Monday, March 22, 2010

The Problem with "The Invitation"

Our youth band was asked to play a few songs at another local church last night. This other church is having their annual "revival" this week, and Sunday night was their youth night. They brought in a well-known "evangelist" (a bit of a local celebrity) to preach for this revival.

I'll not share the name of this church or the name of this evangelist, because the purpose of this post is not to criticize this church or this man. I simply want to critically examine some of his methods.

After speaking for nearly an hour for a room full of students and adults, the evangelist invited everyone to bow their heads and close their eyes. After talking about salvation for a few more minutes, he invited folks to repeat a prayer and receive Christ. All good so far, but what took place over the next 15 minutes or so is where I really became uncomfortable.

The evangelist then asked everyone to stand. He spent the next 2-3 minutes talking about "really meaning it"...he really hammered home the idea that, unless the people asking Jesus to "come into their hearts" really meant it, nothing would "change" for them. After telling everyone else to keep their eyes closed several times, he then asked for all those who had said the prayer and "really meant it" to come forward.

I didn't dare look up at this point, even though I was sitting on the back row, so I can only assume that there were several youth who came forward, and maybe a few adults. Once these people were up front, he told them to all hold hands in a circle. Apparently there were a few students who weren't to keen on this idea (I'm assuming they were boys), because he said, more than once, "I know you don't want to, but you have to hold hands".

Once he was satisfied that they were all touching each others hands, he said, "God's telling me that there are some adults in this room who have said this prayer but haven't come forward, so we're going to all pray that they will come forward." He asked us all to pray with him (I didn't, sorry), while he said something to the effect of, "God, take away the spirit of fear that is keeping these adults from coming forward". I think maybe one or two more adults came forward at this point, but I'm not sure, because I still wasn't willing to look up.

Somewhere in the middle of all of this, the evangelist paused and addressed at least two of the boys who had come forward..."I'm sorry, but I can't handle the boys have been laughing since you came up here, which tells me that you really don't mean this...if that's true, you should go sit back down."

Once he had everyone up who was going to come up (at this point, we'd had our eyes closed for about 10 minutes), he went on to explain how he sould never forget the night he accepted Jesus, and how he wanted these people to not ever forget this night either. He then spent about 5 minutes talking to these people about how, now that they had made the decision to follow Jesus, they had to give him their "whole heart". He also talked about how they had to read their Bible everyday. He made each one of them promise to read their Bible everyday.

Everyone else may have been looking up to the front of the sanctuary at this head was still bowed...I tend to look at the ground when I'm feeling uncomfortable or angry...

Finally, after the evangelist had apparently said all he wanted to say and had gotten all of the verbal commitments he could out of these people, he ended in prayer. At the end of his prayer, I finally looked up to see that there were probably close to 20 students and at least a few adults returning to their seats. In a room of maybe 100 people, that's a pretty big number.

Anyway, there is the story. Here are my thoughts:

First of all, let me just say, if you're going to spend more than 20 minutes to share the Gospel with a room full of teens (on a school night), you'd better be incredibly dynamic. Unfortunately, and I can say this because I've heard this particular evangelist speak more than once, he's not dynamic enough to pull that off. IMHO, people who get up in church to preach should spend more time checking out the words (and length) of Jesus' "sermons" in the NT. Jesus usually kept it short and on point, and he had miracles to fall back on if his topic was a bit boring. But, onto more serious thoughts.

The idea that a come-forward invitation does anything for anyone's salvation is beyond me. I've heard many stories of people who have gone forward in a church because the preacher told them to but didn't actually come to Jesus until a later time, but never once have I heard of anyone who, after saying a prayer, only came to Jesus because they walked forward in a church service.

What I do know is, asking people to come forward in a church service makes most people very, very uncomfortable. Making people feel incredibly (and unnecessarily) uncomfortable at the exact moment they could be speaking with God for the very first time is probably something that makes Satan very, very happy. That's not right.

My guess is, those boys who were laughing were probably laughing because they were either incredibly nervous about being in front of everyone, because they were nervous about having this evangelist guilt them into doing and saying things they weren't comfortable doing and saying, or because they were being forced to hold hands with each other (and maybe even with a girl). And, calling a few 11 year old boys out in front of everyone is certainly not going to makethem respect an evangelist or God.

