Renewing Our Worship: Frontier Revivalism and the Invitation

I think it’s important as we consider our worship practices that we understand where they come from. Much of what we do has a clear, historical origin: the frontier revivalism of the early 19th Century.

Following the American Revolution, religion in the US had fallen on hard times. French Deism and the burden of overcoming the economic losses of the war weighed heavily on American churches. Many Americans had been part of the Church of England, and they weren’t feeling kindly to their old church, with an archbishop appointed by the king. And warfare has a way of bringing out the worst in men.

Meanwhile, Americans were pushing into the newly acquired frontier west of the Appalachians. The British had barred settlement there, but the war had freed up these lands, as had the Northwest Territories Act. Many of the churches in the 13 original colonies were state supported and had little interest in building churches in other states. And the many people pressing into the new territories were without churches.

But some remarkable things happened. Charles Finney, a Presbyterian minister, began preaching revivals. He urged the congregants to come forward after the end of the sermon and sit on the “mourners bench.” The mourners bench was a pew at the front where those seeking salvation would mourn their lost and sinful state before confessing Jesus. Although Finney was a Presbyterian, his theology was in many respect Arminian. As stated by the Wikipedia,

Though coming from a Calvinistic background, Finney rejected tenets of “Old Divinity” Calvinism which he felt were unbiblical and counter to evangelism and Christian mission.

Finney’s theology is difficult to classify, as can be observed in his masterwork, Religious Revivals. In this work, he also states that salvation depends on a person’s will to repent and not forced by God on people against their will. However, Finney affirmed salvation by grace through faith alone, not by works or by obedience. Finney also affirmed that works were the evidence of faith. The presence of sin thus evidenced that a person did not have saving faith.

In his Systematic Theology, Finney remarks that “I have felt greater hesitancy in forming and expressing my views upon this Perseverance of the saints, than upon almost any other question in theology.” At the same time, he took the presence of unrepented sin in the life of a professing Christian as evidence that they must immediately repent or be lost. Finney draws support for this position from Peter’s treatment of the baptized Simon (see Acts 8 ) and Paul’s instruction of discipline to the Corinthian church (see 1 Corinthians 5). This type of teaching underscores the strong emphasis on personal holiness found in Finney’s writings.

Finney, and many others, rejected strict Calvinism because it sapped the church of its evangelistic zeal. If people were predestined to be saved without regard to free will, why preach salvation to the damned? God would save them or not regardless of the preaching.

Barton W. Stone was a Presbyterian preacher working mainly in Illinois. His path converged with Finney’s at the famous Cane Ridge Revival in Kentucky. It was a communion service held in a very small community, but because it was the first communion offered in many years in this frontier area, thousands attended. And Finney attended and preached, as did Barton W. Stone. Thousands were converted.

The many conversions persuaded Stone that people could accept Jesus contrary to Calvinism. His own eyes showed him that conversion was a free will decision. This led him to separate from the Presbyterian Church and found a movement that was one of the wellsprings of the Restoration Movement.

Stone continued to use the mourner’s bench and to call visitors forward at the end of the sermon, and thus the “invitation” was introduced into the very early Restoration Movement. Later, Alexander Campbell would object to the mourner’s bench, seeing the emotionalism as quite unnecessary, when salvation is simply a matter of making an intelligent decision. However, the invitation continued to be part of our worship practice.

Few people realize that the invitation was not commonly practiced before this time. After all, in Germany or Geneva or France, everyone was baptized as an infant into the state religion, and so there was no reason to have converts come forward. And much of Protestantism at the time was rooted in a form of Calvinism that denied that anyone could even respond to a sermon and be saved.

Thus, there had been no post-sermon invitations going back at least to Constantine (4th Century) and maybe further. To my knowledge, even the early church had no invitations. Indeed, even pre-Constantine, many churches required a convert to attend a very long (many months) catechism class before they could receive baptism. There was even a time when many believers refused baptism until they were on their deathbeds, thinking that they should not risk sinning after baptism if at all possible! That kind of thinking hardly suited “going forward” in response to an invitation!

