Shock therapy for a church! That's what my father used to say with regard to what a powerful evangelistic/revival sermon could do for a local congregation. He's right. My father was used of God on a weekly basis for years in full-time evangelistic itinerate ministry. For over nine years I've done the same. I'm not necessarily a great orator or communicator of biblical truth, but almost everywhere I go we see multiple people come to faith in Christ for the first time. With all of my own insecurities (and for all the self doubt) I had to ask myself a few years ago why it was that God used this ministry to such a degree. Other similar ministries have the same God, same access to the Spirit, same Bible and same truths, but don't realize the same harvests. This is not universally the case. I know many evangelists who see filled altars with great regularity. Then it occurred to me.
There are several unfortunate beliefs and trends occurring in the church at present that prevent evangelists and evangelistic pastors from seeing those sorts of results they (and God) want. Today, I finally developed the constitution to just say what I think needs to be said on the matter. In my opinion evangelists and evangelistic pastors have become too scared to DRAW THE NET, as the old-timers say. For a detailed defense of invitations or "altar calls" check out my article on that subject HERE. Here are the cultural developments that have led to this:
FEAR OF BEING SEEN AS MANIPULATIVE
In his well known bestseller, Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell denigrates the stereotypical evangelist (though in his case it was an evangelistic pastor) when he describes a typical call of invitation in which the preacher asked for those who wished to be saved to raise their hands in the crowd. He explains,
The pastor then said, "I see that hand over there. Thank you. I see a hand in the back. I see some young women in the front. . ." And he proceeded to acknowledge the hands that were going up all over the room. During this entire time I had kept my eyes open and was watching the whole thing. I didn’t see any hands go up.(1)
Now while I’m certain that this sort of thing does occur, and I sympathize with Rob Bell’s irritation with it, one comes away from Bell’s book with the false belief that evangelistic meetings that look anything like this one are self-motivated, manipulative shams. Mr. Bell’s knack for throwing traditional church life under the bus does not need to be demonstrated. His articulation is a caricature. As one would expect, it does exist for a reason, but not all evangelistic preachers are like this. The tricks and gimmicks argument may hold water with respect to some evangelists, but not all of them.
On the heels of this I once received a phone call from a fellow evangelist who wondered how I perform my invitations in a way that was non-manipulative, yet organized enough to be effective. After my explanation he shared his concern that even though my style was not manipulative or deceptive he was just so concerned that he might be labeled as such that he couldn't do it. He is not alone in this. There has been enough Bell-style stereotyping that current evangelists and pastors are all but paralyzed in the pulpit.
For a thorough discussion of how I perform my invitations (including responses to possible objections from critics) listen to my interview with Joel Southerland on the Georgia Baptist Conventions evangelism podcast HERE.
The bottom line is that one can be honest and organized with the invitation in such a way that these concerns are satisfied. Yet, the trend of stereotyping evangelists and evangelistic pastors in this way has led to benign results from powerful sermons.
FEAR OF BEING CONFRONTATIONAL (STYLISTIC CONCERNS)
In describing the future of the progressive church, Brett Mccracken comments on the kinds of Christians that are popping up in urban collegiate areas and how they view Christianity. In a particularly telling moment he delineates what they don’t like.
Things they don’t like include megachurches, altar calls, and door-to-door evangelism. . . They don’t like American flags in church and prefer “Christ follower” to “Christian” and abhor “soulwinner” among other pat phrases likely to be heard in traditional settings. On the other hand, Christian hipsters “love breaking the taboos that used to be taboo for Christians.”(2)
The stylistic changes that have accompanied the "christian hipster" movement have led many churches to do away with altar calls altogether. There are several reasons for this, but one which bears mentioning is the fear of being too confrontational.
Resolving one of the major anxieties of the unchurched, congregations such as these have created environments in which seekers are able to attend a service without being put on the spot. As they would attend a play, movie, ballet or any number of sociological events, unbelievers are welcomed to sit and enjoy the day as observers. If they choose to become more involved it will genuinely be their choice, in their time and in their way. As a product of this observational generation, I admit that this removes a major irritation. Who doesn’t get a bit uncomfortable when anyone anywhere disturbs their private microcosm? “Alright, we’re going to split into groups,” or “stand up so everyone can see you” are downright frightening proposals to some. Thus, the admonition to come to the front of the church and “share what God is doing in your life” is terrifying. Are evangelists too confrontational for churches who are attempting to create this sort of environment?
