It happened at both services on Sunday. I gave an invitation, stepped down from the pulpit for the hymn, and sang all four verses of “Let Your Heart Be Broken” while waiting to see if anyone would come forward to join the church or give their heart to Jesus.
That’s not unusual in my experience. In fact, before coming to Richmond’s First Baptist Church it was far more unusual when someone did come down the aisle. Those were smaller congregations, with fewer prospects, but even so, on those Sundays when nobody came down the aisle, someone would invariably try to comfort me afterward. “I felt so sorry for you standing down there all by yourself,” they would say. “Especially after such a good sermon!”
That connection between a good sermon and someone coming down the aisle dates back to the “revivalism” that originated on the American frontier. James F. White claims that it was evangelist Charles G. Finney (1792-1895) who domesticated some of the forms of frontier worship and developed a pattern that soon came to dominate American Protestant Worship. He writes:
Characteristically, its normal Sunday service had three parts: a song service or praise service sometimes caricatured as “preliminaries,” a sermon, and a harvest of new converts…. The 1905 Methodist Hymnal suggested an order of worship that ended with an invitation “to come to Christ or to unite with the church.” Those so persuaded were to come forward during the singing of a final hymn. It is basically the order of worship still used in thousands of United Methodist churches in the South. Sunday after Sunday, Southern Baptists, Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, and many other denominations make this three-part form their basic order of worship. It reflects revivalism’s basic technique of warming up, calling to conversion, and reaping the results in calling those converted to come forward for baptism.
Effectively merchandised today by radio and television, the basic structure has not changed much except to become still more polished. Recent attempts to move the sermon back to a place earlier in the service are often resisted because the expectation is still strong that the sermon should lead to immediate results. Among Disciples and Churches of Christ, the sermon often comes after the Lord’s Supper so it can produce obvious fruit. Americans respect success, and here is a form of worship that has proven itself thoroughly successful in reaching the unchurched who happen to be present or have turned on the radio or television (Protestant Worship, pp. 177-178).
Understood in this way, the service has as its goal not worshiping God but making converts, and it is structured toward that end: the singing of emotional hymns to soften hearts, the “sales pitch” of the revivalistic preacher, and the hymn of invitation (usually “Just As I Am”). If nobody comes down the aisle after the first few verses of the hymn the preacher might ask the organist to pause while he makes a second appeal. If nobody comes after that he might try again after a few more verses. This is why “Just As I Am” is the perfect invitational hymn: it has lots of verses (I’ve heard as many as seventeen), and each one ends with the words, “O Lamb of God, I come! I come!”
If people think that’s what the worship service is for, then you can see why they would feel sorry for me if nobody came down the aisle, especially if it was a good sermon. They would be thinking: “The preacher made an excellent sales pitch, but couldn’t seem to close the deal. What a pity. What a shame!”
So, I have a question for all those preachers who get left standing at the altar from time to time, and for all those people who sit in the pews shaking their heads and feeling sorry for them:
Is that what worship is for?