I also know, from experience, that asking a student to come forward is a great way to get a very unclear idea of who is actually making a decision and who is just bowing to peer pressure. I can't tell you how many times I've been to a student conference or church service with an invitation and have seen who knows how many students walk forward just because they got caught up in the emotion of the moment and wanted to stick with their best friend who was also walking forward.

Requiring (and again, this evangelist spent at least 5 minutes guilting people into coming forward) people to do anything other than call out to God for salvation in order to "be saved" really, really messes with people's heads. It is faith alone that saves...forcing people to not only come forward, but to also hold hands with each other, to promise to give their "whole hearts" to God and to look the evangelist in the eye and promise to read their Bible everyday is really muddying the water. All of those things might be good and well at certain times and in certain steps, but people must understand from what you tell them and from what you ask of them that salvation begins and ends with faith.

Certainly there's a better way of doing things? Certainly there's a way to share the Gospel, lead people to the point of accepting Christ, and be able to speak with them individually and connect them with that local church without creating an incredibly awkward and uncomfortable atmosphere?

BTW, just so you know I'm not anonymously attacking this evangelist personally, I am sending him an email with some of my thoughts here (although, I'll word it more sensitively) and an invitation to contact me, and I will continue to pray for his ministry. From what I know of him, he's pretty set in his ways, but I'll give it a go anyway.



Rick Lawrenson said...

What you witnessed was a practical application of a "Gospel" that adds to simple faith in Jesus. It's called "Lordship Salvation" and its evangelists typically use these kinds of exaggerated tactics to get "salvation decisions".

Of course, the more "decisions" you can report, the greater your success.

You probably noticed I was not in attendance. I knew his theology and even though I would have liked to have heard the band, I didn't want to sit through the sermon with its necessary guilt trip invitation.

I hope you and/or Andy will sit down with our kids and debrief them. They don't need to be confused about the freeness and grace of salvation.

Rachel E. said...

Well said, Nathan!

I think one of the biggest turn-offs for kids choosing to follow Christ these days is insensitive, domineering adults who may be VERY well-meaning, but who act like dictators of the faith when that's not what it's about at all.

I really admire your (and your church's) commitment to reaching the different generations in relevant ways.

CFHusband said...


Yes, I plan on talking with them next Sunday.

Kristen said...

Well said!
I'm glad I know people who talk about the freedom of grace and not all about the legalism many put into it.
Would be interested to hear what your youths think and the guy says in reply to your email...

CFHusband said...


I seriously doubt I'm going to hear back from him. I'm guessing he's heard my message before. I'll let you know if I do.

Erin A. said...

Amen, to your Dad's last point, Nate. If you're in a position to have that de-briefing in a non-threatening, non-critizing manner, I think it would serve the dual purpose of countering any misconceived messages and supporting those who might have made a decision and were too intimidated/scared/etc. to come forward.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with what you said and how you said it. I never would make a group of people come forward EVER. It makes people uncomfortable, and with junior high/senior high boys..there is always the "you are a chicken if you don't go up dude" boys. Thanks for sharing and for not gossiping while doing it!

Virginia S. said...

Well said Nathan, I had something like this happen to me when I was a small child and it actually scared me to death.

This is a big turn-off to kids who do not understand Jesus and may truly want to learn more about Him/accept Him into their lives.

I am so glad to be a partner of Nags Head Church, your dad has a special way of preaching the gospel without putting anyone in an uncomfortable position.

Jeff Wasnesky said...

Hey Nate. Just wanted to say that I agree. I think I remember being asked to stand at our church by your father if we felt that we were at a point in our lives where we needed help from Jesus. I did not feel uncomfrtable at all,but I know if I was asked to walk up in front of the church I most likely would not have. I could not imagine being a young student and doing that. Like you said it would turn more into a peer pressure situation. Also as being a new or baby Christian you can correct me if I am wrong but I thought by accepting Jesus in my life was just the begining of a long process to get as close to giving my whole heart to Jesus. I also just wanted to thank you and your family for helping me to take that first step. There is something special about Nags Head Church.

