To gain some perspective, let’s reflect on the history of this practice. There’s no mention of it in the New Testament or the Church Fathers. In fact, it likely began with 19th Century American Frontier Revivalism. Frontier Revivalism was a feature of the Second Great Awakening led by Charles Finney, Barton W. Stone, and many other American preachers. These men preached powerful evangelistic sermons in frontier communities, pointing the sermon toward a climatic call for those in the audience to come forward to sit on the mourner’s bench.
The mourner’s bench was a place designated for the lost to mourn their lost condition. As no one can be saved without repentance, the idea was that the convert must first deeply regret his unregenerate life and so mourn before being accepted as a convert. And what better place to mourn than in front of the congregation?!
Over time, the mourner’s bench went out of fashion, in part due to Alexander Campbell’s unrelenting attacks on the practice. To Campbell, conversion was simply a thoughtful decision to accept the gospel facts and submit to baptism. He distrusted the overt emotionalism of mourner’s-bench preaching.
Nonetheless, the practice of offering “the invitation” eventually became standard practice throughout Churches of Christ. Rather than asking the convert to mourn, the convert is invited to come to front of the assembly, confess Jesus, and submit to baptism.
The practice is hardly peculiar to the Churches of Christ. Many American denominations, such as many Southern Baptists and Pentecostal churches, share in this practice.
Over time, the invitation came to include requests for wayward Christians to come forward and recommit their lives. Likely, this resulted from generalizing the practice at revival meetings. At a revival, Christians are called on to renew their commitment by coming forward. After all, this sort of recommitment is the original meaning of “revival.”
I don’t know when, but the practice was also added of asking Christians who’d committed a “public sin” to come forward and confess their sin before the congregation. The idea is that confession should be as public as the sin.
Many churches also came to adopt the practice of asking members who want the prayers of the entire church to come forward to solicit those prayers.
Lastly, it’s been customary for a long time to have families who wish to transfer their membership to the congregation to come forward and make that request.
I would add that I’ve been part of congregations where it was considered imperative that the invitation be offered at every gathering of the church, even working meetings such as a Tuesday night visitation meeting.
The fervor with which many of us insist on offering the invitation is truly surprising when you realize that it’s nowhere found in the early church. In fact, it’s not even one of our traditional “five acts of worship.” Confessing sin, confessing faith in Jesus, baptism, placing membership, and such are simply not in the list! And yet we treat the practice as though Jesus ended the Sermon on the Mount with an invitation. He didn’t.
A few corrections are in order, I think.
* Have you read Why Men Hate Going to Church? Going forward to confess sin or ask for prayer is exactly the sort of thing that most men despise. Think about it … of the last 10 or 20 people who went forward, how many were men?
This not to say that men don’t need to ask for prayer or confess sin or ask to be baptized or place membership — far from it! But the going-forward or altar-call approach doesn’t get it for the vast majority of men.
Alternative methods need to be provided for men–and many women!–who aren’t willing to walk down the aisle.
The church handled these things for nearly 1,900 years without “the invitation,” and I’m sure we 21st Century leaders can discover approaches that work as well or better than 19th Century methods.
* The notion that the invitation is commanded or essential to having a proper worship service is just not true. In fact, the central Biblical purpose of the assembly is to encourage and edify the saved, not to convert the lost.
A long time ago, many of our preachers missed the turn and confused evangelistic meetings with Sunday morning worship, and so they got into the mindset that they needed “responses” to have an effective preaching ministry.
But the idea of generating baptisms from the pulpit is fairly new in Christian history. In fact, it often leads to a distortion of the Sunday morning assembly, leaving the members underfed.
* The preacher should not be judged based on the number of responses. Forgive my cynicism, but I think the reason we’ve added some many purposes to the invitation is to increase the number of responses, making the preacher look better.
Responses can indeed be one of many possible indicators of a good preacher, but they can also be indicators of emotional manipulation and a false understanding of grace, as I’ll explain.
There are other ways to accomplish these things, and undue focus on “responses” is unhealthy. Responses are, of course, good. They just need to be kept in perspective.
* Conversions arise better from one-on-one studies rather than hellfire and damnation sermons. One of the great mistakes we’ve made is to scare people into baptism. God wants a convert and a disciple, not someone desperately afraid of hell and willing to do anything to salve his conscience.
