The pastor closed his Bible, and I knew that the service was about over. A few miscellaneous items and I would be free from another worship service. Free from having to sit still, free from having to stay awake and free from the uncomfortable dress clothes I was wearing. This experience I had as a child may be more common among adults than one would like to think. And yet, once the sermon is finished, the most important time of the worship service has just begun, the response, or as it is commonly known, the public invitation.

Messenger Insight is tackling important issues that affect the daily life of Oklahoma Baptists. This issue of Insight deals with the public invitation. In this issue, you will find articles that cover the theological, historical and practical aspects of the public invitation. Since the public invitation is closely identified with evangelism, I have been invited to write the introduction.

You might ask, “Why is this subject being covered by the Messenger?” It may not be the case in your church, but in some churches, there is confusion about the purpose and practice of the invitation. Because people matter to God, the way opportunities are presented to respond to God’s Word is important.

I regularly use what I call a public invitation. I preach most Sundays in one of our Oklahoma Baptist churches. Each week, I am praying and preparing my message so I can call the people to respond to the Word of God during an invitation time. Some of the opportunities are private and some are public. Most messages are going to include a public opportunity to respond to the challenge given. I call these opportunities a “public invitation.” I associate the term “altar call” with special meetings, where there is an additional focus on salvation or call to recommitment and renewal.

Invitations can be shaped more from expediency than from theology. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Community Church, Mission Viejo, Calif., has been noted as a pioneer of using a decision card instead of a ‘come to the front’ invitation. And yet, by his own admission, he planned to give a ‘come to the front’ invitation at his first service in a high school theater until he realized there was an orchestra pit between the stage and the audience. His elimination of the ‘walk the aisle’ public invitation was done out of necessity.

I have attended church my entire life, and I have experienced poor music, bad preaching and appalling invitation times. In spite of this, I don’t see a need to eliminate music, preaching and invitations from worship services. I see the need to have a clear understanding of the purpose, limitations and effectiveness of each of these disciplines and to prayerfully plan and prepare each, trusting God to do His work of grace that only He can do.

Public invitations have influenced my own life. I can pray and commune with God anywhere and at any time, yet I have enjoyed profound prayer times and commitment times by going down to the front of the sanctuary during the invitation time. A private decision is significant, but I have experienced public decisions where resolve is added to my decision—as well as accountability, encouragement and prayer from the congregation. I have even been challenged and encouraged in my faith by seeing the public decisions of others. When one considers that a particularly identifiable aspect of Falls Creek is the public invitation, a place and a practice that has played a part in tens of thousands of young people responding to God’s call and claim upon their life (including mine), the public invitation is important.

Pastor, as you read these articles, ask yourself questions like, “Why do I give a public invitation?” “How much prayer and preparation am I giving toward the invitation?” “Do I have an expectation of people responding to the preaching of God’s Word?” Lay person, as you read these articles, there are questions you also need to answer. Questions like, “How much reflection do I do during the commitment time?” “What kind of response do I need to make in my heart, in my mind and with my actions to God and His Word?” “Am I aware of the corporate aspect of the invitation, and do I pray for the responsiveness to others?”

What is at stake if churches do not have an invitation to public response? I want to believe I am trusting in the work of the Holy Spirit and the grace of God to move upon an individual, but I also know that it seems wise and healthy to close a Bible study with a time of commitment just as it seems like good stewardship to pass an offering instead of waiting for people to initiate contact about tithing. I know in my own life that a part of responding to God’s call was the challenge and expectation of my church that God was calling people into ministry. As evangelism director for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, I can’t help but believe that fewer calls for people to respond to God’s grace and mercy will mean fewer baptisms. There is no doubt that baptism is the biblical response to a profession of faith. The question is, what are the practical steps toward baptism as well as other decisions that are normative in the Christian faith?

In its essence, evangelism means “to proclaim.” As I proclaim the holiness, righteousness, love and grace of God, I can’t imagine not also calling and compelling men, women, boys and girls to repent and follow Jesus! I believe we all agree that we need to call people to repentance. The issue is not if, but how we call them to respond. That is the conversation this issue of Insight wants to encourage.

Tim Gentry is evangelism group leader for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.