December 18, 2017

The Evangelical Liturgy 21: The Invitation

aiselFor our liturgical friends looking in on this series, the public invitation will be a strange animal indeed, conjuring images of the sawdust trail and weeping sinners pleading at the foot of a stage while an evangelist urges them to pray through. In fact the invitation is simply a portion of the service where worshipers who may wish to make certain public moves towards confessing their faith or joining a church do so by an initial public act in a worship service, usually at the end of a service by walking forward to speak to the minister.

I am a committed opponent of the use of the public invitation in worship. I have written extensively about this here at Internet Monk in many past essays. Leave Your Seat, Leave Your Sin, parts 1, 2 and 3.

This series, however, is taking a look at the typical Protestant liturgy and the facts are undeniable: most evangelical and many Protestant churches will use some form of a public invitation, therefore the invitation must be addressed in a discussion of liturgy.

For that reason I will not be discussing the Biblical/theological reasons I personally oppose the use of the public invitation.

In every church I have ever served, with the exception of the Presbyterian church where I have supplied many years, a public invitation has been expected. Southern Baptists deeply and closely associate the invitation with Gospel worship, evangelism and the basic message of the church. This association is so deep that most sermons move toward the invitation.

In my SBC experience, a church that stops having a public invitation will be immediately judged by most other Baptists as having abandoned the Gospel and a concern for the lost. The invitation clearly has sacramental overtones as practiced within many evangelical churches. This is a “God moment,” a climatic and highly symbolic microcasm of the Gospel invitation itself.

The standard invitation in our tradition is a move from sermon to an invitation hymn, with the minister standing at the front of the worship space to receive those who may come for whatever the specified reasons. These usually include making a profession of faith, requesting baptism or church membership, or coming for prayer. “Rededications” etc are not consistent reasons for an invitation.

The choice and use of the invitation hymn has been the weakest area of invitational liturgy. Standard hymns of “pleading” and “resolve” have the potential to create an entirely wrong statement at the end of a carefully planned and well-executed worship service. The closing hymn should follow the theme of the service and not address a potential aisle-walker with pleadings, threats and promises.

The instructions for the invitation should be part of the printed order of worship or should be explained in a portion of the pre-service announcements reserved for “orientation.” A minister should not have to spend 2 minutes framing an invitation. His transitional comments should be short and the purpose for his being available at the close of the service should be well-known.

Invitations should not be lengthy. Use of a proper closing song should set the parameters of the invitation.

Responders should be greeted and then moved to an area for more extended conversation following worship. If church polity requires that those who have responded be presented or if the minister wishes to comment about some aspect of the invitation, both should be done with a judicious awareness of the length of the service.

If ministry staff are well-cued in moving to and through the invitation, there is no reason that a public invitation has to be a major distraction from the overall worship experience. If ministers will restrain themselves and musicians will help make the close of the service a fluid movement and not an interrupted and distracting one, an invitation can be done tastefully, quickly and without distracting, extended wanderings in the liturgical wilderness.

Comments

  1. “the public invitation will be a strange animal indeed”

    I’m not convinced. I think that most liturgical churches have an invitation where people can “make certain public moves towards confessing their faith or joining a church do so by an initial public act in a worship service.”

    Our liturgical friends just call it: confirmation/chrismation, baptism, “coming into communion” etc. and it typically happens only once or twice a year mostly around Easter

    🙂

  2. I’d also add that I’d side with one/twice/thrice a year sort of invitation rather than the weekly because it has the potential of rooting out of the emotionally driven individuals who could benefit from a lengthy catechesis or accountability that would keep them from just “Making the move” down the aisle because the music is so motivating.

    That being said, I also like the idea of stuff happening more than once or twice a year and I’m many a liturgical pastor has had people come up privately after the service (again, I think good).

    Both ways have their ups and downs, I suppose a healthy balance between the two is the best route.

  3. Commenters: Please don’t comment about anything other than the public invitation as I’ve written about it. For instance, don’t give us “the eucharist is our invitation.” No germane.

  4. I always struggled with this as an evangelical pastor. In my mind, the invitation presented a contradiction with my understanding of worship. Worship is God-focused, and at the end of the service people are sent forth not called forward. The invitation seemed to grow out of an entirely different ethos–the mission of reaching the lost or recovering the backslidden believer. Furthermore, it seemed to me that only certain personality types responded to the invitation over the years because the format tended to try and be one size fits all.

    Having said that, I do think it is important to remind people each Sunday that whenever God’s Word is preached, we must respond. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts…” I have never had an objection to making that clear, and if evangelicals can find a way to do that in a way that is compatible with genuine worship and not just a revival-type service, I’m all for it.

  5. I’m not nearly as versed in theology as many of you, but just to play devil’s advocate, Peter essentially required a response from the group at Pentecost and Christian tradition has continued that aspect of our services.

    No one is denying that worship is to be about God, not us, but part of being about God is being about God’s work. Just my thoughts though. Granted, it probably shouldn’t be done every week, but it should be considered.