I grew up in a church where the lost were routinely dangled over the fires of hell by the preacher in an effort to scare them into being baptized. There are at least three problems with this.
First, it generally doesn’t work. People who hear about hell every Sunday build up defenses or just stop coming. Most people resent being made fearful week after week. It’s far more effective to draw people toward the love of God than to scare people with the wrath of God. I mean, imagine living in a household where fear was the key motivator and love was a distant second, rarely talked about for fear that the family might not be sufficiently afraid! What could be more dysfunctional and neurotic?
Second, it sometimes does work. And when a convert is converted to fear of hell rather than the love of God, they often don’t stay converted past Monday. Or else they are apt to become legalists, building their relationship with God on fear of hell.
Third, as a result, churches that overemphasize hellfire preaching often tend to be legalistic. Fear-driven theology is false theology.
Of course, the Bible talks about hell, Jesus especially, but it’s not the dominant theme. Rather,
(1 John 4:18) There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
Fear, like spankings, is for the immature. Churches fed a steady diet of fear never grow up.
In my congregation, we normally have baptisms before the sermon. Our conversions result from Bible studies, not emotional manipulation, and so we generally know before the service who wishes to make that commitment, and we build the service around it.
Of course, sometimes people come forward after the sermon and request baptism, and we celebrate them when they do. But if they’ve not been part of a study, we don’t immerse them until we’ve talked to them and made sure they understand the commitment they’re making.
* Confession of particular sins should rarely be handled by going forward. The common teaching is that public sins must be publicly confessed. I can’t find that in the Bible. It’s absolutely not a condition to forgiveness.
In fact, in an effort to get more people coming up front, we’ve sometimes encouraged people to come forward to seek forgiveness of sins. In the Churches of Christ many people feel that for a sufficiently grievous sin, they must come forward to feel forgiven.
Now, I’ve never heard this preached or taught–but the practice is so common that it’s seeped into our culture. I know of a woman (not in my church) who recently went forward to confess adultery. No one else knew she was guilty of such a thing, and there was no reason at all for her to make this confession to several hundred people to gain God’s forgiveness. But she felt so guilty she just needed to do this to feel forgiven.
And this piece of Church of Christ culture leads to a false doctrine of grace. I can’t count the number of people who’ve asked me over the years whether they need to go forward to get such and such a sin forgiven! The answer is always no. NO! God forgives because of the blood of Jesus, not because you walk down an aisle.
On the other hand, for a truly notorious sin, I think an apology is in order. I mean, if I sin against you, I have God’s forgiveness if I’m penitent, but I still need to apologize to you. God’s forgiveness isn’t conditioned on yours, but I’m still commanded to seek reconciliation with you.
(Matt. 5:23-24) “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”
If I’ve sinned against the congregation, I really ought to apologize to seek reconciliation. Going forward is one way to do that. Writing a letter to be read to the church or published in a bulletin works as well. There’s no unique God-ordained way to do it.
On the other hand, not all sins that are publicly known require this kind of apology. The test has to be whether the church has good reason to have something against you.
Sadly, we’ve made this into a self-fulfilling prophecy, so that even for fairly minor sins we expect people to go forward and confess sin, so that we are more apt to hold their failure to go forward against them than the sin itself.
But life is too short to require every well-known mistake to be confessed at the end of a church service. In fact, we are commanded to–
(Eph. 4:32) Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
God forgives us continuously. He doesn’t require that each sin be individually confessed as a condition to forgiveness. He does demand penitence.
Just so, the most Christian thing we can do is forgive those who’ve sinned against us without requiring them to jump through hoops to receive our forgiveness–provided their repentance is clear enough.
The time for an apology to the congregation is either when the sin is directly against the church–such as stealing from the building fund–or there’s reason to doubt that the Christian is penitent–such as when the confessor has repeatedly sinned and now wishes to turn things around.
To be honest, I’m still sorting this out. The main thing, though, seems clear to me. No one should have to go forward solely to satisfy a tradition of going forward. Going forward to confess sin to the church needs to be for those circumstances when a congregation composed entirely of goodhearted people who forgive as God forgives would require it. We should never go forward to meet the demands of the petty or judgmental. We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard than that!
