“Did you not see that a gentleman came forward at the invitation?” Sitting in a Chinese buffet, my friend David and I were in the middle of a painful sermon evaluation session. The way he asked that question gave me the suspicion that there was no good answer. I broke some clumps of sticky rice with my chopsticks. Then I replied, “I did notice. But I guess it didn’t impact the way I handled the invitation.”
This was not the time to defend myself, for as David rehearsed the scene to me, it became painfully clear that I had botched the close of the service. I asked the congregation to stand, and the song leader handed me a note with a song number on it, which I announced to the congregation. But as the instruments began playing, I slouched awkwardly away from the pulpit and shielded my face with the blue hymnal.
David had a category for my cowardly retreat from the pulpit: platform mechanics. Given his background in public speaking, he observed that I backed down as the leader when I scuttled away from the pulpit during the invitation (perhaps a more precise designation for this category would be presenting and performing). I remember that I was wearing a navy blue suit, white shirt, and lavender tie that Sunday morning. But in retrospect, I might as well have been wearing an oversized T-shirt that said in giant letters, “I JUST PREACHED A SERMON, BUT I CAN’T DO THIS INVITATION THING.”
The reason I botched the invitation was clear. I had spent several hours preparing the content of my message, but the minutes I had spent preparing for the invitation and close of the service amounted to exactly zero. When it came time to close the service, I was at a loss. So I did the only natural thing: I retreated. David pointed out that I didn’t even close in prayer! We could certainly chalk this up to lack of experience. But I think it’s more serious than just a rookie mistake. I think it points to a failure to connect the preaching event with the church’s overall worship.
Do Invitations Matter?
Depending on your background, the invitation may seem foreign or even distasteful. Perhaps the invitation reminds you of a preacher berating his audience until a satisfactory number of congregants “walk the aisle.” Or perhaps it reminds you of churchgoers trudging to the stairs of the platform Sunday after Sunday, out of habit rather than out of a genuine response to the preaching. Doubtless, the invitation has suffered abuse, whether it be from preachers who use it as a success metric, or whether it be from the strange and misleading terminology associated with it, such as “the altar call.” I won’t take the time here to defend the use of the invitation. May it be sufficient to point out that any true preaching demands a response, otherwise it is not true preaching. Of course we would be foolish to restrict the meaning of “response to preaching” to the few actions associated with the tradition invitation (kneeling, walking an aisle, etc). But it would be equally foolish to reject the invitation completely. One need not slavishly follow tradition to effectively use this tender time of reflection and response to God’s word.
For our purposes, we will define the invitation as the audience’s opportunity, while still gathered, to respond directly to the message preached. In many cases, the message calls believers to take action that goes beyond the bounds of the service itself (for example, honesty in the workplace). In those cases, the invitation can serve to reinforce the commitment to that action through personal prayer and meditation. In other cases, the message is a call to something that can be done within that meeting–such as repenting of a particular sin or trusting in Christ as Savior. In either case, it is usually the preacher who carefully facilitates this opportunity in a way that is shaped by the sermon, appropriate to the setting, and sensitive to the Holy Spirit.
Essential Components of an Effective Invitation
So how should you call your audience to respond at the close of the service? There is precious little written on conducting invitations. But here are what I understand to be the essential components of the invitation. I trust that a solid grasp of these components will allow me to be more effective, intentional, and even creative in connecting the audience’s response with the preaching event.
- The invitation should be shaped by the sermon’s application. Planning the invitation in such a way that it corresponds to the main thrust of application makes the invitation intentional rather than a matter of routine. For example, if the sermon is taken from Ephesians 1, the best invitation might be to call believers to joyfully sing the Doxology. If the sermon is taken from 2 Corinthians 7:1 (“cleanse yourselves from every defilement of the flesh”), an appropriate invitation might be to have people write out the defiling sins that come to their mind, and then prayerfully commit to taking whatever action necessary to rid themselves of those sins.
- The invitation should be appropriate to the setting and time constraints. Only so much can be put into action within the context of a church gathering. Often invitations will be a call for people to apply in the future what the passage teaches. Especially in the case of a call to salvation, the preacher should have counselors prepared to deal personally with unbelievers who respond.
- The invitation should be clear. First, the preacher should be clear about what is going on. He can say something like, “Now we have an opportunity to respond to what God has showed us from this passage.” Even if people are accustomed to the time of invitation, it never hurts to clarify its purpose in terms of response, obedience, or worship. Second, the preacher should be clear about who is being called to action. Is he addressing believers, or unbelievers? Those whose actions have been in direct conflict with the word of God, or also those who have already been obedient? Third, the preacher should be clear about what people are being asked to do. If people should have their heads bowed, no one should be wondering if he is the only one bowing his head. If people are invited to come to the front for further counseling, no one should be wondering whether or not that would be an appropriate action. Tenderness does not thrive in the soil of confusion. The preacher must be absolutely clear when giving the invitation.
- The invitation should be confident and urgent. Besides being clear, the preacher must also reflect his conviction that God’s word is truly powerful. He has wielded the Living Sword, and he should be confident that it will pierce even the most adamant heart. Yet he understands that as the human messenger, he must plead, “Be reconciled to God!” He is urgent because eternal matters are at stake. He is confident because he believes in the power of God’s word. The way he conducts this invitation should reflect this mixture of urgency and confidence.
- The invitation should be conducted in a pastorally sensitive manner. Since the invitation is in a sense the consummation of the preaching service, it is a tender time. People’s hearts have been laid bare, their motives have been exposed, and their consciences have been stirred. As their pastor, the preacher should be sensitive to people’s humble vulnerability at this time. He should be careful to not embarrass anyone or dampen the tenderness with an abrupt transition.
I am puzzled by the fact that the invitation tends to be neglected in literature on preaching. Perhaps this is because we are uncertain which discipline should claim it—homiletics, pastoral theology, or a theology of church worship. Regardless, if the preacher is responsible for closing the service, he must plan the invitation. He must not only lead his listeners from the introduction to the conclusion of his sermon, but also from the conclusion to the time they leave their seats.