunch. A church’s liturgy is simply the customary structure of a normal Sunday morning service, or it can also refer to the layout of the annual calendar. And, if Southern Baptists are anything, we are customary.

Most every Southern Baptist church once ended the regular Sunday morning service with an invitation to join the church membership, present one’s self as a candidate for baptism, or become a Christian. After the preacher preached, the congregation would then stand to sing one last song (usually “Just as I am”), and either before the song or during cleverly-placed intervals between verses, the preacher would call sinners to walk down to the front of the room. It was there and then that the pastor would meet with, pray with, and otherwise counsel the responder.

“Altar call” was once the term for this event, and such language makes me shudder as a Protestant. Baptists do not sacrifice anything upon an altar, and there is no such furniture anywhere in our building. Some still use the phrase, but regardless of what you call it, this invitation to walk the aisle and join the preacher at the front of the room is essential in many Southern Baptist churches.

The Not-so-Traditional Roots of the ‘Traditional’ Public Invitation

If you ask the average Southern Baptist where this liturgical method originates, you are likely to get a look of confusion or disdain. “We’ve always done it like this…” is not just a Southern Baptist mentality, but we do seem to have perfected the practical application of it. The ‘traditional’ invitation is how we do evangelism as Southern Baptists.

However, there are roots at the base of this invitation tree, and we can see the growth over time. During the early colonial settlement of North America, there were two “Great Awakenings.” The first (1730s-1740s) was marked by passionate preaching among ministers and heightened piety and holiness among the people. Primarily a revival among the Dutch Reformed, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and some Anglicans, the First Great Awakening included both numerous conversions and extensive life-transformation.

The Second Great Awakening (1790s-1830s) was similar but different from its predecessor. Methodism had been born out of the First Great Awakening (led primarily by the efforts of John Wesley), and this denomination officially employed “camp meetings” and “revival meetings” as its methods of evangelism. A Presbyterian minister, named James McGready (1760–1817), is credited with hosting the first known camp meeting, but Methodists and Baptists adopted the technique and benefited most from it.

At these camp meetings and revivals, Christian ministers (both local pastors and traveling evangelists) would operate according to pragmatic methods, which resulted in the desired response. There was a seat located near the pulpit, called the “anxious bench,” for those who were most worried about their own spiritual well-being. It was also the best place to sit someone who needed to do some time for the sinning they had done the night before. The order of the service was built around the progression from joyful congregational singing, to an emotional message from a preacher, and then to a solemn and direct call for some in attendance to respond by “coming forward.”

The camp meeting and revival services became the standard for anyone who was serious about evangelism, and local Methodist and Baptist churches adapted their Sunday morning worship services accordingly. The liturgy of most Southern Baptist churches is directly tied to the order, progression, and purpose of those para-church evangelistic meetings. Of course, it is also important to note that famous evangelists like D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham perfected and popularized this method.

The Biblical Teaching on Conversion

More than the mere practical failures of revivalism, the Bible’s teaching on conversion differs dramatically from the explicit goal of revivalistic pragmatism. While the camp meeting and revival service methods did a fantastic job of attracting a crowd and eliciting a response from many, the passage of time has provided conclusive evidence that the emotion of the moment was not always indicative of real spiritual life.

The Bible teaches that a sinner is spiritually dead, unholy, and rebellious towards the only God who can save him (Eph. 2:1-3; Rom. 3:10-18). When that same sinner is converted (or “saved”), he is made spiritually alive, cleansed of all unrighteousness, and now full of love for the God who has saved him (John 3:3; Eph. 2:4-10; 1 Jn. 3:1-10).

This is no mere emotional response! Certainly, one’s emotions are involved in their experience of conversion; and the Christian’s emotional experience will likely increase as he comes to understand more deeply how God has loved and saved him. But, conversion is an unparalleled transformation that cannot be coerced, or produced, or even rescinded by methods or strategies.

The multitudinous testimonies from those being “saved” on several occasions, the abysmal expectation of absentee church membership, and the inability of many Southern Baptists to understand their own personal responsibility for evangelism have shown us that the kind of emotional revivalism that marks our past is not what we should hope for in our future.

The Proper Use of the Public Invitation

Returning once more to the statement from my fellow pastor, David Brumbelow, let me affirm that I too think there is a proper use of the public invitation. I believe that every biblical example we have of a public invitation to “come to Jesus” (as Pastor Brumbelow put it in his article) is in the context of cross-cultural and/or cross-religion evangelism.

Peter speaking to the Jews from the diaspora (Acts 2:36-41), Peter speaking to his countrymen again from Solomon’s Portico (Acts 3:36-4:4), and Steven rebuking his Jewish brethren right before they stone him to death (Acts 7:51-53) are all examples of a proper public invitation. These are public invitations to people who do not now believe, love, or trust Jesus as Savior. In fact, the crowd’s general hostility towards Jesus and the claims of the preacher are evident in each case (especially so in Steven’s).

Later in Acts, we read about Paul going into the synagogues to invite his countrymen to “come to Jesus” as well (Acts 9:20-25). This is an invitation, like those from Peter and Steven before, to those who are currently hostile towards Christ and His message. These are still members of the same ethnic group, but they are utterly opposed to the Gospel when the public invitation to submit and trust in Christ is given to them.

Later still, Peter crossed the cultural barrier by preaching to Gentiles, at God’s command, inviting them to “come to Jesus” (Acts 10:42-43). Paul preached to Greek Gentiles in the midst of their own philosophical forum (Acts 17:22-31). On both of these occasions, there was a clear evangelistic motive and effort to preach the Gospel to unbelievers.

Time after time, we read about evangelistic efforts and public invitations to trust Jesus as Savior. However, not one of these public invitations is mentioned in the context of a gathering of believers. The worship service of a local church is specifically and definitionally a gathering of Christians; therefore, an invitation to turn from a false religion or sheer unbelief is not appropriate.

Utterly contrary to revivalism, biblical local churches should organize themselves and arrange their services for feeding and equipping those who already believe. Only then will the church be and do what she is biblically ordained to be and do.

After the church remembers who she is, then she may scatter among the world and publically invite others to join her.

I believe there is a proper use of the public invitation. I believe the public invitation should be used much more often today than it is. However, I believe the use of a public invitation on Sunday mornings does more harm than good; and I believe that such a thing is extra-biblical at best, and contra-biblical at worst.

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