Thursday, May 8, 2014

An Altar on Which to Die: A Case for the Invitation

I was raised in a church in which there was no "invitation," a moment at the end of service designed to allow people to respond to God's Word. To be clear, in light of the contextual mood of this post, this isn't to say that this church is evil. I deeply appreciate my experience there. But, because of the lack of an invitation, I resultantly found myself wondering where I stood with Jesus. I remember feeling like I knew about him, but also feeling like I didn't really know him.

When I was 16 I started attending a church that did offer an invitation. I'll never forget how much it impacted me. Like my home church, the church sang songs and preached a sermon, but afterwards the pastor walked down to the front and said something like, "If God is speaking to you through this message, I invite you to come and respond." It was exhilarating. Suddenly, God's Word became more than a disconnected set of rules, but a personal story in which I could take part. It was also challenging because it meant that I was somewhat responsible for what I just heard.

Ultimately, at the age of 17, I did feel led to respond to the Lord and did so by going down during the invitation. Everything that I had spent my entire life learning became real. It wasn't about how much I knew about Jesus, or even what I could do for Jesus, it was about what Jesus had done for me.

My life has never been the same.

ALTERING THE ALTAR

Most pastors invite the congregation to respond by coming to the "altar." I remember once hearing a pastor say, "Don't call it an altar. It's a platform. An altar is something entirely different." At the time I remember thinking, "That makes perfect sense. I'm going to start calling it a platform." And so, for the better part of my ministry, I've invited people down to a platform, downplaying the idea of it being called an "altar."

That is, until I read Leonard Ravenhill's description of the church altar as, "something to die on."
"We must alter the altar, for the altar is a place to die on." -Leonard Ravenhill, Why Revival Tarries
Ravenhill's comment changes the way I view the invitation. I've always supported having an invitation at the end of service, mainly because I remember how important it was to me personally. But I viewed it as a way to publicly respond to the Lord, sort of like claiming that you aren't embarrassed about what he is doing in your life. Now my understanding goes deeper. You see, I no longer want to invite people to make a decision on a "raised platform." I want to invite people to make a decision on an "altar," even if it is somewhat metaphorical. This is because an altar, as Ravenhill describes, is something on which to die, and that is exactly what should happen during an invitation. People should sacrifice something. We should, as Jesus says, lose our lives, whether it be in an initial decision to trust in him by allowing the old man to die and the new man to be born, or in some kind of rededication, where we lay down the things that have been ensnaring us.

Regardless the decision, it's a place on which to make a sacrifice, a place on which to die.

To be sure, I think it is entirely possible for people to respond to God's Word without an official invitation. It's possible, for example, to make an appointment with the pastor after service, or later in the week, to discuss the way God spoke to you in the service. It's even possible to go home to meditate on the message, and then make some kind of decision in the comfort of your own home. At the same time, however, I think there is something special about having a church altar that becomes open during the invitation. It becomes a metaphorically literal way to kill whatever it is that needs to be killed in order to find peace with God.

I know that for me it made all of the difference, and so as often as possible, I'll offer an invitation, asking people to come to the altar and die, because in doing so, I believe they can live.
" ... and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it" (Matt 10:39).

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