The Gospel and the Invitation
By Jerry Harris
Admittedly, I write this column with a certain bias. Either because of how I was raised or because of how God wired me, a church service just seems incomplete without an invitation to come into a relationship with Jesus Christ.
When I was growing up, invitations would come after the preacher had finished his sermon. He left the pulpit and descended to the floor – on the same level as his listeners – and invited the members of the congregation to come forward and do some business with God. During an invitation song, the preacher would scan the audience for movement. Those who came forward – to accept Christ, to rededicate their lives to Christ, to be recognized as part of the congregation or to ask for prayer – were welcomed and counseled on what to do next.
I have experienced these invitations at weekly church services, church camp, junior church, CIY. . . pretty much every time the Christians got together. When I entered the ministry of preaching, it also became an inescapable part of the order of worship for me.
I remember a particular invitation from the beginning of my ministry at The Crossing. Two high school girls came forward, and when I asked them why, one of them looked at me and said two words: “You asked.
Could it really be that simple?
James 4:2 gives us an answer: “You have not because you ask not. While James was talking about asking God for what we need, the principle applies just as well in our human interactions. James went on to explain that when we ask, we must possess the right motives, and what could be a greater motive than to tell someone who would surely die without it the greatest gift ever given?
Our movement was born out of a desire to restore the church to what it was in its infancy, that is, to do biblical things the biblical way. The sermon that announced the birth of the church had an invitation, and that invitation had a sense of urgency; the Bible says that Peter “pleaded” with his listeners (see Acts 2:38-41). It wasn’t a flippant call, as Peter also used “a lot of other words”. The Spirit-filled message “cuts to the heart” (v. 37). And Peter’s sermon was successful, as about 3,000 people responded that day.
Today, churches of all persuasions have relegated invitations to the church attic (along with hymns, pulpit furniture, pews, bulletins, banners, and bulletin boards). Some say an invitation is too confrontational, that it makes people feel uncomfortable, and that we need more subtle ways to bring people to lasting change. I do not agree. I think it’s essential to have a moment during worship for people to respond to the message. It serves to remind the congregation why we do what we do and what the desire to change looks like.
In our May/June issue, Chris Philbeck wrote about the need to preach the gospel. Under the title “Zero for Thirty-Six”, he described a recent study.
I read [an article] by a man who wrote about listening to four sermons each from the nine largest evangelical churches in the country (accessible at www.9marks.org). Colton Corter wrote, “Let me start with the most important observation: In 36 sermons, the good news of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ was unclear 36 times. A little later he wrote: “I do not mean that various elements of the gospel were not sometimes mentioned; they were. . . . But none of these [were] articulated or explained.
Chris emphasized that he didn’t mean to question these churches or their preachers, but it still left a striking impression on me.
It occurred to me that an invitation to accept Christ at the end of a message during a worship service compels the speaker to articulate who Christ is and what it means to accept him.
As ministers, we have been commissioned not just to preach, but to preach the gospel. The apostle Paul explained very clearly what this gospel is in his first letter to the church in Corinth:
Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel that I have preached to you, that you have received and that you have taken your stand on. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold fast to the word that I have preached to you. Otherwise, you believed in vain. For what I have received, I have passed on to you as being of the first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures ( 1 Corinthians 15:1-4).
In Romans 1:16, Paul made it clear that the power of our preaching is in the gospel, and in 1 Corinthians 9:16 he made clear the sorry position of the preacher if he doesn’t.
In 1977, Wayne Smith concluded his message to the North American Christian Convention with these words:
Preach the Gospel, brother, preach it!
Put it high where men can teach it;
Lay it low, where men can reach it,
But preach the gospel, brother, preach it.