To Preach or Be Personable
As I survey the landscape of much of Christian ministry, it seems clear that the preferred evangelistic method of the day is to be relational, and missional. For many, the days of preaching the gospel openly to a crowd (at church or anywhere) and calling for people to believe then and there isn’t effective or necessary. Instead, people say what we need is to focus singularly on making long-term friendships with people who don’t know Jesus, and evangelize them through acts of service and conversation in the context of our friendship.
Let me be clear up front about the fact that I’m all for missional living! I’m all for relational evangelism. I’m all for organic witnessing. But I think that our current obsession with the missional/relational approach to evangelism is only half of the portrait of biblical evangelism. I believe that as we engage in the one-to-one relational evangelistic mission, we must not ignore or despise the place of preaching to crowds, and calling for decisions. We need a both/and approach.
I come from a theological and philosophical background which promoted skepticism about calling people to respond to the gospel on the spot in a public way. This is partly due to the abuses sometimes seen in the ministries of so-called evangelists. But nut-jobs aside, I can remember hearing godly men give legitimate invitations to believe the gospel, and criticizing them. I thought that it seemed like emotionalism, and lacking in emphasis on discipleship.
Encountering Invitations in Acts
Today I give public invitations for people to believe the gospel and be saved every week at the church I serve. I’m in a very different spot than I used to be on the issue of invitations. What ultimately brought me to where I am today on this was surveying the points of appeal that are recorded in the Book of Acts. As I set out to try and get a biblical perspective on invitations I had two questions: 1. Are on-the-spot invitations to believe biblical at all? 2. What is the primary thing offered to unbelievers for believing in Jesus in the appeals recorded in the Bible?
What I discovered in my survey of Acts were numerous points of appeal where the apostles called their hearers to respond to the gospel in faith right then and there. Secondly, I discovered that the main benefit of believing in Jesus that the apostles offered to people publically was the forgiveness of sins. It wasn’t a better life now or even a personal relationship with God (though of course the latter of these is not wrong). The primary thing they promised people for believing in the gospel was forgiveness. This makes sense considering Jesus’ declaration that the Holy Spirit is right now on a mission convicting the entire world of sin, and failure to believe in Christ. (See John 16:7-11)
A good example of this is seen in Acts 2:38 and 40: “Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins; and you shall receive the promise of the Holy Spirit…And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying ‘Be saved from this perverse generation.’”
Peter believed in calling people to make an immediate, public profession of faith in Jesus. He believed in having them demonstrate that profession of faith with action (baptism). He offered forgiveness to all who heeded him. He didn’t do so casually or briefly, but with many words exhorted them to be saved! This same kind of process permeates the testimony of the book of Acts. On your own time consider the following passages: Acts 2:38-40; 3:19 and 26; 10:42-43; 11:14 and 21; 13:38-39;14:21; 16:3-34; 17:30-34; 18:4-8; 19:4-5; 26:17-18 and 28-29; 28:23-24.
Objections to Decisions
For various reasons people object to any kind of public appeal to immediately believe in the gospel. For some their reason is theological. I’ve heard some from strict Calvinistic backgrounds object to such an appeal on the basis that it is God who makes the decision. If you believe a person has to be born-again before they believe, there’s no cause for passionate appeals to respond to Jesus right now! God will take care of their response in His time, so just relax. They believe it to be miss-leading to tell people to believe. In response I’d point out that Peter disagrees, if you consider his appeal in Acts 2 alone. Whatever theology drove him there, he was perfectly content to make passionate, persuasive pleas for people to believe in Jesus right now for salvation, and get baptized.
Others object to appeals for decisions on the basis of emotionalism. To be sure, some evangelists are simply able to stir emotions and get professions whether they preach the gospel or not. But this doesn’t mean its wrong to be emotional when you preach the real gospel. I would contend that if you believe people will spend eternity in hell without trusting in Christ, you’d better be a little passionate and emotional when you call them to faith! If you’re not, I wonder where your hearts at, and how much you believe the gospel you preach. I heard Pastor Pedro Garcia tell a story about a question he was asked at the end of an evangelistic service he preached. At the closing of the service a man inquired, “Are you always this passionate when you call people to receive Christ?” What was Pedro’s emblazoned response? “How can we not be!” Some of us need to ask that question.
Objections to Common Methods
Still others are bothered by methods utilized to give people a chance to express faith in Christ publically. We’ve all heard the “Now with every head bowed and every eye closed, if you want to receive Christ just raise your hand up, and I’ll pray for you” approach. I used to criticize it heavily, and others like it. Now I even use it sometimes. Why? The truth is that the most biblical way to call people to faith in the gospel is to call them to believe, and then call them to demonstrate that belief by getting baptized right away.
As a church meeting in a school, our baptismal is an inflatable portable hot tub originally designed for camping! So I can’t call people to believe and get baptized at every service. When we do baptisms we do them open invitation style, and its always beautiful to see how God uniquely blesses the call to believe and be baptized with conversions. On the other weeks, I figure that giving people some practical way to respond is better than giving them none. So sometimes I ask them to raise their hands as a symbol of appeal for God to save them in light of the gospel. Sometimes we just invite them to come pray with us after the service if God’s spoken to their heart. I find God blesses the offering of a variety of opportunities for people to publically express the faith of their hearts. What I know is we see people come to Christ in our services when we give them practical ways to express faith way more often than we did when we weren’t offering methods like this. It also helps us see who God’s been working in so we can follow-up with them.
The funny thing I’ve found is that most who criticize people who use methods other than baptism to immediately demonstrate new faith in Christ don’t call for immediate decisions followed by baptism either. They don’t really call for belief at all. When you consider the biblical record, to me, the burden of proof is on them.
How About You?
Do you ever make an appeal for an immediate response of faith to the gospel? Why or why not? What practical methods do you use to encourage people to demonstrate their heart’s response of faith to the gospel? Do you think your theology or practice in this area promotes or hinders you and your church from experiencing the blessing of seeing people come to faith in Jesus the moment they hear the gospel? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!