    The problem is when it gets out of hand. Growing up as I did, preachers often went “forever” with the invitation, pleading for someone…anyone…to come forward. I like the idea of having them, but I do think they should be done tastefully. If no one comes forward. Let it go.

  6. Just for the notes: walking forward in a church service isn’t a response either. It’s a small change of geography, and the only ones who every gave it spiritual significance was Finney and his followers.

    Basic to a good invitation is making clear that walking to the front of a church is to SHARE a profession of faith, etc, not to CREATE one.

  7. I was a guest preacher in a small town Baptist church here in central Indiana that had what I thought was a lovely and edifying tradition. At the end of the sermon and after a hymn of response, one of the congregational leaders stood up and asked for folks to respond to the service verbally. What did the Lord say to you today? kind of thing. Of course, that could lend itself to the more talkative dominating the conversation, but I thought it was pretty well controlled. The comments were insightful and it was much like a family talking together about what they might do now that they had been together in God’s presence.

  8. There is a form of the inviation system I’ve seen used that invites the worshipper to Christ Himself without the emphasis on publically “walking the aisle”. What you have described is indeed a part of the liturgy of more then a few Evangleical churches, though not all Evangelical churches. I prefer the invitations that focus on coming to Jesus wihtout the distraction of “aisle walking”. The focus then is on what Jesus has done, not what I can do…

  9. Makes sense to me. We respond to the work that the Holy Spirit by God’s word performs in us. Could a response to the invitation also be, “I believe, help my unbelief”? I think of the response of the Jews to Peter’s preaching, “What must we do to be saved”? Even if the invitation is to meet with the pastor/elders after service, I think it needs to be provided. I think there is a biblical presidence. It seems like a way for the congregation to show encouragement and acceptance to someone stepping out in an act of faith. Seems like a very human, caring thing to do.

    • Even if the invitation is to meet with the pastor/elders after service, I think it needs to be provided.

      Now this would be an alternative that I could get jazzed about: meet some godly folks who cared about my soul for an extended period of time after the service, maybe set something up for later in the week, whatever……the focus is on pastoral care, the service doesn’t get stretched out, and I don’t have to mumble something in the midst of shuffles, crowds, flotsam, and jetsam. This would take some organizing, some planning, and the right kind of elders/pastors.

      Great idea.
      Greg R

  10. Because of my experiences here in Austria I am torn between two views on the merits of or need for an invitation at the end of a worship service.

    On the one hand there is the widespread attitude in traditional Austrian circles that almost everyone around us is a Christian (either Catholic or Protestant) already, brought into the fold by baptism as an infant, and doesn’t need to be given an invitation. Unfortunately the state of our society makes this hard to believe, whatever one thinks of the merits of paedobaptism.

    On the other hand there is the evangelistic/revivalistic tradition of an Evangelicalism brought to Austria by American and German missionaries of various credobaptisti traditions which tends to turn every event organized/conducted by the church into a revival meeting with the focus on reaching the lost. This encompasses Sunday morning, any midweek meeting, any youth meeting, weddings, funerals — all evangelistic, all with some sort of invitation. There is no concept of the assembled church doing anything other than evangelize.

    To be sure this has improved, and now there are evangelistic efforts in the RC church endorsed by Card. Schönborn, and there is an increasing openness for worship as something apart from evangelism in some evangelical churches, but the old paradigms are still stringly present.

    So I strongly see the need for an invitation, but it must preserve the worship character of the service rather than turning it into a revival meeting. That it should not be manipulative etc should not have to be said, but probably does.

  11. The concept of the “invitation/altar-call” is a by-product of the camp meetings of the Second Great Awakening. At the end of the meeting, repentant sinners were encouraged to come forward for Communion as a sign of their new start. It was only when the sacrament was removed from the revival that a separate “altar-call” was necessary for folks to make a public confession. So saying “the eucharist is our invitation” is actually quite a legitimate statement.

  12. One thing that bothers me about some invitations I’ve witnessed is when the preacher, having failed to coax anyone to come down to the alter, resorts to the hand-raising method — by which I mean he asks anyone who has just made some sort of decision for Christ to indicate this by raising their hand (while, of course, every head is supposed to be bowed and every eye closed).
    As a Christian musician, I have played during quite a few revivals and youth rallies. There was one occassion during a revival at a Baptist church that the preacher called for raised hands. Admittedly, I was cheating and had my eyes open, and since I was behind the preacher on the stage, I could see the whole congregation. And no one was raising their hands. What shocked me was when I heard the preacher say something to the effect of: “Praise God! There’s one. And there’s another. Thank you, Jesus.” He kept on until those with heads bowed and eyes closed must have thought that a dozen or so people had raised their hands — while the truth was that there wasn’t a single raised hand in the building.
    Maybe that’s just one of the tricks of the trade, but I found it to be a wee bit dishonest.

    • maybe he was staring at his own hands…….just a thot: yeah, I don’t care for the every eye closed, every head bowed thing for this very reason (among others)

  13. Thanks Mr. Spencer.

    I wouldn’t doubt that some settings the Invitation is used quite effectively. In my experience, it was a point of contention between my father and myself when I was leading worship at the church where he pastors, and a big reason why I stepped down.

