One thing that visitors who attend a worship service at a congregation of the church of Christ notice, whether it is Sunday morning, evening, or Wednesday night, is that we always extend an invitation to the congregation. In other words, we usually "invite" people to come to the front of the auditorium or send cards for four main reasons.
- We invite non-Christians to be baptized.
- We invite unfaithful/sinful Christians to be restored.
- We invite those needing prayer to receive the prayers of the elders on their behalf.
- We invite Christians who have not yet done so to come forward to identify themselves with our congregation.
Now, if you were to go back in time to the first century church I don't know if you would see an invitation offered in quite the same way that we do it. However, if you looked carefully through the New Testament you would find many examples of each of these invitations being made to people at one time or another. Jesus challenged His audiences to respond, and so did the Apostles when they began to preach. For example:
1. The Invitation to be Saved
In Acts 2, after preaching about the death and resurrection of Christ, Peter finishes his lesson by pleading with his listeners to accept Jesus and obey the gospel.
And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, "Be saved from this perverse generation!"
- Acts 2:40
Throughout the book of Acts we see Paul finish his sermons by encouraging people to obey the gospel and be saved.
While Paul was saying this in his defense, Festus said in a loud voice, "Paul, you are out of your mind! Your great learning is driving you mad". But Paul said, "I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I utter words of sober truth. For the king knows about these matters, and I speak to him also with confidence, since I am persuaded that none of these things escape his notice; for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the Prophets? I know that you do." Agrippa replied to Paul, "in a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian." And Paul said, "I would wish to God, that whether in a short or long time, not only you, but also all who hear me this day, might become as I am, except for these chains."
- Acts 26:24-29
When the gospel is presented it is incomplete unless a response to it is called for; asking for a response is part of the message. So every time we preach we call on non-Christians to believe in Jesus, repent of their sins, and be baptized, just like the Apostles did in the New Testament.
2. The Invitation to be Restored
That Christians, even mature ones, sin was a basic teaching of the Apostles. Many of the epistles deal with the sins committed by Christians and what they needed to do about it. John's epistle is very explicit about how Christians should deal with their weaknesses and sins.
This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.
- I John 1:5
John establishes God as the standard for perfection and sinlessness.
If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth;
- I John 1:6
If we claim some kind of privileged relationship with Him but continue to live a worldly and sinful life, we are liars and our claim is false.
But if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.
- I John 1:7
If we claim a relationship with Him through Christ (that's what walking in the Light is), then the blood of Christ purifies us and we are enabled to have a privileged relationship with God. We are sinners - yes. But, the blood of Christ purifies us from our sins. Then John explains this in another, more practical way.
If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.
- I John 1:8
If we think we never sin, or claim we are pure, we are deceiving ourselves and cannot be trusted as those who speak the truth. Ones who claim sinlessness by some spiritual exercise or through self-will are deluded in their thinking and not teaching the gospel according to Christ.
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
- I John 1:9
If we acknowledge that we are sinners and confess our wrongs, Jesus' sacrifice is at work continually keeping us pure. The acknowledgment of sin is a prerequisite for receiving grace and forgiveness and purification.
If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.
- I John 1:10
If, on the other hand, we continue to delude ourselves by claiming we are sinless or that we don't need His sacrifice we do two things:
- We make God out to be a liar, because He has said that all have sinned and fallen short of His glory, Romans 3:23. Either He's a liar or you are.
- We confirm that His word, His truth, His gospel is not inside or part of us. We do not speak for God or know His word if we claim sinlessness or no need of Christ.
Don't forget, He's talking to Christians here. Christians who for some reason or other think that they no longer need Christ or His sacrifice; who may have found some other, different way to be right with God. For example, some may think that because they have become Christians they can do whatever they want and God doesn't care or overlooks their faithlessness and worldliness - "Once you're saved, you're always saved." Isn't that right? No need to worry about sin - right? At the other end of the spectrum there may be some Christians who have begun to feel that they are no longer good enough to be disciples of Jesus. Perhaps their struggles against sin have so discouraged them that they want to quit.
To the ones who don't worry about sin and think God doesn't care, John says that you cannot continue the works of darkness and claim to be a Christian at the same time. If you do, you are a liar and fooling only yourself. You need to repent, you need to acknowledge your sins, and return to walking in the light with Jesus.
To the ones who are crushed by their guilt and failure, John reminds them that so long as they acknowledge their failures and need for Jesus' sacrifice, God will provide it. The cross of Jesus is effective so long as we acknowledge our need and trust in Him. This is where the invitation to be "restored" comes in.
- Some Christians wander away because they love sin and the world, and are negligent. When they come to their senses (like the Prodigal son) they need to come back to faithful living. Their coming forward signals to the congregation and the world that they are returning to a lifestyle that is pleasing to God and in line with His word. They are asking for forgiveness for their falling away.
- Some people wander away because they are discouraged or weak in their faith. Their coming forward signals that they need help to carry on faithfully. They are asking the same question that the distraught father asked Jesus in order to have the Lord heal his son - "I believe Lord, please help my disbelief."
When I ask people to come forward to be restored, I'm asking those who have stopped walking in the Light with Jesus, for whatever reason, to come back and renew their Christian lifestyle and dependence on Jesus, and only Jesus, to cleanse their conscience and guarantee their salvation.
