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About that Invitation...

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The public invitation is a fairly recent development in evangelical history. Charles Finney is credited with the initiation of a public response when he used his new method called "the anxious seat." Finney invited those in his audience who were uncertain (or anxious) about their salvation to come to a pew in the front of the auditorium. He would then address, or counsel, them directly about their decision for salvation.

Dwight L. Moody, R.A. Torrey, and J. Wilbur Chapman made use of the inquiry room. Those concerned about salvation were invited to the front of the auditorium either during a closing hymn or after the closing prayer. These responders would be paired with a counselor and led into the inquiry room (usually there were separate rooms for men and women), or they would be corralled into a separate meeting room for what was called an "after meeting." In either case (in the inquiry room or in the after meeting), the decision being made by each responder was further explained, confirmed, and assured from the Bible.

Billy Sunday altered public invitations. In the Sunday campaigns, those in the audience needing to be saved were invited to shake the preacher's hand, thereby sealing their decision to receive Christ for salvation. Those making a decision were paired not with a counselor, but with a "secretary" who took down the responder's name, address, and church preference on a decision card.

At what point the platform was retooled as an altar, I'm not sure. (And that's an entirely different series of blog posts coming I'm sure.) But this brief history has at least left me with this question: weren't people invited to make decisions before Finney? Yes, they were. Much of New Testament preaching is recorded without a preacher's call for public response (or an altar call as it were). People were converted under the ministries of Solomon Stoddard, the Wesley brothers, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards without (as far as we can tell) a call for public response.

For those prior to Finney then, how did they get a response if they didn't call for one publicly? The answer is simple: their preaching was the invitation, and preachers knew enough to expect seekers after a message that invited the audience to make a definite decision.

Sometimes preaching puts listeners in a dilemma, like when Peter preached on Pentecost. His audience looked around and said, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" These people obviously needed follow-up! Sometimes a sermon answers questions. Sometimes preaching points out sin. Sometimes preaching simply informs. But if a message doesn't invite listeners to a decision (and it's OK if it doesn't), a public invitation makes no sense.

If you're going to make a call for public response, remember: the message sets up a public invitation when the message makes a definite invitation.

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Nathan McConnell has served as the director of Deaf Outreach since 2005, a position which entails overseeing the deaf camps each week of the summer, teaching sign language in churches and establishing deaf ministries, and coordinating deaf outreaches for the purpose of evangelism and promotion of the Ranch's camps for deaf young people. In 2013, Nathan agreed to become the administrator of Bill Rice Bible Institute, a one-year training program for high school graduates, ages 18-25. He and his wife Rebekah have two young sons, Warren and Walter.


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