You’ve probably been there.
Whether it’s in a big stadium while attending a conference, or a small, rural church while attending a church service, most of you have experienced what many have nicknamed “The Altar Call.” The preacher has just gotten up and spent thirty or forty minutes delivering a sermon, but before he goes, he announces there will be an altar call. It’s the portion of time when the altar is opened up and the audience is encouraged to come up front, whether they are making a profession of faith, “re-dedicating their life to Christ,” or praying for something specific. For the record, I’m not saying all altar call scenarios are bad. But the kind of thinking it can produce, both in the mind of the congregant and the preacher, has the potential to be concerning.
For example, attractional churches have taken this model for evangelism and altered it (pun intended) to fit their own devices. There’s fear-mongering and bullying people into heaven, and coercing people by trying to force emotional and feelings-driven responses. Some go as far as to manufacture evangelistic “success” to their audience by having staged responses to go forward and be baptized.
The gospel-centered movement has thoroughly, and helpfully, denounced such practices. We have called for evangelism to be authentic, to be driven not by fleeting feelings, but by firm conviction in who God is. Many have ditched the altar call altogether. There’s no longer an “invitation” portion following the sermon. I think this is by and large a good move. It’s our way of saying that we don’t ask people to come to Christ out of shame, out of mere feelings, out of coercion, or out of concern to be seen.
But my question is, even though we may be gospel-centered, are we still asking people to come to Christ?
I worry that, in our gospel-centered efforts to fight manufactured evangelistic tactics, we've swung the pendulum too far, and have softened our zeal for evangelism in preaching. We have made the sermon a lecture instead of an invitation to repent and be baptized. Yes, we preachers may not ask people to respond in a tangible way on Sundays. But are we asking them to respond at all?
It hit me when I was preparing a sermon a few months ago. I spent hours figuring out the best way to exposit the text, showing how the Old Testament points to Christ, praying through what I had to say, finding quotes to express my sentiments. I got a lot of good feedback about the sermon. People noticed my careful study, and my passion for what I had to say. But what of the person in the audience that wasn’t a believer that morning? Could they summarize my sermon by saying, “Come to Jesus!” or did I miss the mark? I certainly shared the gospel that morning, but did I explicitly invite people to put their faith and trust in Jesus, to “go forward” in their hearts?
I often read about men like Charles Spurgeon, George Whitefield, and John Wesley. A Reformed Baptist, a Reformed Anglican, an Arminian Methodist. So many theological differences among the three, yet they all did one thing so well in their preaching: they invited people to Jesus every time. It was the fire that burned in each of their hearts.
Spurgeon said, “Soul-winning is the chief business of the Christian minister.”
Whitefield said, “The care of the soul is a matter of the highest importance; beyond anything which can be brought into comparison with it.”
Wesley said, “You have one business on earth – to save souls.”
These men are some of the most celebrated and admired preachers in all of church history, and it is clear from their sermons and works that they constantly practiced what they say here. Can we do more than use their quotes to make our sermons and blog posts sound interesting? Can we learn from their example and use our preaching to point people to Jesus in an explicit, yet tender way? This is what gospel-less people need. They may not need an altar call. They may not need you to ask them to raise their hands with no one else looking around. But let us not be so gospel-centered that we forget to invite souls to Christ.
When you see the word “invite” in the New Testament, it is often used in the context of going to someone’s house for a feast. As we consider our role as preachers and pastors, we must remember that we have the privilege to be humble waiters to starving people. Some have filled themselves with what will not last. Some don’t know they are starving until they realize they haven’t eaten, and that a feast awaits them. Others are coming in desperate need of food. Our sermons must be rich and persuasive invitations, like John 6:50: “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.”
So, maybe you don’t have an invitation or an “altar call.” But there must be an invitation from the pulpit, a call for sinners to find their trust and faith in Jesus Christ. After all, we have the Bread of Life, food that satisfies! What Jesus wants more than our sermons to sound polished and our vision to be casted is for souls to be saved. This does not mean we force the hands and hearts of people. We leave God to that astonishing work. And until He works in this way, let us plead with those who hear us to taste and see that the Lord is good.