We certainly have examples in the scriptures of people responding the gospel — and doing so in very short order. But we don’t have examples of people responding after a sermon delivered to the entire congregation. Rather, the responses we see in Acts are to private teaching.

In short, the notion that all sermons should end with an invitation is about 200 years old and an American Presbyterian invention. And this certainly doesn’t make it wrong. It just means it’s an effective innovation that we adopted. It’s not First Century practice.

I don’t have any evidence for when people started to “come forward” to confess sin, but it seems to be a relatively new thing. I think (can’t prove) that the practice began in the 1960s as many Churches of Christ copied Baptist revival practices. The theory, of course, is that public sins must be confessed publicly, which many take as axiomatic. But I find no evidence for this one in the scriptures.

It has common roots with the practice of having members come forward during a revival to rededicate their lives. Again, this is hardly a bad thing, but it’s a recent thing. I figure we had to justify this practice as “authorized,” and so we concluded that those needing rededication had sinned and so must confess — publicly. And this then led to the practice that all public sins had to be confessed by going forward.

Now I see young people with tender hearts going forward to confess very private sins, feeling that they can’t get truly cleansed without some act of penitence, which in the Churches of Christ is done by going forward. I’ve never heard a preacher tell people that they don’t need to do this — after all, the confession of some particularly grave sin is always accompanied by a request for congregational prayer, which is entirely appropriate.

The problem, though, is that we sometimes practice a form of grace that conditions God’s forgiveness on going forward, confessing, and requesting prayers. And so we sometimes deny our forgiveness to those of our members who don’t go forward. As a result, we’ve ritualized the obtaining of forgiveness in a way that contradicts the graciousness of God. It’s really kind of Catholic. If you don’t confess the sin to the preacher, you don’t get forgiven.

It’s a fine line. It’s in many ways commendable for an unmarried couple wrestling with sexual temptation to come forward and ask for prayer — unless they think this is the way to feeling forgiven for their mistakes. And I question our withholding our own forgiveness for sins that God forgave immediately.

So … let’s draw just a few conclusions:

* Sermons do not have to end with an invitation.

* In fact, we sometimes do baptize too hastily, without taking the time to be certain the person coming forward really understands the commitment being made. I know because I attend a campus church, where countless kids have asked to be re-baptized because they say they didn’t understand that they were submitting to Jesus as Lord when they were first baptized back home.

* Sins are forgiven by God without regard to whether someone goes forward. We should extend the same grace as does God. (However, when there is genuine doubt as to whether the sinner has repented, going forward is one way to communicate repentance to the church).

* It’s quite proper to sometimes focus a worship service on something other than the invitation or the sermon — the communion perhaps. That would take us back to truly early Christianity.

* It’s quite proper to invite people to pray in private or to ask for a meeting with an elder or minister or such like. In my church, we often invite our members to meet with an elder or minister in the foyer or a side room rather than feeling obliged to come forward. Many sins really don’t require public confession. Not everyone is willing to make the walk to the front.

* People can perfectly well place membership by some means other than going forward. I don’t know where that practice started. It’s not wrong. It’s just a little strange. I mean, don’t we need to meet with people and know something of their background before they are introduced as fellow members? In fact, in my church, new members must meet with the elders first before placing membership. It serves several purposes, not the least of which is making sure they’ve met some of the elders.

* If you think about it, our invitation practice utterly contradicts our five-acts-of-worship theology. After all, confessing sin, placing membership, a convert’s confessing Jesus, and baptism are all not one of the five acts. We just bring those acts into our worship because, well, they obviously fit and we ignore the contradiction.

But the church got along for 1,500 or more years without anyone going forward to place membership, confess sin, or receive baptism. Including these things in our worship is certainly not wrong, but it’s not required.

