Monday, January 16, 2006

Eccentricities of Evangelicalism: the Invitation

Today marks another installment in the "Evangelical Eccentricities" series. I hope it's been somewhat interesting. We look now at the "invitation system" or "altar-call" mentality of many evangelical churches.

Evangelicals have preached what they call the "gospel" for many years. The gospel consists of the proclamation that Jesus Christ, the Son of God and very God Himself, came to earth from heaven, lived a perfect life, and died on the cross to wash away the sins of a rebellious people. His death cleared them of their wrongdoings and His subsequent resurrection brought them eternal life. These benefits are accrued to them when they "repent," or turn, from their sins and believe in this message. This is the gospel, and evangelicals have preached it since Christ walked the earth. In a world of flux and fluctuation, Christians have steadfastly, stubbornly, even, spoken the gospel to their world.

Historically, gospel proclamation involved the statement of the gospel in passionates tones and with hopeful pleading. "Come to Christ," urged Martin Luther in sixteenth century Germany. "Flee God's wrath," thundered Jonathan Edwards in eighteenth century New England. "Believe on Christ!" shouted George Whitefield to a rapt eighteenth century American audience. "Jesus is the savior," said William Carey to the people of nineteenth century India. The telling of the gospel did not begin in recent days. Such action has a long and glorious heritage.

In the nineteenth century, however, evangelicals, led by Charles Finney, supplemented their gospel preaching with the "invitation." Finney urged lost sinners to make "decisions" for Christ, to walk an aisle, pray a prayer, and make a one-time commitment to Christ that would extend through all of life. Finney's tactic, considered strange and unnecessary by many evangelicals in his day, soon caught on. By the twentieth century, it was commonplace for Christians to consider conversion to Christianity as occurring when a person prayed a prayer or signed a decision card. Billy Sunday helped perpetuate this pattern in the early twentieth century and Billy Graham continued it in the latter half of the century. The last four or five generations of Christians have thus grown up believing that a sinner is saved when they pray a prayer, walk the aisle, or sign a card. The effects of this trend are manifold. In coming days, we'll examine them.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

read most of the recent posts....good writing! you have many insights that i could only hope some of my friends in ministry could grasp. Keep on in the great pursuit of Jesus........He is worth it all. peace, brian

a small church pastor in NH
btw, have you met a guy named John Babri at sbts? he was in our student ministry at Kent State and is now preparing for ministry. say hello for me if you get a chance to meet him on campus...thanks, b

8:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've finally read your commentary on invitations. I appreciate what you've said. But I have to say that I disagree with you.
While it is true that there are many ways to misuse "invitation time", it isn't always harmful. You know that I agree that one of the most, if not the most, dangerous understandings in the church today is the "once saved, always saved" doctrine (I do believe in the perseverance of the saints). But, as you also know, many pastors who give invitations are aware of this danger. In fact, they share your concern. The system doesn't entail abuse.
Invitations are not inconsistent with Scripture. If they were, many would quit giving them.
Many give invitations without immediately presenting them to the church. Instead, this is just the beginning of a thorough time of examination. One that you have rightly called for.
Lastly, I should say that keeping Christians faithful to Christ and the church does not depend solely on removing invitations. Rather, the church needs to lovingly and faithfully administer church discipline. So, if someone "comes forward", is examined, joins the church, and then falls away. The church shouldn't remove its invitation system. They should carry out Matt. 18 discipline and all this entails... Well, now that I have left the longest comment ever on your blog, I am finished. Much love. JCopper (I don't have a blog)

10:07 PM  

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