Preaching for a decision

September 28, 2011

In his essay in this issue ("Do you love people?"), Lutheran pastor Peter Marty recalls a question he was asked during an interview for his first parish assignment. The question bothered him at the time, but it's one he kept pondering. His recollection reminded me of a question I was asked in an interview years ago. It bothered me at the time, and it also has stayed with me.

I had been ordained for a month and was meeting with two people appointed to evaluate my fitness for ministry. One of them became a dear friend and mentor; the other was a former missionary in Egypt, a fire-breathing evangelical who was legendary for publicly opposing pretty much everything the Presbyterian Church did or said. It was 1963: the church was talking about civil rights, poverty and peace. The former missionary didn't think the three causes had anything to do with ministry and said so. Since I believed that those issues were central to ministry, I knew the interview was going to be difficult at best—and perhaps a vocation-changing tragedy.

The questions were tough, and asked in a way that I perceived as accusative. As the missionary pressed me with questions about my personal faith and priorities, the gentler interrogator would bail me out. The question that I've never forgotten was, "Do you preach for a decision?" I knew what he meant. I knew that his sermons concluded with an altar call inviting people to make a "decision for Christ"—accepting Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior—on the spot.

I said that my own decision for Christ was a process, not a one-time event, and had been going on for years. The really important thing about decision, I insisted, was that in Christ God had made a decision about human beings, including me. My questioner was not impressed. "But do you preach for a decision?" he persisted. Sensing that things were getting serious, I mumbled, "Yes, I preach for a decision."

The question has haunted me. We preachers proclaim good news and speak about all the amazing ways that good news penetrates, comforts, challenges and transforms lives. But my questioner had a point: proclaiming good news ought to in some way lead to a response, a decision of some kind. Otherwise proclaiming the good news of unconditional divine love can be an exercise in what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace." Preaching ought to lead to people caring more, giving more and living more. It is the assurance of God's presence, to be sure, and it is testimony to God's healing love. But it is also an invitation to do something.

If we wrap up the Sunday morning service without posing a question to be answered, a challenge or an invitation, we have left critical work undone.


And unfortunately there are

And unfortunately there are those in churches who get hung up on how that "question to be answered, a challenge or an invitation" is done. Rather than dividing over the method, we need to spend more time and care with making sure it gets done, whether through an altar call, thought-provoking question, an exercise right in the worship service, etc. But some have practically set up altars on the method of the decision and are resistant to any other way.


Once, while I was leading a confirmation class, one of the confirmands was a young man of 13 who had been coming to church with his friend, a member of the church I was serving. The young man's parents were not church goers perse, and in the classes I discovered he had not been baptized. So I briefly talked about his commitment to Christ and the excitement about being baptized and confirmed in the same service. He seemed certain he wanted to do so.

However, in one of the sessions just before the big event, I asked him again if he was ready to profess his faith in Jesus, be baptized and confirmed. He shook his head and said, "I don't know."

So I asked him to explain. He said, "As I have been coming to this church and listening to your sermons this past year and a half, I had come to believe that I was saved. But, last Sunday night I went to a church revival and the preacher called us all up front to pray. One of the workers came to me and asked me if would like to pray the 'Sinner's Prayer' and ask Jesus into my heart. So I did. The worker said, 'Now you are saved. Can't you feel the peace of God's presence?'  I didn't feel anything. I don't know if I am saved or not."

I read to him Romans 10:9-10 and asked, "Do you believe Jesus has raised from the dead?"

"Yes," he said.

"Do you ask Jesus to guide you, help you, forgive you, and teach you everyday?"

"Yes," he replied.

Then I handed him the Bible and asked him to read the passage, saying, "What does the Bible say about you?"

He said with excitement, "I'm saved!"

My point is that calling for a decision must be tempered with what one should and shouldn't expect. I am not a salesman asking for the customer to "confirm your decision on the dotted line." I wait for the Holy Spirit to move the person in whatever way the person needs to go. If one is not making a daily decision to follow Christ, what good does making one decision do for the person? 

Having come from Baptist and Assemblies of God backgrounds, I have preached in the streets with Gospel tracts and the whole works.  I understand the appeal to "preaching for a decision," but I don't see any scripture that shows a preacher asking for a specific decision. Yet, when they have preached the Gospel the listeners often ask what to do, or make a decision unprompted by the preacher. 

It may be fine to preach for a decision, but abuses of that are so common that listeners may also need space to allow God to guide their response.