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FIRST-PERSON: Always preach for commitment — and expect a response!

LAKE FOREST, Calif. (BP)–When we were getting ready for the first service of Saddleback Church 26 years ago, I planned to extend a traditional “come forward” altar call at the end of the service. It was the way I’d always done it. I’d 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, “I’m going to ask you to come down and jump in the pit for Jesus!”

I was 26 years old, and I honestly didn’t 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. By the way, if you decide to use a separate room, don’t call it a “counseling” room. To the unchurched, that sounds like a psychiatric ward! Use a non-threatening title like “Visitor’s Center” or “Reception Area.”

After a number of experiments, we decided to turn 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. The cards are immediately processed for personal follow up.

Some might ask, “Where do people make their public profession of faith?” That’s what baptism is for! It is a public statement of faith in Christ. The altar call is actually a modern invention. Asahel Nettleton began using it in 1817, and Charles Finney popularized it. In the New Testament churches didn’t have altar calls because there weren’t church buildings for about the first 300 years. There were no aisles to walk down!

Offering a time of commitment is an important element of an evangelistic service. Here are four suggestions for leading people to make a commitment:

— 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.

— 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. People’s eternal destiny is 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.

— Lead unbelievers in a model prayer. The unchurched don’t 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.

— Never pressure unbelievers to decide. Trust the Holy Spirit to do His work. I tell my staff, “If the fruit is ripe, you don’t 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 they’re honest with themselves, they will make the right decision.

Keep this in mind: You’re asking people to make the most important decision of their lives. Evangelism is usually a process of repeated exposures to the Good News. People usually aren’t as closed as we think they are. They just need time to think about the decision we’re 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? 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 that if unbelievers keep coming, the Holy Spirit eventually will create that hunger for “steak.”

Unbelievers may choose not to 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.

One last thought: I don’t know exactly how my faith affects the spiritual battle that is waged for the souls of people, but I do know that when I expect unbelievers to respond to Christ, more do so than when I don’t expect people to be saved. I often pray “Father, you’ve 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.” Expect people to respond!
Rick Warren is pastor of Saddleback Valley Community Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and author of “The Purpose-Driven Life.”

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  • Rick Warren