It comes immediately after the sermon, and is an opportunity to make an open response to whatever truth has been preached. Typically, you are invited to go public, engage your will, and make an open pledge. The preacher might invite you to raise your hand. Or there might be a more demanding call to walk to the front and join a gathering throng of fellow responders. An eager ministry team are often found waiting in the wings, keen to get their hands on you (sorry, lay hands on you). The responding gaggle might even be encouraged to shuffle away to a prepared prayer area, where more intensive ministry can be shared.
Generally, these invitations are positive. Listening to preaching is not something we Christians should do just for entertainment, or to equip us with biblical information that will grant us victory in Bible trivia quizzes. A challenge to make good choices is a good thing. But of course, like everything that we humans put our fallen, sticky fingers on, things can go wrong.
Sometimes the response time seems to be more about validating the preacher than helping the hearers – and I say this as a preacher. The odds of this increase when the speaker is labouring under a tonnage of unrealistic expectations. I’ve preached at a few events where it’s clear that the organisers hope that my 30-minute talk will cause thousands to convert (despite there only being a congregation of 47). Better still would be the raising of a corpse that is satisfyingly stinky, which will forsake putrefaction to live a purpose-driven life.
Frantic for a result, the unfortunate preacher feels quite wretched when nobody responds to an impassioned appeal for folks to volunteer as pioneer missionaries who will go to distant lands. Gradually the preacher lowers the bar, finally inviting anyone who has recently eaten breakfast to come forward for prayer. Preachers fear that sullen cloud of disappointment that hangs in the air when an event has produced no ‘results’.
Another worrying trend is the ‘bait and switch’ invitation, where respondents are first invited to raise their hand, a prayer is said, but then the hapless hand-raisers are commanded to march up to the front to seal the deal.
Sometimes pressure is placed on others to respond. Parents hope that their phone-clutching 16-year-old tearaway, a diligent student of Facebook throughout the sermon, will tearfully respond at the conclusion of the talk.
In a sense, Jesus gave appeals and invited responses. But his calls were often very demanding. A somewhat verbose fisherman called Peter was summoned to follow him, and even sign up for a life that would lead to a martyr’s death. A loaded leader (commonly known as the rich young ruler) heard a call to sell all he had, such was his love affair with stuff. And sometimes people made their own responses, like Zacchaeus, that tax collector who always makes me think of Danny DeVito up a tree. Apparently unprompted, except by the beauty of a lunch shared with Jesus, he made costly choices about the corrupt goldmine that was his tax-gathering business.
So if we’re in a season of sensing a persistent nudge from God, a whisper of love that invites us to step out or step up, let’s take Mary’s advice, given when Jesus went as an invited guest to a wedding at Cana where they ran out of wine: ‘Whatever He says to you, do it.’
Jesus, the invitee, also gives invitations, and they carry a standard message with them.
Respond, if you please.
Jeff Lucas is teaching pastor at Timberline Church, Colorado. He is an international speaker, author and broadcaster