Welcome to Season 1 Episode 44 of the Your Church Matters podcast. In this episode, I answered a question from Renee, who wrote: “Can you tell me why a pastor doesn’t do an invitation after or during service?”
The public “invitation” or “altar call” has been so prevalent for the past 150 years or so in evangelical churches, particularly in the tradition in which I grew up, that it seems strange not to have one. I have noticed, however, a trend in the past few years for the “decision” time to take on some different looks in certain contexts. Since I don’t know the particular circumstance to which Renee is referring, I’m answering with some of my general observations and thoughts on the matter.
A bit of history
The public “come forward” altar call was virtually nonexistent for the first 1700 years of Christian history. It began to appear in early forms in the 1700’s, but did not really take hold until the 1830’s, when it was used extensively by evangelist/revivalist Charles Finney.
In later years, evangelists D.L. Moody and Billy Graham used the altar call extensively in their crusades. My own earliest memories of church services are from the late 1960’s and I remember very few services for the rest of the 20th century that did not conclude with an invitation to publicly respond.
The point is to say that the altar call is a relatively recent development.
Purpose of the Invitation
- To call for a response to the sermon: an action, decision, change, or choice
- To recognize that God is at work and facilitate a way for listeners to respond to the movement of the Holy Spirit in their lives
Possible reasons for not extending an invitation
- Theological: Some point out that there is no Biblical precedent for the invitation in its modern format. Others take a view that the invitation risks presenting conversion as something persons do rather than something God does. Still others have issue with the idea that conversion can happen by means of human decision. They would put more emphasis on the sovereignty of God.
- Cultural: Some would seek to allow people to respond in a less threatening way than “walking the aisle.” They might use a response card or have trained counselors available for inquirers to seek out after the service ends. Some have seen some manipulation in public altar calls and are therefore extra cautious to make sure there is no decision by manipulation.
So, should a pastor extend an invitation?
My answer is, “it depends.” I believe the preaching/teaching of the word of God always calls for a response of some kind: A new way of thinking, a new attitude, a new action, a sense of awe, an expression of praise or thanksgiving …
Preaching or teaching without application is an empty exercise. Honestly, if you are not going to ask me for a response, don’t waste my time by lecturing me.
Preaching or teaching without application is an empty exercise. Click To Tweet
It is not up to the preacher/teacher to cause a response, it is up to the preacher/teacher to highlight the need for response and to call for it.
What that response looks like depends on the church, the culture, the context, the particular situation. One method is not necessarily better than another. The point is that the living word calls for lived out faith.
The living word calls for lived out faith. Click To Tweet
For further reading on the subject of the Invitation or Altar Call
When and why did the custom of conducting altar calls begin? (Christianity Today, 8/8/08)
Walk the Aisle (Christianity Today, 10/22/08)
You Asked: Should Churches Perform Altar Calls? (The Gospel Coalition, 11/16/11)
10 pointers on giving an invitation (Joe McKeever, 6/18/13)
Characteristics of a Good Sermon Invitation (Roy Fish, Lifeway.com)
4 WORDS TO KEEP IN MIND WHEN YOU GIVE A PUBLIC INVITATION (Ronnie Floyd, 10/20/13)
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*Special thanks to Keith Cooper (Guitar Music)