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?

And Other Funny Stories about Sudden Death

Hear or download this post (mp3 file – 3:35): And Other Funny Stories about Sudden Death

It’s David Powers’ fault.

David is our media minister.  He’s the one who produces the television program we broadcast on Channel 8 here in Richmond each Sunday morning at 11:00.  David often finds me after the 8:30 service and tells me how things looked from the control room and what might need to change before 11:00, but this Sunday I found him.  I wanted to ask him if the shirt I was wearing, the one with the blue and white stripes, had caused any problems for the camera.  Sometimes those small patterns do cause a problem.  The camera can’t decide which stripe to adjust for, the dark or the light, and you end up with a swirling pattern on the screen that is exactly what it looks like when a camera is trying to make up its mind. 

David said the shirt was fine but he wondered if I could stretch the sermon another five minutes or so.  Seems the 8:30 service had come in significantly under an hour and even with the baptism at the 11:00 service David wasn’t sure we would have enough “length” for the television broadcast.  So, I went back to my study to see if there was anything I could do.

revival3There was one place in the sermon where I was talking about old-fashioned revival-meeting evangelists and thought I could probably add a few light touches.  I could describe the evangelist for one thing (slicked-back hair, skinny tie knotted around his neck,  sweat beading on his forehead and spit flying from his mouth), and then I could share a few of those stories those evangelists always seem to tell (like the one about the young man who is almost persauded to follow Jesus–almost–but then leaves the church without making a decision and gets hit by a train on the way home). 

What I was aiming for was a caricature of the revival-meeting evangelist, someone whose features and manners were so exaggerated that you just had to laugh.  But nobody did.  They didn’t laugh at the story of the young man who got hit by a train, or the old man who dropped dead of a heart attack, or the young couple who had a head-on collision with a cattle truck (a cattle truck, for cryin’ out loud!).  I couldn’t understand it.  These were hilarious stories, side-splitting stories about sudden death, and yet everyone sat there in thoughtful silence, contemplating the brevity of life, and how quickly it can all come to an end.

That will teach me, I suppose, that what strikes me as funny in that hectic time between the 8:30 and 11:00 services is not necessarily so.  That’s why I try to build into the sermon-writing process ample time for reflection and reconsideration, because what seems perfect in one hour may not seem perfect in the next.  On the other hand if I’m too careful about the process I might hamper the work of the Holy Spirit.  Sometimes you have to let go of the reins and enjoy the ride. 

Maybe that’s what happened this morning.  Maybe the Spirit took over.  Because eleven people came forward at the end of the service today, and some of them may have been thinking that they had better not wait until next week.  They had listened to the sermon.  They had heard the preacher say you need to make up your mind about Jesus and you need to do it soon.  Life is short, after all, and uncertain…

You never know when you might get hit by a train.