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The walk-the-aisle invitation-the idea stirs up images of old-fashioned, Southern tent meetings with repentant sinners walking the sawdust trail on hot, summer nights. The images look sepia tinted, photographs from a bygone-era.
In a day when faith is considered private and "the hard sell" produces a backlash, does a call to stand and walk forward have any appeal? Is such an invitation still effective?
These questions are often raised by pastors who want to have an evangelistic impact-and who recognize the legitimacy of calling people publicly to commitment or rededication-yet who sense resistance to the traditional invitation.
How are preachers calling for commitment in a day when Sony Walkman is preferred to Billy Sunday? After talking with a number of preachers, I discovered pastors feel the traditional invitation still has a place, but increasingly it is being augmented by contemporary forms.
Here are six innovative approaches pastors have found effective.
Mike Cocoris, pastor of Church of the Open Door in Glendora, California, asks people at the end of a service silently to make a commitment where they sit. He may have them raise their hands, but then he always says, "If you've trusted Christ today, I've written a letter for you, telling you how to grow spiritually, and I want you to have a copy. After the service, please stop by the piano and pick up your letter from the person wearing the badge."
People respond well to this approach, he says, because in the after-service milling of people, their trip to the front does not stand out. In addition, they like the idea of receiving something written by the person they've just been listening to.
The person distributing the letters has been trained to engage in conversation, discuss the decision that's been made, and get a name and address. If the seeker gives his or her name, someone from the church will call soon after.
The letter is "full of warm fuzzies," Cocoris says, building on the idea that God wants to have a relationship with the person. The letter also gives the name and phone number of a staff person who can be contacted for help.
"It's important for pastors to write their own handouts, if possible, especially the cover letter," Cocoris says. "The personal touch is what gets people to respond."
At the Old Cutler Presbyterian Church in Miami Florida, an invitation to follow Christ, complete with model prayer, is printed on the back of the bulletin every Sunday. Below it is a model prayer for Christians who want to rededicate themselves to the Lord. And finally, below that is an invitation to meet confidentially with an elder after the service in the "Quiet Room." These prayers and the offer of the Quiet Room are often pointed out by a pastor at the end of a service.
"This approach grew out of our unusual circumstances," says Paul Rose, the senior associate pastor. "Miami is an extremely transient community; we have an 80 percent turnover every four to five years. That's led to a philosophy we have to live by: 'If we don't reach 'em soon, we don't reach 'em.' We feel a special urgency to put the gospel before our people by every means possible and as often as possible."
As simple as this method of invitation seems, it's been a help to numerous parishioners. "When people apply for membership in the church," he says, "we ask them to give a brief testimony about how they came to the Lord. And we've often heard them refer to those prayers in the bulletin as important steps in their movement toward God."
In our television age, people expect things to start and finish at the stated times, and this thinking extends into their expectations of church services. If a service runs late, the congregation will grow restless. Thus, concern for ending on time might tempt pastors to forgo offering an invitation even if they feel led to give one.
When evangelist John Guest is running short of time yet feels impelled to call his audience to commitment, he will request that people bow their heads, and then he'll ask those who want to follow Christ to open their eyes, lift their heads, and make eye contact with him. "That way," explains Clare DeGraaf, president of Guest's evangelistic team, "people who look up know he has seen their commitment, which helps to confirm it in their lives." Guest invites those who made eye contact with him to go to another room to receive discipleship literature.
More people respond to these eye-contact invitations than to a standard altar call, DeGraaf says, particularly in church traditions, such as Guest's own Episcopal background, where the standard altar call is simply unknown. In those settings, eye contact provides a nonthreatening yet effective means of calling people to Christ.
For example, DeGraaf first saw this invitational method used in, "of all places, a funeral service in a Christian Reformed church, where we normally never have altar calls. This pastor, from another denomination, was sensitive to that fact but knew the deceased had been evangelistically minded and felt led to offer an invitation, so he used the eye-contact approach. Several people responded with what proved to be lasting commitments."
While the call to commitment usually comes at the end of a sermon, several preachers have found it effective to tell listeners what's coming at the beginning of the message. The idea is to not surprise people and to give them time to think about the decision they'll be asked to make later.
Says evangelist Leighton Ford, "At the beginning of the sermon, I may say something like this: 'Tonight at the end of my talk, I am going to ask you to do something about what I say, to express your decision. I am going to ask you to get up and come and stand here at the front. This is an outward expression of an inward decision.' " Then he explains clearly what their coming forward will signify.
A pastor on the East Coast used a similar approach: "Whenever I'm planning to have people respond publicly, I tell them, 'In about thirty minutes, I'm going to ask you to do something unusual. I'll be asking you to make a decision based on the information in today's sermon. At the end of the service, I'll invite you to come and kneel on the steps of the platform as a sign of God's working in your life.' "
His reason? "I want people to get ready, and this takes a lot of the shock, the fear, and the worry out of the experience. I explain what I want them to do as if they've never seen an altar call before."
In his experience, people do respond. "They think about what they must do throughout the sermon," he says, "and when they come forward, they mean business."
Working to evangelize affluent or better-educated people, many leaders have found it helpful to offer nonthreatening ways for them to respond to an invitation. Clare DeGraaf, who is also an active member of his local Christian Business Men's Committee, describes the bimonthly luncheons of his CBMC group: "We invite non-Christian friends and business associates to be our guests. Then we have a speaker, usually another business person, give a testimony about what the Christian faith means to him. He then explains the plan of salvation and invites people to pray silently with him a prayer of commitment.
"When the speaker is finished," DeGraaf continues, "we ask everyone to fill out a registration card recording his or her attendance. But we also ask that those who seriously prayed the prayer of commitment put an X in a box in the corner of the card. This causes them to make their decision known to others-us-but avoids any fear of public embarrassment."
Response cards also facilitate follow-up by providing the names, addresses, and phone numbers of those who made a commitment. In DeGraaf's CBMC group, that follow-up is done by teams of two within twenty-four hours of the luncheon.
"Business people have always been hard to evangelize," DeGraaf says, "and it's even harder to get them to respond to a traditional altar call. But we've seen this approach produce steady results."
The same basic method has been used successfully by churches such as Church of the Savior in Wayne, Pennsylvania. "We wanted to adapt evangelism to the culture and expectations of the surrounding community," says Bill Hogan, the founding pastor. "This is an affluent area on Philadelphia's Main Line, and we knew people here are used to a nice meal and quality programs, yet they need the gospel just as anyone else does.
"Our strategy was to have church members host a lunch or dinner in their homes. There a speaker-a local business person, myself, or a guest speaker such as a professional athlete-would give a brief testimony and offer an invitation to follow Christ." The plan has worked well in reaching business leaders and professionals, according to Hogan.
At New Life Community Church of the Nazarene in Pismo Beach, California, Pastor Larry Pitcher often has people stand in response to an invitation. The approach still demands a visible action, but standing is less threatening than having to walk to the front of a full auditorium.
In addition, Pitcher sometimes follows this invitation by asking others in the same pew to gather around and pray for the people standing.
"I first did this on an Easter Sunday when I was preaching on 'Standing Up for Jesus' and wanted to challenge the congregation," Pitcher says. "I got a good response, so since then I've used the approach at other times." For example, on one occasion he was teaching about baptism and asked people to stand to indicate their desire to be baptized that night. Fifty-eight people stood. "We had water everywhere that night," he adds with a chuckle.
God uses many different means to call people to himself. Just how many seems limited only by the creativity and openness of each congregation. As Mike Cocoris says, "There are a lot of different kinds of fish out there, and we need different kinds of bait to reach them."
Copyright © 1988 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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