The public invitation conceived by Separate Baptists in the late 1700s has throughout this century been one of the trademarks of Southern Baptist churches across the country. The Separate Baptists, who preceded Southern Baptists, were moderate Calvinists who believed that sinners may freely choose or refuse life in Christ. Their belief aroused a zeal for evangelism, and Separate Baptists are thought to have extended altar calls even before Charles Finney popularized the public invitation during the revival era of the 1800s.
But as this century comes to a close, some pastors have decided the traditional altar call must be set aside if the spiritually needy of today are to be reached.
When Chris Hembrough took the pastorate of a new church start in Mechanicsville, VA, he knew such an altar call could be a barrier to those he was trying to reach through Atlee Community Church.
"We have done one walk-the-aisle public invitation, and some of our folks were very uncomfortable with it because we promoted ourselves as being a church that is non-threatening," Hembrough says. "I don't think we'll ever do it again."
Rod Chaney, pastor of Sunrise Church in the Chapel Hill, NC, area, says he also forgoes the formal invitation in an effort to avoid violating people's intellect, emotions, and will.
"We don't want to violate their emotions by singing four verses of Just As I Am and trying to manipulate them," Chaney says.
Atlee and Sunrise churches target babyboomers. Both Hembrough and Chaney say that if they were pastoring more traditional church bodies they likely would offer a formal public invitation.
Some are concerned, however, that sacrificing the public invitation for the sake of not offending may leave lost persons without opportunity to find Christ.
"My greatest fear is that we would lose our urgency of inviting people to receive the Lord Jesus," says Jerre Brannen, a layman from Gainesville, FL, who actively shares his faith.
"An invitation is an urgency to accept God's cure for the world's most deadly disease, sin," Brannen says. "Not to give an invitation would be like sharing the cure for a terminally ill disease and then not urging that the cure be received."
After the annual Christmas concert at Rock Hill Baptist Church in St. Louis, Bill Bowyer in the past never offered an invitation, although he did at virtually every other worship service. This past year he came under conviction to offer a public invitation at the concert as well.
"The Gospel had been explained so beautifully in the music, and sometimes people just need to know what to do next," Bowyer says.
Circumstances do not always allow for the traditional altar call, however. For example, because of the stage set at Rock Hill's Easter pageant, there was no room for people to come forward. The church instead provided response cards for attenders to sign indicating any decisions they had made there.
Response cards and other alternatives to the public invitation indeed are tools that many of the seeker-targeted churches like Atlee and Sunrise are using to invite people into a personal relationship with Christ.
"We offer some form of an invitation every week, but it is not a public walk forward in front of everybody," says Larry Trotter, pastor of North Wake Baptist Church in Wake Forest, NC.
North Wake offers a hospitality room after the service where Trotter and other staff members are stationed to field questions in one-on-one conversations.
Rob Myers, pastor of Harvest Church of the Valleys in California, says he has found that an altar call can work even in a seeker-targeted church.
"If you try to take everything out of the service that might offend the unbeliever, you'll have them sitting there looking at four blank walls," Myers says. "You're going to have to risk confronting with the Gospel.
"We feel like people need a point of decision. A lot of times if it's not offered, they won't do it," he says. "If you are as creative giving an invitation as you can be, you can be seeker-sensitive with the invitation."
Alternative invitations used by some seeker-sensitive churches
• A decision card to record responses
• An open prayer time at the altar
• A hospitality room open to inquirers
• A prayer room open during the worship service
• A 'sinner's prayer' offered from the pulpit
• An invitation to inquirers to come forward after the service is concluded