Now, suppose a member of my church is engaging in open, notorious sin. Maybe a girl has moved in with her boyfriend. My concern is not such much how she can be forgiven as how we, as her brothers and sisters, can restore her to penitence. I’m not so much worried about being embarrassed by her behavior as concerned for her soul, as impenitence can lead to an ever-hardening heart and damnation (Heb. 6:4-6; 10:26-27).
Therefore, the proper step is to privately confront her and gently, patiently, and lovingly seek penitence from her. In the worst case, the church may have to withdraw from her (1 Cor.5, Matt. 18:15 ff).
Now, suppose she repents. What do we do? Well, I think we celebrate. If my church doesn’t gossip, then perhaps she announces her decision to return to Jesus in her small group or Bible class. After all, there’s no reason to imagine that hundreds of people need to know about this!
In a smaller church, the leadership may well announce her decision to the congregation. Of course, this only works well in a congregation rich with the love and forgiveness of Jesus. If we’re judgmental, petty people, no one would relish confessing to us–nor should they!
Be eager to forgive.
* Any practice that encourages gossip and judgmentalism is a bad practice. If my church requires people to confess sin before the entire church when few people need to know about it, we’re just begging for gossip and speculation. Even if my church is good about such things, there will still be visitors!
Therefore, it’ll often be better to handle such things in closer, more intimate settings. Ideally, the church would respect the leadership enough that they don’t have to hear the confession themselves to be satisfied.
* On the other hand, impenitence must be dealt with. Any member should feel he or she has permission to confront a brother or sister who seems to be engaged in impenitent sin–that is, on-going sin he or she knows is wrong. Such people need to repent and be gently restored.
* It’s ill-advised, in my view, for people to go forward to place membership. Rather, no one should be allowed to place membership until they’ve met with church leadership –elders would seem the most appropriate–and so understand the commitment they’re making to God’s mission at that church.
We tend to say that placing membership is about being “under the oversight” or jurisdiction of the elders, which is true but hardly the most important thing. Rather, the church has a mission, and joining that church is joining in its mission.
* On the other hand, going forward to request prayers is a deeply spiritual thing and much to be commended, unless it’s built on a false understanding of grace. If you feel the need to go forward and request prayers to be forgiven, you need instruction more than you need prayer! However, for anyone who has the need for prayer, it’s a very proper thing.
As a rule, we don’t pray enough. And we tend to feel that burdening the church with our needs is, well, a burden. We need to develop a culture where praying for others is considered a privilege.
However, I’ve seen cases where a low-self-esteem individual repeatedly comes forward just to gain attention. These are hard, sad cases, but there are time when the leaders of the church need to help such a person work through his or her problems a better way.
Moreover, it’s important that we find better, more intimate ways to pray for each other than going forward–at least in a large congregation. If you have to go forward to receive prayer, many people just won’t go forward and so won’t receive the blessings of prayer they desperately need.
Making prayer available in small groups, Bible classes, and such is one good step. Maintaining a prayer list published via email, the Internet, or a bulletin is also good.
We’ve also started inviting people to come to the back to pray with an elder, thinking that some might prefer the relative privacy, and some have indeed accepted this offer.
* Don’t always offer the invitation. This will just freak some of our members! But the only way to keep a tradition from becoming a law is to occasionally break from tradition.
Many sermons just don’t naturally lead into an invitation, and so the invitation completely distracts from the point of the lesson.
Moreover, there’s nothing that says the church service has to be built around the sermon. Start with the sermon and build toward communion! Or have no lesson at all other than the teaching that comes from hymns and the communion service. Some of the best theology ever written since the New Testament is found in our hymnals.
You see, the insistence on ending with an invitation a la Charles Finney imposes a particular order of worship that affects the entire service–even our theology. A little variety can be a very good thing.
In short, going forward still has a place, I think. However, it needs to be reformed and refitted, rebuilt on a better understanding of grace and the obligations we owe one another.
Moreover, we need to offer other, even better ways to do some of these things. Let the members fill out a response card to place in the collection plate that asks to place membership, for prayer, or for a meeting with elders or ministers.
Finally, while we’re doing this rebuilding, we need rebuild our own hearts to be more forgiving and less judgmental, while also always being on the look out for those who are at risk of falling away due to unrepented, known sin (Heb. 10:26-27).