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FIRST-PERSON: What happened at Saddleback to the traditional altar call

LAKE FOREST, Calif. (BP)–It wasn’t theology or even a strategy that led me to drop the “come forward” invitation at the end of each Saddleback service. It was actually the shape of the building we were borrowing when we started the church!

Before that, I’d always given a “come forward” invitation. I’d been in fulltime evangelism and so I was used to it. However, we were holding our first service in a theatre, and I realized two things:

First, there was no aisle to walk down. All the seats were welded together, and for people to come forward they’d have to move like a Bugs Bunny cartoon through the theatre seats — you know, “Excuse me … Excuse me … Pardon me, Miss …Excuse me…” past about 20 people to get out to the edge.

Second, once they got to the edge, there really was no place for them to “come forward” to because right in front of the pulpit was an orchestra pit. So what was I going to say? “I’d like you all to come down and jump in the pit?”

So we started experimenting with alternatives to a “come-forward” invitation. One method was the counseling room. We’d say, “If you prayed that prayer, go out across the patio to the counseling room, and we’ll talk with you there after the service.”

We learned a couple of things real quick:

1) Don’t call it a counseling room. A lot of people think of “counseling” as going to see a “shrink,” and they didn’t come to church to be psychoanalyzed.

2) They were scared of what might happen in this other room. They’d say, “I trust Rick in this room, but I don’t know who’s in that room over there and what they’re going to do.” It was scary to people who’d never been to church before. “Are they going to tie me up?” “Are they going to lay hands on me?” “Are they going to make me speak in tongues?” So we found they’d walk out to the patio and then just keep right on walking.

So we came up with the idea of using a registration card, and we decided that everyone should fill the card out — even our members. That way there was NO distinction between the people making a decision and the members who are just filling out the card. We were learning that the unchurched don’t like to be singled out.

On the back of the card, we listed several decisions. For instance, “I’m committing my life to Christ” or “I want to be baptized” or “I’m recommitting my life to Christ.” Then we made it very easy for visitors by collecting these cards during the offering.

We found that 80 percent of the people who make a decision were making them during their first visit to our church. And that was a shocker, considering it takes most people in a traditional church about six months to work up their courage to come forward down the aisle.

Once we started doing this, I talked to a lot of pastors, and even they told me, “I would have become a Christian sooner. I was just scared to death of going forward. It wasn’t that I was ashamed of Christ. It’s just that I’m a naturally shy person.”

Traditionally, churches ask people to make the most important decision of their lives in front of a bunch of other people that they’ve never met, and we forget how intimidating that can be.

So essentially we said, “Let’s make it easy to acknowledge your commitment to Christ, but then make it more difficult for you to join the church.” In order to join Saddleback, you have to take a four-and-a-half-hour membership class AND sign a membership covenant.

We found this so effective that — even after we moved to a building with an aisle — we kept the card.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “If they’re not coming forward, where is their public profession of faith?”

My answer to that is to look in the New Testament. BAPTISM is the public profession of faith in the New Testament. We know that they didn’t “walk the aisles” in the first 300 years of the church because there were no church buildings — so there were no aisles.

In other words, for 300 years the church grew without a “come-forward” invitation. That style of invitation is a modern invention, adapted and popularized by Charles Finney. We made it a regular part of our churches and fell into the belief that it was the only way to proclaim a public commitment to Christ.

Now, I’m not against a “come-forward” invitation. There’s nothing wrong with them. It’s just that I believe there are many other people who will come to Christ sooner if you don’t make them walk down in front of a bunch of strangers. Their PUBLIC PROFESSION will come later during BAPTISM.

I’d suggest that churches that already have a “come-forward” invitation not drop it, but add the card. You give an alternative. So at the end of the invitation you say, “Maybe you didn’t feel comfortable coming forward. You can still give your life to Christ. Take out this card right now and check the back.”

Finally, regardless of whether you give a traditional invitation or not, I would never invite people to COME FORWARD to receive Christ. That is an expectation Jesus never set. He never said, “You have to walk from point A to point B to become a Christian!” On those occasions when I do give a “come-forward” invitation, I say, “Accept Jesus Christ right there in your heart and then come forward as evidence of it.”
Warren is pastor of Saddleback Valley Community Church, Lake Forest, Calif., and author of the “Purpose Driven Church.” Resources from Warren’s ministry are available at www.pastors.com.

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  • Rick Warren