* Our insistence on five and only five acts of worship is just not found in scripture. We have much more flexibility in planning a service than we often think.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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16 Responses to Renewing Our Worship: Frontier Revivalism and the Invitation

  1. Weldon says:

    One practice that we have "borrowed" from other Churches is to have what we call "prayer time". During one of the songs we have everyone stand (to make it easier for folks to move out of the pew) and if anyone has any special prayer request (including forgiveness) they can go to the back of the auditorium and meet with an elder and his wife. It has really worked well and been well recieved.

  2. Cary says:

    Looks like your smiley filter took over the Acts reference in the Wikipedia quote above. 🙂

  3. Cary says:

    Interestingly, after I left Alabama, I was part of a church in Tulsa that rarely ever had a formal "invitation," yet every single Sunday we saw multiple people pour forward, expressing their lives to the community with needs, prayer requests, confessions, and more. In my 7 months with that congregation, never was there not a crowd at the front at the end of worship. I've never seen the "invitation" spirit manifested so deeply in a church, especially one that actually rarely ever even had an actual invitation. It seems that real Spirit, real community, and real worship can actually serve as their own invitation.

  4. Jay Guin says:


    I fixed it. Thanks.

  5. Royce says:

    Jay, You make some good and valid observations. Our invitations perhaps express our unbelief. We want desperately for people to repent, be restored, and for the lost to come to Christ, all noble desires. However, we just can't trust God to do what only he can do. Ours is to preach and teach the truth about Jesus and then step back and allow the Holy Spirit to do His work.

    Until the Holy Spirit has done His work, as he did to those listeners in Acts 2, baptism is useless. Can we not share the good news and then in faith wait for them to say "What must we do?"

    We have a tradition of trying to debate people into the kingdom, to press them into the water. When God makes real in a man's heart that he is lost and apart from God and under God's wrath he will be quick to embrace Christ in public and on purpose.


  6. Randall says:

    Great post with many good things to say.

    I wonder how Calvinism came to be so misunderstood and misrepresented on the American frontier? I assume ignorance ( that is, lack of education) and the way it ran contrary to the popular philosophy of the day were a couple of many contributing factors. Good thing we don't have to worry about that anymore. 😉

    Statements like "Finney, and many others, rejected strict Calvinism because it sapped the church of its evangelistic zeal. If people were predestined to be saved without regard to free will, why preach salvation to the damned? God would save them or not regardless of the preaching." This as known as hyper-Calvinism as it takes Calvinism to an illogical extreme. To my limited knowledge only the Primitive Baptists hold a position close to this. Calvin certainly never taught it and the Calvinists have been among the most evangelical and missionary of all the denominations.


    "The many conversions persuaded Stone that people could accept Jesus contrary to Calvinism. His own eyes showed him that conversion was a free will decision." FYI, Calvinists teach that man makes a decision but it is the result of the effective work of the HS in his life. I don't know anyone that would argue that man's will is absolutely free. They do believe that man in his "natural" state is fallen to the point that he is spiritually blind, deaf, dead and the enemy of God. So far far did man fall? Some would suggest just a little ways but he can still make it right himself. Other believe this is contrary to scripture. How about we be fair with them too.

    Clearly Calvinism is still not understood by many so a straw man is presented that hardly even needs to be blown down.

    It could be a good thing if we treated other biblical perspectives with the intelligence and good will that we would like to receive ourselves. After all, Thomas Campbell was a Calvinist all his life and he was rather generous to those that held to Arminian and Semi-Pelagian views.

    I mean no ill will and appreciate many of the posts and comments I read here. I hope to stimulate more thought than responses.


  7. Pingback: Let’s Stand for the Invitation « Grace Digest

  8. The early nineteenth century used exhortations to bring people to the mourner's bench, or in the Stone-Campbell movement to bring them to baptism.

    The invitation song is a late nineteenth century innovation. James A. Harding opposed it as too emotional, for example.

    Calvinists, whether Presbyterian or Congregational, divided over the use of exhortations and their emotion in the 18th century–"New Sides/New Lights" vs. "Old Sides/Old Lights." Stone, as a Presbyterian, would have fallen in the "New Light" category.

