June 2, 2020

Leave your seat, leave your sin (part 1)

“Leave Your Seat. Leave Your Sin”
How the public invitation has corrupted evangelical Christianity
Part 1: A view from the aisle seat.
by Michael Spencer

Our state Baptist newspaper arrived this morning, with a familiar picture dominating the front page. An evangelist- in this instance Rick Gage- is standing on a stage with hundreds of people- mostly teenagers- at his feet. They have responded to the public invitation given moments before at the conclusion of Gage’s message. I’ve had Gage in my chapel, and know that he is a zealous, sincere, powerful and persuasive speaker. At the bottom of the picture is a summary of Gage’s invitation to those who heard his message.

“Leave your seat. Leave your sin. Come to the cross.”

Those who know me know that I am not bashful in my opposition to the use of the public invitation in worship or as an evangelistic tool. In my ministry as a campus minister, I am not required to use the invitation, and in the majority of sermons that I preach I do not use an “altar call.” In those services where I am expected to use one, I either find a way to avoid it or I probably offer the most modest, low profile public invitation in history. I will talk the ears off of anyone who engages me about my feelings about the appropriateness of the invitation, as my friends in the Boar’s Head Tavern know all too well. I have been told subtly and none-too-subtly that this is no hill to die on, but I am not deterred. I plan to keep kicking at this wall till I make a dent in it.

My qualifications to speak on this subject are solid. I grew up in an atmosphere where intense, pleading, manipulative invitations were considered the heart and soul of religion. Sure, preachers were expected to know how to be fishers of men, but they were also expected to know all the ways to get the fish into the boat. I watched some classic practitioners of the art of Southern Baptist invitationalism, and I accepted the Biblical endorsement of all I saw on the reputation of people I trusted as elders in the faith. I had no doubt that at the end of the sermon on the mount, Jesus offered an invitation and they sang ten verses of “Just As I Am.”

During twenty-six years of youth ministry, I have seen the public invitation from another angle: its effect on young people and their faith journeys. I have seen the invitation used at youth camps, concerts, youth revivals, evangelistic crusades, worship services and dozens of other settings where the goal was to get young people to profess their commitment to Jesus Christ. In the vast majority of these settings, the invitation was straight-forward and Gospel based. of course, I’ve seen the other side of that coin as well.

I made my own profession of faith in an invitational context, as did my wife and children. I have preached the Gospel, offered invitations to come forward and seen people make their own professions of faith in Christ in response. Nearly every evangelical Christian I know responded to an altar call somewhere at the outset of their faith journey. People I respect greatly use the invitation today. Many of those who preach to my congregation of students and adults use the invitation. Just two days ago an 83 year-old local pastor offered an old-fashioned gospel invitation in my chapel, and several young people responded. He is as saintly and as sincere a soul-winner as I have ever seen. Do not take my critique as an expression of disrespect.

So where did I go wrong?

I think my first deviance from the norm came as a very lost young man. I was 11 years old, and an evangelist came to our church and met just with my Sunday School department. There were three rows of us children lined up, and the guest evangelist gave a twenty minute appeal just for us, complete with an invitation to come forward and be saved. Everyone went forward- except little Mike Spencer (the preacher’s nephew.) I can still, 35 years later, feel that moment of isolation and determination to not be manipulated. My best friend Perry was up there. All the other kids were up there, and would be up in the baptistery in a couple of weeks. But not me. Maybe I was stubborn. Maybe I had my dad’s Eastern Kentucky Mountain recalcitrance. Whatever it was, I would not go up front, and I didn’t like the tactics that were used to get me there.

I also remember feeling that some of what I saw was manipulation. One evangelist brought a picture of a flaming automobile. He said this was what hell was like. Even as a kid, I thought that was somehow not playing fair. Another evangelist vividly acted out the brutal beating of a retarded boy and said the resulting feeling in our stomach was the Holy Spirit. I was taken to some evangelistic meetings where we were in “invitation” mode for an hour or more. Often these meetings were full of appeals that fell somewhere just short of commands to come forward or be sent to hell before bedtime. I heard bizarre appeals, emotional appeals, irrational appeals, mystical appeals, pragmatic appeals and brazenly manipulative appeals. I was turned off by them all, and increasingly started to say so.

As a youth minister, I also began to see the invitation differently. At first, it was with a kind of cynical humor that laughed at the laughable. Youth camps where college preachers could literally say or do anything and get an altar full of crying kids. The invitation seemed to attract religious neurotics like moths to a light bulb, and I couldn’t help myself. It was often ridiculous. But during those same years I became aware of the unethical and psychologically manipulative side of all that was going on. I’ve always loved the kids I work with, and I treated them with respect. I didn’t believe in arm-twisting, bribery, scare tactics or crass emotional manipulation. Many of the preachers, speakers, musicians and youth evangelists my kids heard during those years didn’t have the same approach.

The real problem was that I knew- I absolutely knew- that many of my aisle walkers were not saved. I knew that some of them responded to every invitation and bragged about it. I knew that some had made “first time professions” five times. I saw gallons of emotion that meant nothing. I watched the group psychology evident in many of the settings where I took my kids and it dawned on me that going down front was simply participating. Doing what was expected. Having the full experience. Worthless? I couldn’t say that with total confidence, but I concluded that “almost worthless” was not an exaggeration.