Emma and Mommy said...

When I accepted the invitation, I was with my sister (also answering his call) and my youth minister in a private room, there was some talk before hand about what it meant, and we prayed the prayer. My youth minister then left the room encouraging us to talk to God on our own, in private and we did. I think that extra prayer time was what made mine so special. Finding the Lord should be a private thing in your heart, where you have time to talk to him, confess your wrong doings and ask for forgiveness. It should NEVER be done as an altar call, where you basically feel forced or uncomfortable or anything like that.

I have been to many events like you described and honestly while I think ministers have good intentions, sometimes they like to show off on what "They can do" and they forget its not their words that do it, its God words.
Its not about the number of people you touch, but the quality in doing so.

My church does a nice prayer, bow your heads, close eyes, raise your hand or look at the minster for recognition that you are taking Christ into your heart. I spend that time also in quite prayer asking God to touch those in the room in need. We end by praying together out loud. It takes less than 5 mins but those few mins are precious and done in great taste in my opinion.

I agree. You need to debrief so to speak your youth. God Bless those who seriously took the call, may they continue to follow his path for them in life.

Sorry I am long winded today, just touched on something that has bugged me for some time. I am so glad you blogged about this! --Lori

jordysmom said...

I was "forced" to accept Jesus into my heart when I was 5 years old by my very well-meaning grandmother, who was raising me.

She called our Pastor, and told him I was ready to accept the Lord, so of course he came over to our house to speak with me. She had some "vision" in her head of how this was supposed to go, and she insisted that I neel by my bed to pray with the Pastor. She told me what to say in my prayer. I was embarrassed to pray outloud in that setting, and I was scared.

Even at 5, I could tell that our Pator was uncomfortable too, and he tried to suggest that maybe I wasn't ready. My grandmother very sternly said, "She is too ready, and she has to be saved before she reaches the age of accountability." I'll never forget it. She was no doubt raised in a church with a Pastor like the one you have described. She felt it was her responsibility to make sure I was saved. I've sat through so many sermons, like the one you've described, that I can't count them. Those experiences kept me away from church for so many years.

The youth of your church are so very fortunate to have you to guide them.


Ellen said...

I know neither this church nor this evangelist. It seems to me, however, that he is using "his" judgment as to whether these people have really accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior. That particular judgment is for Jesus alone. I would find this kind of preaching situation uncomfortable and intolerable. Frankly, were I to know this person,I would probably avoid services in which I knew he were doing the preaching.

CFHusband said...

Just and FYI. Here's an email I received today from the evangelist. In my email to him, I let him know that I'd be speaking to our youth band about the service.

"Sorry to disappoint you on these issues. The Holy Spirit directs my every move so discussing any of these concerns you raise would not be productive. Speaking with "others" about this is disobedience to the Word of God and only promotes gossip. We are to speak to people about this stuff (as you did) and not about people."

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Thank you for posting this; I have seen this kind of emotional pressure put on people to "fall down" when being ministered to for healing or similar, and it really isn't pretty.

While I am quite sure that there is a place for altar calls to enable people to respond to God's invitation, I'm just so thankful that salvation depends on God's grace! We don't have to worry about doing it "right", we just have to say "Yes"!

Deb said...

Amen and so sorry he felt he had to respond in that manner.
Another matter...I think you have met the Smith's, Manteo ( I know they are in your area, could you please give a shout out for prayers as they are struggling right now. Thanks!

jose said...

I wanted to address "really meaning it." That emphasis comes from the idea that salvation is something that only happens at the sinner's prayer or some other single point in life. And that's all that really counts I guess, getting people saved. But what if the Gospel isn't just for unbelievers to get saved, but also for believers for their sanctification? Wouldn't that relieve the evangelist's fears of people not meaning it? It might relieve your concerns of people answering altar calls too.

You might like "Salvation" by Langston Hughes, who was part of the Harlem Renaissance. It's a short memory piece about an altar call in his youth.

jose said...

Also, you answer the evangelist's reply by telling him you were led by the Spirit to speak with him about it and we know God doesn't act against himself.