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A Tradition of Invitation

by Tim O'Hearn

An American preacher in London was finishing his sermon. As he had heard and done all his life, he finished with an invitation for those who wanted to come to Christ or wanted prayers of the congregation to “come forward as we stand and sing.” One of the members of the congregation quickly pointed out, “We don’t do that here.”

For those not familiar with the churches of Christ, it is the practice of almost every congregation to offer an invitation at the end of each sermon, usually followed by an “invitation song.” This affords an opportunity for anyone present to let it be known that they want to be baptized into Christ. For members, it is a time for some brave soul to confess their sins and/or their need for prayers. In these churches it is called “the invitation.” In some Baptist churches, and perhaps some others, it may be called an “altar call.” In all cases, it is a tradition with no precedent in scripture.

Scriptural Invitation

Within the pages of the New Testament we do find people making known their desire for immersion orThere are many reasons that the vast majority of invitations go unheeded. for prayers. These desires are not that which is being addressed; the public and ritual invitation is the issue at hand.

In Acts 2 we find the first recorded instance of the preaching about the risen Messiah. Peter and the other apostles spoke to a gathered crowd. Peter even offered an invitation, as recorded in Acts 2:38. “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” Two things are to be noted about Peter’s invitation, however. First, his remarks were in response to the audience asking what they must do to be saved. He did not initiate the invitation. Second, Paul did not end his sermon with this invitation and a song. “And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation.” (Acts 2:40) While the next verse does record that “then” many were immersed, the initial invitation did not follow the modern tradition.

Nor was this the only instance where the invitation was actually a response. Frequently in the book of Acts we find that the invitation was really an answer to a question by the hearer of the message. Philip was teaching the Ethiopian (Acts 8) when the man interrupted to ask, “See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?” In Acts 16 the jailer of Philippi did not even wait for a sermon. Any sermon that was preached, and any “invitation” that was given was in response to his “What must I do to be saved.” (That is true whether the salvation he sought was forgiveness of sins or only salvation from death at the hands of the Roman government; Paul and Silas taught as a result of his question.)

There are, likewise, examples of people who responded to the teaching. The magician in Samaria, who had been immersed but subsequently sinned, was told directly what he should do. (Acts 8:22-24) Lydia (Acts 16) responded to the preaching, but we don’t know the order of what was said and done. Others may have required prompting.

Taking the book of Acts as a whole, there appears to be no specific style or practice in regard to the “invitation.” The one thing that is consistent is that the people recorded as examples responded immediately and where they were.

Is it appropriate?

The modern practice of ending every sermon with an invitation may have some value. But is it necessary every time? Is it necessary any time?

Some preachers may go for years, offering the invitation after every sermon and never getting a response. This does not, in itself, mean they should not use their time in this way; after all, Jeremiah preached for many years without apparently having an effect on more than two or three people. There may be reasons for this lack of response. Perhaps the man is just not a very persuasive speaker. There are preachers who really have no business preaching. Perhaps his message is not conducive to a response, either because he chooses to speak on innocuous topics or because his timing is bad. Some men have written excellent sermons targeting the needs of a particular individual, only to find that when the powerful sermon is preached the individual for whom it was written is not present. (Usually in such a case the target is absent, or he comes up to the preacher afterward saying what a wonderful sermon it was and that he wishes brother so-and-so had been there to hear it.) There are certain other reasons that the vast majority of invitations go unheeded.

One such reason is the nature of the invitation itself. In the churches of Christ the most common respondent to the invitation to be immersed is a child or other relative of a member of the congregation. Perhaps this is because they have grown up hearing the public invitation and, often, believing that this is the only time to seek salvation. They are accustomed to the public nature of the response. Many who have not had the benefit of years of training are not so sure that public humiliation is such a good thing. It is not easy to admit that you are in need of salvation. It is almost impossible to do so in front of a room full of strangers. In recent years, fortunately, more and more congregations are making public announcements of baptisms that occurred in a more intimate setting. Many of these are because people were afraid to do it before the whole congregation. Perhaps a second reason is timing.

When you read in the book of Acts about people responding to the gospel of Jesus the Messiah, you don’t find that the person waited until the congregation regularly met (even though that might have been daily) in order to be saved. The phrases used are “the same day” (Acts 2:41) and immediately/straightway (Acts 16:33). Those who heard the gospel and were convinced of the necessity of salvation apparently felt the urgency as well. When they knew they were in need of a savior they also realized the possibility of dying without one. There is not a single specific example of someone putting off until a later day what they knew they should do. Since the most effective teaching is done apart from a public sermon, the public invitation may just be a case of bad timing. The people in need of responding may have already done so.

Yet another, related, reason may be the audience. In any congregation on a Sunday morning (or Sunday or Wednesday evening, even more so) the majority of the audience are longstanding members of the church. They have sat through many sermons and heard many invitations. If there are visitors present, in all likelihood they are also established members. On occasion one might find someone who attends the public assembly out of curiosity or at the invitation of a friend, but they are not likely to respond to the public invitation as a result of one sermon that is probably directed at the usual members. If they respond to the teaching at all it is because they have been prepared by the friend who asked them to attend, and the response is probably a request for further study. People respond to the gospel most often because they have seen it lived in a friend or acquaintance, and had it taught daily in word or deed. That is not to say that someone may not respond the first time they hear a gospel sermon; it happened frequently during the first century.

The nature of our assemblies, and the preaching that occurs in them, is just not conducive to eliciting such a response. Because of the rarity of a non-family non-member, most modern preachers practice “preaching to the choir.” They teach and admonish those they know to be members, because they don’t really expect anyone else to hear. Long-time members do not want to hear the basic gospel sermons that Paul might have preached, because they have already made their response. Modern preaching is not directed at converting the unsaved so much as keeping the saved saved. Sometimes it is not even directed toward that end, but mere exposition of what the scriptures say, perhaps simply to justify the preacher’s time and salary, and the invitation is merely a traditional afterthought. Sometimes it is jarringly incongruous.

Just as the majority of the audience is not those in need of salvation, so also the whole milieu does not contribute to conversion. Those that do respond have probably had the personal touch; while a congregational setting is most often quite impersonal. What is there of a personal nature in a few or a few hundred people sitting silently, taking in information, while all facing in roughly the same direction? And if a stranger were to visit and ask questions about what was going on, he would most likely be shushed by those around him, or at least be given glaring and disapproving looks. If he is lucky some kind soul might take him to a separate room and teach him privately. If he is not lucky, he may never return. Even in a congregation with a reputation for friendliness, theOn occasion someone might attend the public assembly out of curiosity, but they are not likely to respond to the public invitation. practical part of the assembly is often very impersonal, and that makes the invitation less effective.

Is it wrong?

Is it wrong to include an invitation after every sermon? Is it wrong to pick and choose which sermons include one? Would it even be wrong to never offer a public invitation?

Since the practice appears to be merely traditional, and mostly ineffective, the answer to all three questions is probably that it would not be wrong. Some preachers might actually be saved a lot of grief by choosing not to offer an invitation with some sermons; they agonize over how to make it sound natural in a sermon that really does not call for a response. Some American congregations have chosen to forego the invitation during Sunday evening and midweek assemblies. Many congregations outside the United States, such as the London one mentioned earlier, never have made it a practice.

We should be inviting people to respond to the teaching of the gospel. Such an invitation, though, should be at the most appropriate time, when a response is most likely to occur.