I never grow weary of witnessing the greatest miracle of all—the new birth. As a pastor of many years, it remains an endless wonder and privilege to see the rich and the poor, every race and educational background, blue- and white-collar workers, young and old, male and female, come to the altar in response to the gospel.
But no one would be coming if I were not intentional in reaching for souls in my church. You see, I have learned never to assume everyone in my congregation is saved. In fact, hardly a week passes when there are not conversions. The late, great Billy Graham has been quoted as saying that the greatest harvest field on earth is the local church. I believe that's true. In this hour of "easy believism," many churchgoers assume they're saved simply by darkening a church door or by being a "good person."
I'm reminded of the old adage: "If there's a mist in the pulpit, there's a fog in the pews." The lack of soul winning in many of our churches is primarily due to the mist of uncertainty in the pulpit. Sadly, we have slowly drifted from being clear about the essentials, such as the reality of sin, the need for genuine, heartfelt repentance and a clear presentation of the undiluted gospel. Hence, people who have never been born again regularly attend our churches.
A great hour of harvest is upon us, and much of that harvest is going to come via the local church.
Cast the Net
But for this to happen, our hesitation to cast the gospel net must go. There are several reasons for our reticence to give a clear gospel call. First, many pastors believe that evangelizing should be left to the professional evangelist. After all, they're the ones gifted to bring in the harvest, right? We pastors, on the other hand, are called to feed the sheep and care for the flock. This is true. However, it's not the full truth. Just because you're a pastor and not an evangelist doesn't mean you can't or shouldn't issue regular invitations for people to come to Christ. After all, didn't the apostle Paul instruct young pastor Timothy to "do the work of an evangelist" (2 Tim. 4:5b)?
A cursory scan of church history reveals a fabulous array of highly effective soul-winning churches headed up by great soul-winning pastors. Among the brightest luminaries is 19th-century London pastor Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who said of his passion for souls: "I would sooner bring one sinner to Jesus Christ than unpick all the mysteries of the divine Word." Few could feed a church body the good meat of God's Word better than Spurgeon, yet he still won souls on a weekly basis.
Another reason many pastors are hesitant to offer a salvation invitation is a lack of the confidence needed to cast the net. Many of our seminaries do an excellent job training Bible expositors equipped with Bible language skills and hermeneutical finesse, but few teach how to draw the net. As a result, too many pastors feel all thumbs when the moment comes to set the hook and lead the sinner to Christ. What do I say? How do I say it? What if no one comes? These questions bounce around in the back of our minds and steal the moment of opportunity.
A final hindrance to not drawing the net is the age-old fear of man's opinion. Offering a salvation invitation requires a boldness that cannot be tinged with timidity. This is apparently a struggle that had gripped young Timothy, moving Paul to write: "Therefore I remind you to stir up the gift of God, which is in you. ... For God has not given us the spirit of fear" (2 Tim. 1:6-7). We must banish all fear of man's displeasure if we are to reap the fields that are "white for harvest."
Emphasize the Cross
What above all else produces a climate conducive to evangelism? Foremost, we must get the cross into our messages. The apostle Paul, the greatest soul-winner of his day, resolved that the cross would be his front-burner watchword. "For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2).
Why this emphasis? Because the cross uniquely convicts the sinner. The cross is ground zero in our faith and the core of the gospel. Above all else, the cross testifies of God's profound love and of the sinner's profound lostness. Since it's likely that not everyone in our congregations is saved, we should never shy away from saying it.
You're probably thinking, But Jeff, as a pastor I can't stand in the pulpit every week and preach an entire message dedicated to reaching the lost without neglecting to feed my own flock! This is true. But you can learn the skill of salting and peppering any message with a mention of the cross of Christ. A good seamstress can weave a thin, scarlet thread through any garment. And the seasoned pastor can thread any sermon with the scarlet blood of Christ. Here is where Spurgeon was a master. He wrote, "I take my text and make a beeline to the cross."
I recently presented a series on God's guidance. At the beginning of one of my messages, I made my "beeline to the cross," pointing out that Christ died for the lost. If a person is lost in the natural, I reasoned, he needs a guide to lead him home. Spiritually speaking, the cross is where God first takes our hand to not only lead us to heaven, but also to become our guide through life. A lifetime of divine guidance begins at the cross. Just like that, I wove the cross into my message.
Let me offer a few suggestions for the golden moment of salvation invitation.
First, approach matters—and so does tone. Talk to them, not at them. Volume has little to do with effectiveness. We are invited into the kingdom, not screamed in. Our tone should be firm yet laced with compassion. It helps me to keep in mind I'm talking to one person, not a crowd.
Second, be brief but clear. Nothing ruins the moment like an endless invitation. Say something like: "Your new life with Christ is a prayer away. I'm going to lead you in a prayer of repentance and faith in Him. If you're ready, pray this with me."
Third, encourage a response. Sometimes I invite them to the altar before the prayer, and at other times, after. Either way, ask for a response. Jesus always required a response of faith prior to performing a miracle. "Stretch out your hand." "Roll away the stone." "Launch out into the deep." Responding to an altar call will help cement the decision. The altar doesn't save, but the faith that brings them to the altar does!
Finally, if no one comes, that's OK. Keep at it. Don't be discouraged. Eventually your efforts will create an atmosphere for soul winning, much like consistent exercise creates muscle. The gospel is "the power of God unto salvation." God will honor the greatest call of all.
Jeff Wickwire serves as senior pastor at Turning Point Church in Fort Worth, Texas.
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