    “The choice and use of the invitation hymn has been the weakest area of invitational liturgy. Standard hymns of “pleading” and “resolve” have the potential to create an entirely wrong statement at the end of a carefully planned and well-executed worship service. The closing hymn should follow the theme of the service and not address a potential aisle-walker with pleadings, threats and promises.”

    Most Sundays left me feeling disingenuous at best, as I was coerced in this direction. Add to that being forced to gauge the “temperature” of the congregation and continue to play/sing until everyone was done praying at the altar who wanted to. In my dad’s mind, the success of the worship service was synonymous with the number of people who came forward for prayer during the Invitation.

    Taking part once in a great while may actually be beneficial, but by and large this is one tradition I wouldn’t mind see slipping to the wayside.

  14. Thanks for this post. At some point, it would be interesting to hear what some churches (as mine) who have historically had an invitation are now doing as an adjustment or alternative. I enjoy your blog.

  15. Growing up in the SBC, I know there were times in which folks responded to the invitation for spiritual comfort, counseling, or the like, and I wonder if that sometimes serves within that tradition similarly to private confession in other church bodies.

    • cermak_rd says:

      I’ve had the same thought. Christians sin, private confession was intended to help them recognize that they are reconciled to their Savior. I would think rededication is a similar concept. Why not use it that way, so that it recognizes the struggles going on in the people actually attending the church (I would imagine most attendees are not first comers).

  16. The public invitation is the main reason I don’t like going to church with my parents when we visit them. After a decent amount of pleading, he invites anyone who wants to walk the aisle. If no one does, he has everyone leave their seat, gather around the front, pray a repeat-after-me version of a sinner’s prayer to make sure everyone is covered, and then asks for raised hands of anyone who “prayed that prayer for the first time”. It’s almost as if he feels like he didn’t do his job if someone didn’t come forward, as if coming forward really means anything in the first place. I went to that church the first 18 years of my life and have sat through many “heads bowed, eyes closed” invites which were at least dignified, but I think that the idea that aisle walking is the proof of anything spiritual is a slippery slope as you have said.

  17. Jonathan Hunnicutt says:

    What about the charismatic tradition, where there is an invitation to receive Christ, and then an invitation to receive prayer?

    Though I didn’t like it at first, I liked it more and more as I went to my church. Mainly because it was such an affront to my pride. How could I, a seminary student, need to go down to the front to receive prayer? How could I be in need of love and grace and the prayers of my pastor and my brothers and sisters? Wouldn’t people think less of me?

    Well, God broke through all of that nonsense.

    For a liturgical church, I’ve thought that perhaps an invitation could be given for all who need prayer to come down before the eucharist, and people prayed with them, and perhaps priests/pastors anointed them with oil. And then they had a ‘front row seat’ to be watch the eucharistic liturgy, and be ministered to by the eucharist.

    Has anybody done anything like that before, or seen anything like that before?

  18. One church who is a facebook friend always has to publish the number of people who were saved at a service. I bet they do not like to end one scoreless!

    The invitation is focused on membership at my church. The day I was baptized, the Spirit moved the powerpoint guy to come down and get baptized, too. The pastor was surprised, the service ran long and the congregation was late for lunch, but it was a good day.

  19. I like the idea of the “invitation time” being part of the printed worship order (otherwise known as liturgy) because it seems much more honest.

    One of the reasons why I left Pentecostalism is that I realized that many of the (alleged) spontaneous movements of the spirit were part of a planned out worship order orchestrated by the ministers.

    If it’s going to happen, and it people feel that it is good for their churches, than I guess that’s okay. But I drop the pretense of “following the spirit” please.

  20. the invitation is a tricky thing! As someone who “got saved” by going up front during a fire side meeting at a youth camp, the invitation has a special place in my heart, (though now I believe I was actually saved when I asked Jesus in my heart. & I’m saved over & over again by his love everyday I confess in him & believe!). One big problem we have is that people often want to make the invitation the “offical” moment that you receieve salvation. Instead of a public confession of your faith, or better yet a public confession of your need of Jesus Transforming power, (weither the need is freedom from sin, healing, confession, etc…) The placement of your troubles on the body of Christ. The second Problem is the focus can easily become on the pastor’s ability to bring the “masses” to the alter (actually usally a pulpit). The real focus should be God, oh course, laying your burdens on him & your communion with your community of faith. I also believe public confession or conformation is very important in the life of the Church, I’m not entirely sure how much it matters to the individual but it helps the community know where you are on your walk & brings accountability to the Church. The invitation is not needed every Sunday, it requires to much emotion & soul searching for that —-just my opinion, peace

  21. The problem is the idea that “getting saved” is some sort of mental choice manifested as a hand raising or a repeat-after-me prayer that “seals the deal” for eternity. This tradition may help people enter the “club” in whatever gathering they are attending, but it does not constitute true conversion as many modern Christians have been taught.

    Ultimately, I think this man-made tradition gives the wrong impression of what constitutes salvation, not to mention, it changes the consciousness of the gathering of saints from focusing on the God-made traditions to focusing on getting non-members to join the club.