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.