What is evangelistic preaching if not for an invitation to follow Christ?
Can one really say that this particular form of evangelism is “complete” if we don’t give an invitation to follow Christ, a space to give people a chance to respond to that invitation?
This is the question on my mind today.
A Definition of Evangelism
In early 2007, I wrote a What is evangelism? definition series.
Here is the definition of evangelism that I use:
Joyfully sharing the good news of the sovereign love of God,
calling people to repentance, to personal faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, to active membership in the church, and to obedient service in the world.
(Definition adopted by the 202nd General Assembly of the PCUSA, 1990).
This definition of evangelism has two parts:
- Joyfully Sharing and (proclamation)
- Calling People to (invitation)
As one shares the gospel, there is an invitation.
Can one be faithful in evangelism without giving an invitation?
Invitations in Scripture
- Jesus gives a simple invitation: “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, I will give you rest.” (Matt 11.28)
- Jesus uses the image of the wedding banquet and describes it as “Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you can find” (Matt 22.9)
- If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me (Mark 8.34)
- When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Luke 18.22)
- The Samaritan woman invites others to come and see: “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” John 4:29
- Phillip gives an invitation to Nathaniel: Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” John 1.46
Responses to the Preaching
Skimming through Acts we see several general statements about people responding by believing, which of course is what we are inviting people to. (4.3, 8.12, 8:36-37, 9.42, 11.21 and so on).
There are two stories that stick out to me:
- After Peter preached on Pentecost, “They said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” (Acts 2.37).
- Acts 16:29-30. The Phillipian Jailer asks “What must I do to be saved?”
In my evangelism conversations, sometimes the question is asked clearly — what must I do to be saved?
Sometimes the question is implied. People don’t know how to respond — they want to, and want to know how.
The reality is that some people don’t know how to express their new belief. Their hearts are dealing with matters of eternity and before the Holiness of God. There is not a training manual for that moment.
This is where an invitation can be helpful.
Some, like myself, didn’t need an invitation when I started to follow Jesus. I simply responded.
Others will need to act on an invitation to confirm their belief.
To present the gospel without giving people an opportunity to respond and “hope they know what to do” is short sighted and incomplete.
You can genuinely help people respond to God’s invitation. I invite people to express their belief in committing themselves to God in prayer and inviting Christ into their life.
We see that invitations are given in the Scripture and people called to start following Christ. What does that look like in a practical form?
What does an invitation look like?
A practice that began in the 1820’s with Charles Finney is the “altar call.”
It has had many forms over the years: raise your hand, walk to the front, pray a prayer. It’s become a staple of evangelical practice. It is custom and tradition that doesn’t have a Scriptural prohibition nor example. The practice is not commanded, nor prohibited in Scripture.
This form has its critics, both on theology as well as practice.
Most of the theological objections focus on the idea that people might misunderstand such actions to save a person. The prayer saves, the walking the aisle saves, the raising of the hand is the ritual.
Practical objections focus on the potential for manipulation: moody music, sob stories, and ongoing “there’s one more. . . ” type shenanigans. I’ve been in meetings like that and agree — it’s manipulative.
I give invitations when I’m invited to preach. As an itinerant evangelist, it is part of my duty to invite people to start to participate in the work of God’s kingdom.
When I give an invitation, I am very clear and straightforward so as to not be manipulative nor theologically wrong.
I say that one way of demonstrating that you are placing your faith in Christ is praying to invite Christ in your life. Prayer is the expression of belief. You believe, and this is a response. It’s an “X marks the spot” moment in your life when you began to follow Jesus. It give a person an opportunity to do something to express their new belief and desire to start following Jesus.
I also don’t drag out the invitation and I won’t use potentially manipulative music. I present my invitation as simple and straightforward as I can and give people the opportunity to respond to the message.
In some churches, I will invite people to come to the front, but the invitation is not to receive Christ, but to receive prayer, to let church ministry leaders pray with you and for you.
In other churches, I don’t give that kind of invitation at all. I invite people to stay in their seats and conduct their business with God. The act of coming to the front is not connected to placing your faith in Christ.
A theological dance
I am a firm believer that no one can find faith by “doing” something. Walking an aisle, raising a hand, praying a prayer is not an act that saves you.
You become a follower of Christ through belief in the Lord Jesus and as a consequence, you start following his will and plan for your life.
The Holy Spirit draws you to Jesus, regenerates your heart to enable you to respond, and fills you to start the process of spiritual growth.
Yet, there is a human response here. We are not automatons. It is our decision to receive this gift, to believe, and to start working out our salvation with fear and trembling.
How can we express that we are saved through faith alone, when to believe is a verb? How we retain the sovereignty of God in the experience of salvation, while at the same time TELLING SOMEONE THAT THEY HAVE TO DO SOMETHING, NAMELY, BELIEVE?
This is the theological dance in cooperating with the work of the Holy Spirit in evangelism.
Jesus says come.
Jesus says “If anyone opens the door.”
And the bible is clear, we are saved by grace through faith. Abraham believed, and it was credited to him as righteousness.
Salvation is a divine work. We are not saved because we respond — We are saved because the Holy Spirit has regenerated our hearts. Our human response to God’s regeneration is to offer ourselves. Repentance is an action — change in direction, in heart and in mind.
Let me ask you this?
What do you think? How do you handle invitations in your preaching and evangelism?