Truly, many evangelists are confrontational, in a certain way. Creating a sense of urgency is often a part of the evangelistic appeal. This is not a false urgency, though, because the call to be saved is the most vital and important one that any person will ever experience. There is no getting around the fact that the work of the evangelist, like that of a surgeon, is straightforward, often uncomfortable and might get messy. However, I see no reason why this should disqualify such a ministry from modern churches. Some things are confrontational by nature.
Much like a hospital, an apt analogy for the local church, we should endeavor to make our buildings and services as comfortable as possible. What’s wrong with nice furniture, good music and friendly faces? Yet, no hospital will ever be without extremely uncomfortable moments. Moments in which a qualified M.D. will have the tough job of explaining that he is going to have to cut a patient’s chest cavity open with a knife, are unavoidable. It is a good thing that hospitals have not decided it would be too uncomfortable to employ surgeons. In fact, this demonstrates that, whether we consciously realize it or not, we treat spiritual matters as less real than other aspects of life.
If it is the case that every other realm of human experience involves confrontational moments, why should we expect the church to be any different? Hospitals have surgeons, lovers have the wedding proposal, jobs have interviews, parents have to change dirty diapers, drivers have speeding tickets, friends have arguments and churches have the straightforward call to repent and confess that repentance publicly. If we deny this, it is as though we are saying, “all of those other things are real and so they are necessary, but since matters of faith are personal they aren’t real in the same way.” What a horrifying thought. Occasionally, we must be flatly honest with someone about their condition.
As my former pastor Dr. Bob Mowery, who led Bobby Welch to the Lord, once said, “Aren’t you glad that on the day of Pentecost Peter didn’t say to the 3,000 who would soon be saved, ‘if you want to follow Jesus there is a nice table with some attractive brochures in the foyer of the next building?'”
FEAR OF ENCROACHING ON THE WORK OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
Recently I was speaking with a new pastor who shared the concern that when evangelistic preachers give structured invitations they are encroaching no the work of the Holy Spirit. "The preaching is over," he said. "That was your job. Now it's time to let the Spirit work." My Calvinistically inclined brothers often give this criticism as well.
What strikes me as odd about all of this is that it implies that the Holy Spirit is not also at work throughout the entirety of an evangelistic message. Should we push the conundrum back a step and assume that since the Holy Spirit is involved throughout the preaching we should not be organized or do any sort of preparation for the sermon either? Perhaps pastors and evangelists should take no thought of what they will preach until they stand at the podium. Some actually do this - and it is blatantly obvious. Yet, most ministers of the gospel are happy to admit that the Holy Spirit is involved throughout their sermon preparation and organization. Why is this focus and planning okay for the beginning of the process, but not for the end. This idea seems strange.
The bottom line is that evangelistic preachers know that they can't do the work of the Holy Spirit. I cannot offer or provide grace. I can't regenerate a lost soul. It's not in my power to glorify anyone in heaven. What I can (and believe I must) do, is to make the explanation and plan of salvation as clear, organized and understandable as possible.
As my calvinist brothers often say, "God uses means."
One of the problematic corollaries is that the same concerns (the bullet points in this article) that have led evangelistic pastors to abandon organized invitations have likewise led many in the church to abandon personal evangelism.
In 2011 an atheist, whose father is a Lutheran pastor, was a guest on our ministry’s podcast and explained the circumstances that led him to reject Christianity. Surprisingly, when it came to the subject of soulwinning (so “abhorrant” to some) he gave the following passionate appeal:
From your point of view, oh my gosh. I’m going to hell! Of course your going to try and convince me. I think it would be a moral obligation of yours. Not only that, throughout the entire Bible it talks about how you’re suppose to go out and [evangelize]. I totally understand that. And if you weren’t doing that, I think I would be a little confused. I would think, "this person is especially a cafeteria Christian, who just sort of picks and choose from the Bible what fits their pallet and throws away the rest."(3) - Listen HERE.
I find it inconceivable that we are living in at a time in the history of the church in which those who are outside of our fold are found challenging us to be soulwinners, while those inside of the church are questioning it as not to offend.
In the end, I see no reason to reject the gospel invitation. Moreover, I see no reason to reject the urgent, organized, non-manipulative forceful appeal for individuals to walk an aisle and profess faith in Christ. Let's recognize manipulation without tossing the baby out with the bathwater. Let us be done with altercallphobia!
1. Bell, Rob. Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. (Zondervan; 1St Edition edition) P. 176.
2. Mccracken, Brett. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. (Baker Books) Pp.97,98.
3. Follow-up discussion with “Will the atheist.” [Audio]. 2011. Retrieved April 10, 2015. From http://braxtonhunter.com/.