I quickly got my fill of it, and I didn’t hesitate to say so. The straw that broke the camel’s back was two-fold. The first occurred while I was pastoring, and the wife of a staff member was leading small children in vacation Bible school. At the end of the week, she stood on one side of the room, placed the kids on the other, and said “Now all of you children who want to go to heaven with Mrs. _________, come stand by me.” They all did, and she presented them all for baptism. It wasn’t right, and that became obvious in conversations with each of the children, who proved to know virtually nothing of their need or the savior.

The second straw was a tiny article in our state Baptist paper giving some evangelism statistics for out state. The first column was for children “Four and under.” There were several professions of faith listed. (I have since learned that toddler professions of faith are not all unusual in invitational contexts, and churches have received and baptized three year old aisle walkers for years.) I know that a whole debate could detour at that point, but at the time, Baptist that I was, it hit me squarely as about as wrong as could be. And the invitation was obviously to blame for luring children into the trap of believing that if you could walk forward and touch the preacher, you could go to heaven.

Then I met the Calvinists. I was ruined.

Long before I read Iain Murray’s The Invitation System or any other Reformed critique of the invitation, I had some clues to what was going on. I had heard my pastor talk about churches that didn’t have an invitation and how they weren’t really churches. (I grew up among the Landmark Baptists, so this wasn’t a hard statement to make.) But one of my best friends was an Episcopalian, and his family were wonderful Christians. I was already reading solid non-invitational Bible teachers like J.I. Packer, John Stott and Francis Schaefer as a high school and college student. I’d visited the LCMS church in town and knew they preached the Gospel. I had a suspicion that everyone who passed on the altar call wasn’t an apostate.

It was my introduction to Reformed men like Charles Spurgeon, Al Martin and John Macarthur that helped me to see that not only was the public invitation not historically required, it was not Biblically endorsed or pragmatically necessary. I discovered that for thousands (not hundreds!) of years, Christianity had operated entirely without the invitation system. The Reformers didn’t use the invitation. The great missionaries didn’t use it. Whitefield. Wesley. Spurgeon. Edwards. Nettleton. The early Southern Baptists. None of them used the altar call as we know it. The first Great Awakening happened without it. Much of the Second Great Awakening happened without it. Spurgeon built the largest church in the English speaking world without using the altar call. D. James Kennedy invented Evangelism Explosion, but he doesn’t use a public invitation. I’d been lied to, and now the evidence was in.

Today, I know of many wonderful, evangelical, growing churches that do not use any form of an altar call or public invitation. I also know many young pastors who have traveled the same road I have and come to similar conclusions. I find that, among evangelicals working for reformation, the abuse of the public invitation is a significant factor for many of them. (Capital Hill Baptist in D.C., College Park Baptist in Indianapolis and Heritage Baptist in Owensboro, Kentucky are three excellent examples of all these trends.)

With my seminary church history classes under Dr. Timothy George, I learned the actual history of the public invitation. Its controversial importation into evangelicalism by way of Finney’s new measures and the unsuccessful opposition of the Presbyterians whom Finney used to gain credibility. The use of the invitation by D.L. Moody, giving it broad acceptance in evangelicalism, silencing the objections of Spurgeon. The common use of the altar call in the emotion-laden meetings of the Second Great Awakening in the South and the West. Its acceptance and amplification by Pentecostals. Its refinement and acceptance into the denominational establishment by Southern Baptists like L.R. Scarborough. Its final perfection under revivalists from Sunday to Graham. Under all these influences, the invitation system came part of the life-blood of evangelicalism. Eventually, invitationalism and conservative, Bible-believing Christianity became synonymous in many minds.

By the time I left seminary, I was a full fledged opponent of the public invitation. My resolve has never decreased since that time, and while I could still belong to a church where the invitation is practiced, I would consider it my duty to direct the elders of the church to consider the origin and fruit of the practice, and to further consider the utter lack of a Biblical endorsement or employment of the practice. I am grateful that my children have grown up in a church that says Christ offers the great invitation and that is all that needs to be said. I intend to use whatever means I have to point out the folly of its use and its corruption of evangelicalism.

Before I close, I feel it is important to note that my opposition to the invitation is probably not entirely objective. I don’t like pressure tactics. I loathe being targeted as a potential customer and subjected to sales tactics. (Don’t try to sell me anything.) I have never been more miserable than being in any meeting where either the teaching or the tactics endorsed the idea that people can be “lead” to do something by a person who knows the right method. I am sure my congregations have noted my lack of enthusiasm for adopting the requisition methods for getting people down the aisle. I frequently preach the impotence of aisle-walking to affect spiritual results. I often preach that people should get alone with God. I believe and practice the maxim that “the message IS the invitation” and nothing added to the message can rightly be called the invitation.

Is it because I am a spoiled brat only child who doesn’t like to be told what to do? Am I just enamored with my own objections and unable to see the obvious fact that God uses the invitation? Do I refuse to play because I am not good at the game? Am I pouting? Making a mountain out of a mole hill? Have I lost perspective on what really matters? Am I just another hyper-Calvinistic, missions-killing, evangelism-loathing Reformed, Spurgeon- wannabe?

Possibly. But what do the scriptures say? What did Jesus and the apostles do? For that, join me for part II.