I was recently invited by a pastor to preach at his church on Sunday morning. He told me it was a large congregation and they were planning a big evangelistic outreach. I was humbled that he would ask me to preach to his people, especially when could have asked any number of other evangelists to come. When I asked him why they invited me, he said, “Because you’re a preacher who still gives an invitation for people to respond. It’s hard to find anyone who still gives a clear invitation without manipulating or confusing the audience.” His response to me spoke volumes on multiple levels. If you do give an invitation, it is crucial that you give it correctly.
I’ve been preaching the gospel since 1987. I was just 14 years old when I sensed God’s calling on my life as an evangelist. In the years that have come and gone, I’ve seen preachers give good invitations, bad invitations, and no invitations. Currently, it seems as if the “art of the invitation” has fallen on hard times. Fewer and fewer pastors, speakers, and evangelists extend invitations at the conclusions of their sermons, and I think there are multiple reasons for this.
For some, it is a theological conviction. Why give an invitation if God has already pre-determined those that will be saved? We are powerless, they would say, to make any decision except the choice to sin and rebel against God, so for some the idea of an invitation doesn’t square with their theology.
For some, they’ve suffered through too many meaningless, manipulative invitations where the pastor wasn’t clear in the call to repent of sin and trust Christ. The “altar call” was vague, overly emotional, and confusing. My own mother went to her grave doubting her salvation because she was exposed to a an old-school “revivalist” who cast so much doubt on the authenticity of her conversion that she could never sense any assurance of her regeneration.
And for others, they don’t give any sort of invitation simply because they don’t know how. No one ever taught them. No one ever modeled it for them. They never witnessed a Biblical sermon (that exalted the resurrected Christ, made much of the grace of God, and called for a denial of self and turning from sin to Jesus) followed by a Biblical invitation that was clear and concise.
At this point, some have actually said that there is no Biblical mandate or model for an invitation. But this is simply not true.
While there is no prescription given for what an invitation must look like, there are numerous descriptions of people being called on to make a decision regarding the person of Jesus and the gospel.
Jesus invites disciples to come and follow Him, to lay down their nets and leave their tax collectors booth, and to become fishers of men. Jesus invites the crowd in Mark 8 to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Him. Jesus invites the rich young ruler to sell all that he has, give the money to the poor, and come follow Him. Jesus was constantly inviting people to leave behind lesser pursuits in order to gain eternal life in a relationship with Himself.
Fast-forward to the final book in the New Testament and you will read a beautiful passage portraying Jesus still inviting people to open the door of their hearts to His Lordship. In Revelation 3:20, Jesus says, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice, I will come in and have fellowship with them.” How beautiful! He knocks on the door of sinful hearts and He awaits a response. This is an invitation, plain and simple.
In my Coaching Network where I disciple and mentor young pastors and evangelists, I encourage them not to throw out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to the response after the message. Don’t refuse to give an invitation because you’ve only seen them done the wrong way. Instead, redeem the invitation and learn to extend it the right way. What is the right way, then? I believe there are a few essential elements to extending an invitation, both personally as you share the gospel one on one with a friend, and corporately as you proclaim the gospel from a stage.
1. Be Clear
I seldom give invitations any more for re-dedication or re-commitment for the simple reason that those concepts have become a “catch-all” for most people when they feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit. Personally speaking, I re-dedicated my life to Jesus dozens of times in my adolescence thinking that I was a Christian who needed to re-commit. But what I needed was to be saved, to be authentically born again by God’s grace. I continually felt the conviction of my sin, but instead of confessing and repenting, I just prayed meaningless prayers of re-dedication. I lived in a state of spiritual confusion for years. This is why I encourage you to be crystal clear when you are calling for those who have never truly repented of their sin to confess and believe in Christ for salvation. I am careful to deliberately say that this is NOT an invitation for Christians to recommit, that they can do that privately or with a pastor or a trusted friend, but that this is an invitation for them to commit their entire lives to Christ not just as their Savior, but also as their Lord, Master, Ruler and King. Be clear about the love of Jesus, the consequence of sin, the command to repent and the necessity of believing in Jesus as the resurrected King of Kings. Don’t confuse the listener. Be clear with them.
2. Be Christ-centered
It is so easy to pull on people’s heart-strings when they have been laid bare by the Word of God and the conviction of the Holy Spirit. We must avoid making the entire invitation about the individual’s need to respond and make sure that we also make Jesus the star of the sermon and the object of the invitation. We must never give the impression that we are inviting people to a better life, a happy future, or a heavenly home with streets of gold. We are inviting people to see Jesus, savor Jesus, and be saved by Jesus. He is the treasure they receive, not answered prayers and better relationships and financial blessing. Jesus is the goal, the destination, and the object of the proclamation and the invitation. Talk about His perfect life. Be bold concerning His crucifixion. Explain the meaning of the cross and how Jesus took their place when He was nailed to a tree. Make much of His resurrection from the dead. Warn them of His judgment against their sin. Tell them how they can be reconciled to a loving Lord by repenting of their sin, trusting Christ, and beginning a relationship with Him that will last for eternity. Tell them that Jesus loves them, died in their place, and offers them salvation and new life.
3. Be Concise
Speaking strictly in terms of extending an invitation to an audience, I implore you to get to the point and not beat around the bush. I am not speaking of prayer times at the altar for healing, for lost loved ones, or for ministry among the members of the body. I’m talking about preaching for the sake of the conversion of the souls of sinners. Know what you’re doing before you do it, and do it quickly. Know where you’re going and take them there with you to a point of decision. Those moments are so emotionally tender for the listener that it’s imperative for you to remind them of the essentials of the gospel and then call them to make a decision based on what they’ve heard. Nothing will quench the Spirit quicker or confuse the individual more completely than a long, drawn out invitation. Don’t get your ego involved. Resist the temptation to keep begging and pleading with people to respond if you feel like the numbers were too low. That’s not your business! Preach the gospel. Trust the sufficiency of scripture. Allow the Holy Spirit to draw sinful hearts to the good news. Tell them how to “confess with their mouths that Jesus is Lord and believe in their hearts that God raised Him from the dead.” Pray with them. Lead them, don’t push them. Then tell them how to take their next step as a disciple and hand them off to a pastor or shepherd in their local context.
Several years ago my wife and I had the honor of spending the day sitting at the feet of Billy Graham in his home in North Carolina. It was a dream come true for me, since I’ve modeled much of our ministry at Crossroads after him. Dr. Graham said something to me that afternoon in his living room that I’d like to pass on to you.
“Clayton, if I could go back and change some things about how I did evangelism, one of the things I would do differently is spend less time delivering the sermon and more time extending the invitation. That’s the most important part of the sermon anyway. I should have talked less and given the Holy Spirit more time to talk to the audience, and given them more time to respond to His invitation. Don’t be cute. Don’t be clever. Preach Christ and Him crucified. Tell sinners how to be saved. Then give them a choice to make, right there on the spot, when their hearts are tender and they are experiencing God’s loving conviction.”
Don’t be afraid of the invitation. Learn how to do it well. Study others who extend it carefully and correctly. Then have faith in God’s sovereignty and call people to respond. The great scholar John R.W. Stott said that every sermon must end with two words: Will you? Our job is to ask the listener if they will respond to the grace of God and receive His gift of salvation by faith. The results aren’t up to you, but as the mouthpiece of the gospel, the invitation is. So give it confidently and leave the response and the result to God.