3. The Invitation to Receive Prayer
James wrote in his epistle:
Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.
- James 5:14
The Holy Spirit invites us to ask for prayer when we are sick. He encourages us to ask the elders to pray for us in these times. The elders are to pray because James later says in verses 15-16 that prayers offered in faith by righteous people are very effective. Hopefully, our elders would be such men (faithful and righteous) and so they would be best qualified to pray for our illnesses. Oil was a recognized medical treatment in that day and was also used much like flowers are used to bless and cheer others today. James encourages elders to minister with prayer primarily, but also with whatever treatment and encouragement they can. Today elders still pray and encourage but we leave the treatment to doctors.
When we invite people to come for prayer it is with the intention that the elders will pray for those who are suffering from whatever ailment. The elders will go to your bedside, if that is necessary, but can also offer prayer on your behalf or those you love, while we gather together here for worship. The effectiveness of the praying is based on faith and righteousness, not whether the prayer is offered in the church building, hospital, or home.
4. The Invitation to Place Membership
Perhaps one of the more controversial things we do is invite people to "place membership" or "identify" with our congregation. For those who may not understand, this is where a person or family who was formerly worshiping with the Lord's church in one place decides to begin worshiping with another congregation in another location on a full-time basis. We say that a family, or individual, "places their membership" or identifies with their new location of worship. Many times this is simply done by the persons in question requesting to be recognized as members and the leaders "identifying" or introducing them to the congregation.
Some claim a problem with this because they don't see this being done in the New Testament by anyone. They see people invited to become Christians and being baptized. They see people being restored from sinfulness and unfaithfulness, and many asking for and receiving prayer. But they can't find any example of people "placing membership" so they think it is a man-made practice and not biblical. Brother Mel Futrell wrote an interesting article about this and lists the following reasons why "placing membership" is not only important but biblical as well.
A. It's important for reasons of involvement
The Bible recognizes the local congregation as the only organization ordained to do the Lord's work on earth. Now if one is not part of that local congregation how can they do the Lord's work? Brethren who simply drift from one congregation to another without making a commitment to be loyal in attendance and service to one particular congregation rarely become involved in service, fellowship, or other activities.
B. It's important for oversight purposes
Elders are charged with the responsibility of overseeing the welfare of the souls in the congregation, Hebrews 13:7. Of course elders are not responsible for every soul that walks through the doors of the local assembly. Some are passing through. Some are Christians visiting from other congregations. Some are non-Christian guests. Elders cannot watch out for the souls of those who do not indicate their intention of being part of the local church family. Of course the elders must make sure that new members are Christians according to the words of Christ, and are not those who may have caused trouble elsewhere and are bringing division into our own family.
The only way that the elders and congregation can know if they are responsible for the oversight and ministry to a particular person or family is through their acknowledgement that they want to be part of our family.
C. It's important because of biblical example
In Acts 9:26 we see Saul trying to "join" himself to the disciples who were meeting in Jerusalem. In Acts 9:19-22 we learn that after his conversion Saul worked mightily with the brethren in Damascus, a city north of Jerusalem. After leaving Damascus to go to Jerusalem he tries to place membership, identify with, be accepted by the brethren in Jerusalem. They refused at first because they were afraid on account of his past reputation as a persecutor of the church. Eventually Barnabas spoke for him and he was accepted into the fellowship of the brethren at Jerusalem. It is no accident that the Holy Spirit has preserved this small incident in the Bible in order to teach us many lessons. One of those lessons is the clear and simple pattern to follow when one leaves one congregation and joins another.
In many of his letters (i.e. Romans 16:7ff), Paul encourages brethren to receive and consider as part of their church family various Christians going from one place to another. When I left Canada and the congregation in Montreal to attend Oklahoma Christian University, the brethren gave me a letter of introduction which I gave to the elders of the Edmond, Oklahoma congregation when we decided to place membership there so the elders knew not only what my intentions were but also something about my reputation.
We could cite many other reasons but it just makes sense that the local church needs to know who is part of its family. Of course, we appreciate visitors and guests who attend with us regularly but there is a difference between company and family. Call it what you want, placing membership, extending the right hand of fellowship, identifying with, joining etc., the elders and congregation need to know who is part of the local family and the invitation to place membership is an expedient and biblical way of doing this.
This Mini Book has been an effort to shed a little light on a practice that we do at each of our services. And that brings me to the final point in this lesson - why do this at every service? Not all churches do it this way. We do it this way because the elders insist on it. Every service/devotional there is an invitation. Why?
We do it every time because
- There is always the chance that someone's heart has received the word and they are ready to obey the gospel. We want to give them the opportunity to be saved.
- There is always the chance that someone's heart has been moved to come back to their first love, Jesus Christ. We want to give them the opportunity to come back.
- There is always the chance that someone's heart may be burdened by sorrow for many reasons and they need the prayers of the elders and the church. We want to give them the opportunity to receive ministry.
- There is always the chance that someone's heart wishes to be joined to all of the other believing hearts with the saints that gather at this assembly. We want to give them the opportunity to become part of our family.
There is no shame in coming forward or responding to any of these invitations. On the contrary, it is always a sign of victory and spiritual growth; a witness that God's Spirit has triumphed over the spirit of sin and pride in ourselves.