What if You Gave an Invitation…and Nobody Came?

preacher2cropsmallIt 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.

Nobody came.

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?

11 thoughts on “What if You Gave an Invitation…and Nobody Came?

  1. It’s a good question and the history lesson is spot on. Worship is primarily to glorify God and secondarily to edify, instruct, and equip believers, so they, in turn, can go out and make disciples. The Great Commission says, “Go and tell!” not “Come and hear!”

    While there’s nothing wrong with having an “altar call” (other than the little awkwardness people feel when no one responds), maybe these invitations would be more meaningful if they were reserved for special occasions like evangelistic crusades and revivals rather than tacked on to the end of every service.

  2. To my way of thinking, Jim, an encounter with God (which is the heart of worship) always calls for a response. When I offer an invitation at the conclusion of a service, in addition to the usual options (salvation, church membership and the like), I always make the point that everyone present must decide whether or not to act on what God has done in their lives, whether they “walk an aisle” or not.

    If you depart from a service the same as when you entered, I would say what you experienced was not worship.

  3. Of course, something you have to keep in mind (now that many of us are worshipping via 21st Century communications) is that you may not find out until next week, when they are standing in front of you, that they were SO inspired by THAT webcast. That it was THEN, (when you were standing there looking so alone) that they made the decision that they were going to attend the next worship service in person, and make the commitment to join our church.

    Also, I do know that one of my local friends (who is of the Catholic faith) is a big fan of yours, and makes a point of downloading the transcripts of your sermons. My friend won’t be switching churches, but your sermons are very much part of their study of Christ’s ways.

    Finally, I have no doubt that there are people in other countries who are being inspired by these webcasts to become Christians.

  4. Oh Jim you know better than to ask a Baptist “Is that what worship is for?” Ask 50 Baptists and you will recieve 50 oppinions…all different:) All in good humor! Steve

  5. Thank you Jim. This particular blog brought back floods of memories. I fully agree with your assessment. I grew up in a charismatic, tongue speaking holiness church that used fear and intimidation to get you to walk the isle. And, if you didn’t walk, they would come and get you. “Just as I am” was the favored hymn. I was guided down the isle at the knowledgeable age of seven, eight and nine, with not the faintest idea what I was doing. If a tent revival was within 100 miles we went. I recall that the evangelists always had the revelation that God had chosen ten people in the congregation to give $100, twenty five to give $50, and fifty to give $10. I lived in a frightful state, expecting at any moment to be struck down to ground with the Holy Ghost and start speaking a foreign language of fire. I do not mean to make light, because some people want to view God in this way. It was not until I was 17 years old that I learned that God loved me and wanted me to just love him in return. I walked down the aisle again, but it was somehow different this time. The Holy Spirit had tugged at my heart strings during the sermon and I knew it was time to experience his love first hand. The growing up experience taught me a lot — I know all of the seventeen verses to “Just as I am.”
    Forgive my musings…. this may be too long to post.

  6. I like the idea that the doors of the church are always open (as conveyed by the invitation at each service), but we do risk falling into the trap of expecting “a harvest of new converts.” But that isn’t really the purpose of worship, is it? Worship is about God. Anytime we put anything or anyone else at its center, we pervert our worship in some way.

  7. The congregation that ordained me has held on to the altar call. They do it at the final hymn every Sunday. It’s called “the invitation.” Every so often, someone will respond. They thought about taking it out but then realized that there were very few obvious ways into the fellowship. If we are to prize membership, then we’ll need transparent ways into the fold. The invitation covers this well.

    But the struggle I have is that I agree with Moger. So, is the worship service an appropriate time to talk about membership or to offer it? I just don’t know.

    Excellent post, and timely for me as well. The congregation I presently serve is struggling with leaving the revivalist liturgy behind them.

  8. You may appreciate a story my father told of the first time he was asked to preach at Chapel of the Women’s Prison in Virginia. At the end of the service, as he always did, he gave an invitation for anyone who felt the call of God to come down the aisle and publically acknowledge their decision to live differently. No one came, and afterwards, the Warden chastised him severely and ended with “We don’t do that here!” To which Dad replied, “With all due respect for your rules, Miss Kates, I never speak of the word of God without offering someone an opportunity to make a profession of faith if they choose — for me, it’s not just about church membership!” Miss Kates didn’t change her rules, but she always respected someone who acted sincerely on matters of faith, whether she agreed or not!
    Personally I believe the invitation is not just for church membership, but at times, publically acknowledging a new relationship with one’s “Higher Power”.

  9. Dr. Somerville:

    Some born-again (I say “born again” because “evangelical” has been perverted by the so-called “emerging church”) Pastors are giving congregants the option to come forward in private even though Jesus called people publicly. I hope I’m wrong but I think the Millienial Generation is probably more receptive to come privately.

  10. I have been in Baptist churches with ‘extended’ altar calls (choir singing softly, organ playing, heads bowed, etc) that seem to me to be more of a sales pitch playing on emotions rather than having people just make public the decision they have already made. I have seen too many people come down front, make a decision, and head out the back door, hardly ever seen again. I would rather see the pastor invite people considering membership or baptism meet after the service with a staff member to discuss exactly what both mean. A little counciling would help the individual understand exactly what both mean, and where they would go from there. We were called to make disciples, not just converts. From what I’ve experienced, we stop many time at conversion and don’t explain what each mean just to ‘get the numbers up’, whatever that means.

  11. Jeremiah comes to minds on a Sunday when nobody responds. He preache, what, about forty years without any sort of response. As evangelist and pastor he was a total failure.

    It also bothers me (this whole emphasis on ‘gettting a response’). When that’s the focus, any old response will do. So we are tempted and (sometimes) succomb as clergy to the idea that ‘any response’ is better than ‘no response.’ If we can’t get them to come as new disciples, maybe we can scare the %^&* out of them. That works well with the kids. Or maybe some teenage boy has “lusted in his heart.” Time for that boy to get convicted and rededicated.

    I remember a “supply preacher” who filled the pulpit when I was a teen. At “invitation time” he hooted, hollared, and screamed, pacing back and forth in front of the church at “Just As I Am” was played. We kept singing and singing and singing. He kept screaming, and screaming, and screaming. I finally “got saved” AGAIN. After services, the Youth Minister asked me what was going on. I told him the truth.

    “I felt sorry for him and wanted him to stop screaming.”

    The Youth Minister smiled, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Don’t do that again!” As I walked away, I know that he really appreciated what I did.

    I’m with you, Jim. If we have to have an alter call at all let’s make it about attracting new converts to the WAY of Jesus – to a life of grace, peace, love, and discipleship.

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