We live in a time where tradition gets downplayed and utilitarianism is king. Time is viewed as opportunity for something new, not as a chance to relive the past…as good as the past may be. I am not saying that is all good. I am saying that is the way things are often perceived. Often we suffer for that kind of thinking. Other times, tradition holds us back from much needed change and kingdom principles…it takes a lot of wisdom and discernment to know which is which…when tradition is helpful and productive and when it saps the life out of us.
When it comes to the invitation I have mixed feelings. On one hand it is what I know, what I have experienced my entire life and is a familiar part of the worship service that continually reminds us that there is ultimately a decision to be made to follow Jesus…and we aren’t going to let you forget about it! That alone is of utmost importance and isn’t really highlighted in many other places in the typical church.
On the other hand, the utilitarian side of me asks if we should keep on doing something that no longer seems to work as it once did. Gone are the days when someone hears a rousing message and comes down front, struck by the Holy Spirit in a moment’s notice by the sound preaching…responding in haste to avoid the fires of hell and enjoy the ecstasies of heaven! When someone is baptized on a Sunday 9 times out of 10 they knew it walking in that morning. Someone has studied with them. Someone has tilled the soil 1-on-1 and the decision was long in the making…as it should be. They would be baptized whether we had an invitation or not.
So on one hand I want to uphold the traditional invitation on its merits – that we can’t let people get away from the idea that sin is real, hell is real, repentance and baptism are a very real and necessary part of our response and that heaven is real, God is real, and salvation is real as well. We can’t let get people so tuned out of the faith story that the decision to follow Jesus just doesn’t seem to matter any more and so we offer and offer and offer…but it seems we get fewer and fewer responses…that is when the utilitarian side of me kicks in and wonders, “What else can we do in that moment that sends a needed message and is more effective than what we are currently doing?”
Here are a few things that I have tried or at least considered trying in its place:
- Make a point of application of the lesson something the people do during that time. Much of the rest of this list will flow out of this thought.
- Have people reconcile with each other rather than just with God. The invitation is a time of reconciliation with God and yet there are probably a dozen people in the room at odds with each other. Let them know that instead of coming up front for the typical invitation you want them to find someone they need to reconcile with and say they are sorry and make it right.
- A time of encouragement – instead of coming forward to let the professionals deal with you…encourage people to find someone nearby and pray with them if they have prayer needs. I really like this because it emphasizes the fact that we all have ministry to do and that we don’t isolate the responsibility of receiving the brokenhearted to the ministers and elders
- A time of prayer – give the congregation space to talk with God about how their life is going and what they need help with. They come to us so we can go to God…that is all well and good but we need to remind people that they can repent on their own without a “priest” to do it for them. Have we turned the invitation into an informal confessional where the real forgiveness comes because a minister/priest prayed for you that you couldn’t really get done between just you and God?
- Commission them as missionaries that as they leave the room they are on mission
- Speak words of blessing over the congregation by an elder or minister.
- What else would you include?
All of this to say – I am still all about offering the invitation, beckoning people, and reminding people of what is most important but I am also open to throwing in a surprising move from time to time that might wake people from their slumber and realize they really are being called to participate in this thing called faith each and every Sunday…and the rest of the week as well!
You could do like the Anglicans and exchange a sign of peace before the Eucharist. Also, they have a priest or lay people to hear confession and pray for people who request it
And it is while everyone else is going up to receive the Eucharist that people can go off to the side quietly.
Actually, I know an Anglican priest who sometimes offers an “altar call” after his sermons becaues he thinks it’s a good idea from the tradition of other churches.
I have heard of Anglican bishops offering an “altar call” once or twice a year but never a priest. Some of their sermons are tough.