Time was when there were gospel meetings and revivals, sometimes held in tents under the summer sky. (Ever wonder where the band Big Tent Revival got its name?) Time was when there such things as circuit-riding preachers–those who didn’t have home churches to “pastor” (which would have made them elders/bishops/shepherds, not preachers/evangelists).
Early on, it was the circuit-riders-atop-horses, and later, it was the top-name homileticians who flew in planes and drove cars, who would take with them personal song leaders who knew their preaching styles, their persuasive tactics. (This personal song leader thing reminds me of Steve Carlton and other top-flight pitchers who required personal catchers behind the plate … and I enjoy digression, but I’ll leave the pitcher-catcher one here.) Always, the preacher would take with him at least one sermon especially designed to attack the heart of his hearers–to the point of an egregiously over-emotionalized infarction, in my way of thinking. If it were only the single sermon, it was always saved until the last day of the meeting or revival. Build up the spiritual tension (recoil for the venomous strike?) and then hit ‘em with your best shot!
Once upon a decade, I sat—well, stood, actually, at this point—in one such gospel meeting. Around the fourth stanza, the invitation or altar call song “Just As I Am” (more on this song in a day or two) was interrupted by a well-known preacher who wanted us all to think soberly about whether our palms were sweaty. I kid you not. Sweaty palms surely indicated, this perfectly sincere man of God seemed to think, the working of the Spirit of the Lord. (Personally, my bodily reactions have for twenty years stemmed less from bona fide spiritual conviction and more from a developing annoyance with manipulative preachers and with the system their activities play a huge role in perpetuating.)
In the old days—and here I speak only of the last half of the 20th century, of which I have first- and second-hand knowledge—there was much emphasis on the “gospel invitation.” A spiritual deadline loomed; it was the responsibility of the message-bringer to inform all hearers that they needed to do something about the deadline, and fast. A common phrasing in my experience included the codetta “and then the lesson will be yours,” indicating that the preacher will have done all he could, and all the responsibility for responding to God then and there will surely rest on the hearer. These days, this kind of deadline thinking and the accompanying preachments are in many evangelical circles seen as outmoded. However, time was that worry about Jesus’ return — if you were unprepared — was a species of worry that folks should engage in.
I find myself resistant to invitations and probably 15 years ago vowed to the Lord and to myself that I would never respond visibly in such a situation. Even if I were to be spiritually convicted by a public message, and if I were to feel a need to respond, my visible/audible response would be with a friend or small group of friends. Although I would not require this view of anyone else, I stand by it for myself. Never will I knowingly be party to a manipulative system that invites grandstanding and publicanism more than penitence. Many sincere, evangelistic people before me, and many in the present, would stand aghast at this vow, and I do not stand in judgment over any individual hearts who respond publicly or encourage this kind of response. However, I am simply, steadfastly convicted that the broad-brush call to move toward the “altar” after a sermon is a bandwagon behavioral phenomenon that encourages shallow reaction instead of deeper, lasting responsiveness. Whether for initial confession, profession of faith, and immersion, or for later repentance, or for expression of other need, I think sharing spiritual need in more intimate settings is better than being in front of an entire congregation.
And yet the strains of congregational gospel songs do sometimes call, somehow … particularly a wistful few that include references to time:
O do not let the word depart . . . O why not tonight?
Why do you wait, dear brother?
O can we say we are ready, brother — ready for the soul’s bright home?
When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound and time shall be no more …
Why not now? Why not come to Jesus now?
A relatively non-Christian music professor once spoke of having had a “‘come to Jesus’ moment” with a student–more or less having communicated that a deadline loometh, and he had better doeth something about it, or faceth the consequences. If the non-Christian assumes urgency in a sort of mock spiritual chronology, do we assume the same in a confirmed spiritual scenario? Are we forever destined, because of errant or over-zealous utilizations of the invitation plea, to ignore the time element in our considerations of Jesus’ call?
Next: a bad invitation song, and a good one