    Some conservative Reformed thinkiers, like MIchael Horton (as an example), still oppose the invitation as an Arminian/revivalist ploy.

    Thanks for the reflections, Jay.

  9. Royce says:


    I remember reading that Billy Graham's critics had said that the music was in some way causing the great hosts of folks to come forward in his crusades. Deeply troubled by that thought he instructed that at the next nights meeting there would be only silence after his appeal. Graham ended his trademark plea with, "If you came on a bus they'll wait for you" and pressed his hands together under his chin, closed his eyes, and prayed for God to prick the hearts of the people. All that broke the silence was the shuffle of hundreds of feet as hundreds came to declare they wanted to follow Christ.


  10. Joe Baggett says:

    Wow, I don’t know how much I have thought about this. The church I grew up in split when I was I high school over not having a formal traditional invitation, and yes it was to be baptized or place membership or publically confess sin to the whole congregation so they could judge you. Did you ever notice that the instruction is to confess sin one to another not to whole congregation of people who you barely know. The whole point of confession was to be “healed”. Traditional confession at the invitation was only to here about something awful like adultery or divorce. You almost never heard anyone say I am unkind or racist or a glutton. To me there are essentially two invitations one to Christians and one to non-Christians. To the non-Christians it is to believe for the first time and yes eventually be baptized after they have counted the cost and come to a deep personal independently held faith. The truth is there are almost none (true non-Christians) in our assemblies. The other invitation to Christians is to become and overcome. That is to become like Christ (transformed fro our sinful nature in to God’s nature) in the thoughts and behavior and overcome sin they are really one and the same. Now please understand that I am not saying that we should offer a formal invitation with a song and come down front. So if the assembly is almost exclusively Christians then the invitation would be to become or overcome. Take for example kindness, the invitation would be to look at my life in the light of God’s nature of kindness and see where I need to become more like Him in his nature of kindness. Too seldom is the invitation to “do” rather than to become and overcome. Too seldom do we expose God’s nature and character in our preaching. I think that in some ways we have come to worship the Bible rather than the God who is trying to reveal himself through it. Most churches that have stopped their traditional invitations have done so because almost everyone one of age in the church has already been baptized at least once and nobody feels safe to make a confession to the whole congregation.

  11. Royce says:


    You mention confession. In my view, if the transgression is public, many people in the congregation are aware of it, then a public confession would be in order. However, if the guy had cheated on his IRS forms a talk with his wife or a close friend who is also a brother would make more sense in my view.

    One of the problems I see in churches like ours where it is so open and grace oriented is that some people tend to think their forgiveness is only possible if they confess to the congregaiton.

    God has forgiven sin based on the worth and work of Jesus. As we confess to God (see our sin the way he sees it, or say about it what he says) he cleanses us from unrighteousness.Confession to others invokes their love, their prayers, and their holding accountable the one who confesses. They don't hold out forgiveness.Only God owns that right.


  12. Royce says:

    Pardon me Jay…

    One last thought….. Only when you have leaders (elders, preachers, etc.) who are transparent and openly admit their struggles are you likely to have those in the pews comfortable sharing openly when they are in trouble. Thank God we have elders (both of our preachers are elders too) who are in every way just like us. They are different in that they have much greater responsibility and carry a heavy load.


  13. Joe Baggett says:

    Royce I used to think like that but then I realized that wanting somebody to come clean and wanting someone to be healed are two different things. Unless there is healing involved there is no reason in a confession public or private. Confession that Paul speaks of is not specifically related to "public" sin. The confession he speaks of is a healing process and eventually a transformation process.

  14. Royce says:


    I think coming clean is the first step to healing, isn't it?


  15. Joe Baggett says:


    Yes. But there is a difference in wanting someone to admit they are wrong and wanitng someone to be healed.

  16. Royce says:

    Joe, Maybe you got me confused with someone else. I have not said anything that I know of to the contrary.


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