I believe we should always offer unbelievers an opportunity to respond to Christ in a seeker-service. They may choose to not respond, and you must respect that without pressuring them, but I feel the opportunity must always be offered. Too many pastors go fishing without ever reeling in the line or drawing in the net.
There are many different ways to draw in the net. In planning for Saddlebacks first service, I had intended to extend a traditional "come forward" altar call at the end of the service. It was the way Id always done it. Id been a Southern Baptist evangelist!
But as I concluded my first message in the Laguna Hills High School Theater, I suddenly realized I had two problems:
First, I noticed there was no aisle in the building! The chairs were welded together and the building was designed to empty to the outside.
Second, I realized that even if they could get to the front, all that was there was an orchestra pit that dropped off right in front of the stage! I nearly cracked up thinking about saying, "Im going to ask you to come down and jump in the pit for Jesus!"
I was 26 years old, and I honestly didnt know what to do next. How could I get people to indicate their commitment to Christ if they couldn't come forward?
Over the next few weeks, we experimented with several different ways of having people indicate their commitment to Christ. We tried setting up a counseling room, where people could go after the service. We found that once people walked out of the service they just kept walking to their car. If you decide to use a separate room, don't call it a "counseling"room. It sounds like a psychiatric ward to the unchurched! Use a non-threatening title like "Visitors Center" or "Reception Area."
After a number of experiments, we came up with our registration/commitment card idea. We turned the back side of our Welcome Card into a decision card. We encourage everyone to fill out the front side at the beginning of the service.
At the end of each service, I ask everyone to bow their heads and I lead in a closing prayer, during which I give an opportunity for unbelievers to make a commitment to Christ. Then, I'll pray a model prayer as an example and ask them to let me know about their decision on the commitment card. Then the last thing we do in our service is have a special music number and collect the cards and offering at the same time.
This approach worked so well for us that we continued to use it even after we moved to facilities that would have allowed an altar call. We have had services where hundreds and even thousands of unbelievers committed their lives to Christ and indicated it on a card.
The cards are immediately processed for personal follow up.
Some might ask, "Where do people make their public profession of faith?"
Thats what baptism is for! It is a public statement of faith in Christ. In some churches, we have over-emphasized the altar call so much that baptism is almost anti-climactic.
The altar call is actually a modern invention. Asahael Nettleton began using it in 1817, and Charles Finney popularized it. In the New Testament churches they didn't have altar calls because there werent church buildings for about the first 300 years! There were no aisles to walk down!
I believe that offering a time of commitment is an important element of a seeker-service.
Here are some suggestions for leading people to make a commitment:
1. Clearly explain exactly how to respond to Christ. Too many invitations to salvation are misunderstood. The unchurched often have no idea what's going on.
2. Plan out your time of commitment. Deliberately and carefully think through what you want to happen. Extending an opportunity to come to Christ is too important to just tack on to the end of a message without planning it. Peoples eternal destiny lie in the balance. Be creative. If you say the same thing every week the audience will disconnect out of boredom. The best way to avoid getting in a rut is to force yourself to write out your call for commitment with each message.
3. Lead unbelievers in a model prayer. The unchurched dont know what to say to God. Give them an example: "You might pray something like this ." Ask them to repeat a simple prayer, in their hearts, after you. Help people verbalize their faith.
4. Never pressure unbelievers to decide. Trust the Holy Spirit to do his work. I tell my staff - "If the fruit is ripe, you dont have to yank it!" I believe an overextended invitation is counterproductive. It hardens hearts rather than softening them. We tell people "Take the time you need to think through your decision." I believe that if theyre honest with themselves, they will make the right decision.
Keep this in mind: Youre asking people to make the most important decision of their lives. Evangelism is usually a process of repeated exposures to the Good News. I doubt that you decided for Christ on your first exposure. Its pretty unrealistic to expect a 40-year-old man to completely change the direction of his life on the basis of one 30-minute message. People usually aren't as closed as we think they are. They just need time to think about the decision were asking them to make.
Would you keep going to a grocery store if every time you went there to buy milk, the clerks pressured you to buy a steak? Probably not. Imagine a clerk saying, "Today is the day of steak! Now is the time for steak! You must buy steak today because you might not have steak tomorrow!"
At Saddleback, we believe if unbelievers keep coming, the Holy Spirit will eventually create that hunger for "steak."
Offer multiple ways to indicate a commitment to Christ. If you are currently offering a traditional altar call, instead of replacing it, try using the card approach in addition. Put another hook in the water. Offer the card as an alternative to those who are shy about coming forward. Remember, Jesus never said you have to walk from Point A to Point B in a church to confess your faith.
One of the most effective invitation approaches Ive used is to take a "spiritual survey" at the end of a service. After presenting the plan of salvation and leading in a prayer of commitment, I set it up like this: "You know, there is nothing Id rather do than to have a personal conversation with each of you about your spiritual journey. I wish I could invite each of you out for some pie and coffee and have you tell me whats going on in your life. Unfortunately, with the size of our church, that isnt possible. So I ask you to do me a favor and participate in a personal survey. Id like you to take the welcome card you filled out earlier in the service and, on the back of it, write either the letter A, B, C, or D based on what I now explain."
"If you have already committed your life to Christ prior to this service write down the letter "A." If today you are believing in Christ for the first time write down the letter "B." If you say, Rick, I havent made that decision yet but Im considering it, and I want you to know that I am considering it, write down the letter "C." If you feel you dont ever intend to commit your life to Christ, Id appreciate your honestly by writing down the letter "D" on your card."
The results are always amazing to me. One Sunday we had nearly 400 "B"s - professions of faith in Christ. We have had as many as 800 "C"s - which gives us a great prayer list. Weve never had more than 17 "D"s.
Expect people to respond.
I dont know exactly how my faith affects the spiritual battle that is waged for the souls of people but I do know this: When I expect unbelievers to respond to Christ, more do so than when I dont expect people to be saved. I often pray "Father, youve said, According to your faith it will be done unto you. I know it would be a waste of time to speak and not expect you to use it so I thank you in advance that lives are going to be changed."
Until next week,
Rick Warren is the founding pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., one of America's largest and best-known churches. In addition, Rick is author of the New York Times bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life and The Purpose-Driven Church, which was named one of the 100 Christian books that changed the 20th Century. He is also founder of Pastors.com, a global Internet community for ministers. Copyright 2005 Pastors.com, Inc. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Adapted from Rick Warren's Ministry ToolBox, a free weekly e-newsletter for pastors and church leaders, available at Pastors.com.