When I come to think about it so many of the significant steps of faith that I have made have been marked by steps!
I stepped forward when I committed my life to Christ in my early teenage years. I moved to the back of a church where someone prayed that I might be filled with the Holy Spirit at the beginning of my ministry. I walked out many years ago and asked for prayers for healing and wholeness for myself and for others in body mind and spirit and have often done so since. I have dragged one foot in front of another on pilgrimages long and short and seen this as symbolic of both the journey of faith and of stepping out in faith. And Sunday by Sunday whether from pulpit or pew I come to kneel at the Lord’s table and each step is a way of saying yes to God who loved me and gave Himself for me.
And every time I have responded in such a way I can count on the fingers of one hand the occasions I have felt anything! All I knew was that I was welcome to come, needed to come and would be safe in coming. And over a preaching ministry of some forty years I have realised that it’s not only me who has this need for response – quite the opposite in fact. If Donald English was right when he said that every sermon needs to answer the unspoken question “so what?” then surely the “so what” must sometimes be answered by “Come” – a word which incidentally is used on a surprising number of occasions in Jesus’ ministry. “Come” - perhaps for the first time or perhaps for the umpteenth. Perhaps to be prayed for or perhaps to simply stand or kneel as a marker on the journey. “Come” – perhaps to be signed with the cross as a reminder of Baptism or to receive the laying on of hands as a commissioning for future service.
So I remember John Horner asking on one occasion what it would feel like if you attended an opera and the overture was played, an air of anticipation was created and then the curtain failed to go up. But that said John is what so often seems to happen in our worship. So we encourage our congregations to expect God to be at work among us, we remind them of the mighty things He has done in scripture and continues to do in the life of the church and the world, we invite them to be a part of that and tell of the Spirit’s mighty resources and then just as people want to respond we say The Grace! Now of course at its best the collection can be a way of responding and many acts of worship will include a prayer of commitment but that physical “coming” seems to be of deep significance for many. But to misquote St Paul “How shall they come if they are not invited?”
But where to begin? For those of us who preach and lead worship, here are a few suggestions.
- An appeal can be pre-planned as well as on the spur of the moment. For myself it nearly always is. So look at your sermon carefully and prayerfully. Is it calling for a response that perhaps might be best acted upon immediately?
- Work out the logistics. Whilst an appeal should never be made so easy as to be taken lightly neither should it be made impossibly difficult bearing in mind how hard it may be for some. Think about the church building or if you don’t know it arrive early. How might people come forward and to where? If folk are having to clamber over each other a worship song or hymn or at least some music can make it a little less embarrassing. Incidentally don’t dismiss the idea of simply asking people to stand rather than move. In some settings it is more realistic and can be just as powerful.
- Give clear directions – and stick to them! What am I inviting them to come forward for? If you are asking people to come and stand as a sign of response tell them that that is all you are asking. If you are offering prayer indicate that and if oil or laying on of hands is a part of that make it clear. If you intend to hold conversation afterwards with those who come forward explain why. Don’t whatever you do invite people for one thing and then push them into something else. That’s manipulative and dishonouring to God. It can be helpful too on occasions to let the congregation know of your intentions earlier in the service so that they can be prepared.
- Work out your role. Sometimes it may be helpful to be the first to stand or kneel and let others kneel beside you as a reminder that we are all in need of taking “one more step”. This works well when the invitation is to simply come and then immediately return but when words or prayers are be said can be more difficult.
- Examine your motives. Is the purpose of the exercise to make you feel good or to further the work of God in a persons life? Putting it bluntly “what happens if no one comes forward?” I wrestled with that for a while (especially when sometimes no-one did!) until a wise and valued friend told me that a) I was letting pride get in the way and b) it was God’s invitation not mine so let him sort it out! Which is why I have to be careful that when I make a very broad invitation for people to come so that even The devil Incarnate might be tempted I’m not just doing it to massage my own ego!
- Work in consultation wherever possible. If you intend to make an appeal it’s a good idea to let the minister or church stewards know beforehand so that they can particularly uphold the service in their prayers. It may also help them to reflect on whether this might be a more frequent occurrence in worship! Some churches have prayer ministry teams or a more informal prayer structure. Why not ask them beforehand to assist you? This is particularly important if you are offering prayer for healing for this is the churches corporate calling and ministry and not yours only. It’s also helpful for the Pastoral Secretary or equivalent to be keeping their eyes open to notice who responds, as a word of encouragement and support during the following week is invaluable.
- Think carefully about the words you pray (if that is what you intend to do). Brief prayers are usually best and liturgical prayers and blessings can be particularly appropriate (The Methodist Worship Book provides many examples of these). If you are praying extempore think through what you want to say on behalf of someone making a first time or hundredth time commitment. If you are asking them to pray too then you may want them to pray your prayer after you so keep it simple. Be especially careful how you pray for healing by making sure you’ve thought through the theology first and not least because you are in the presence of mystery and vulnerability and dare not pray careless or harmful words. Historically of course prayer for healing has always been linked with the healing that comes in bread and wine. Whilst it is not always possible to make such a link the increasing use of ministers sharing the leading of worship with others may open up such opportunities. The added bonus when this happens is of course that people only have to move once!
I love St Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “I appeal to you – I, Paul who am ‘timid’ when face to face with you but ‘bold’ towards you when away” (2 Cor 10:1) because he recognises that it’s easier to appeal from a distance! I don’t know your situation if you are a preacher or worship leader but I do appeal to you to consider an appeal! Of course it won’t be right for every occasion or for every worshipper but it will be right for some and might provide an opportunity they have been waiting for all their lives.