If you haven’t been to an evangelical church these next will make no sense…
“With every head bowed, and every eye closed.”
“Amen, I see that hand.”
If you have been to an evangelical church, you know this is from the part of the service where the pastor asks people to make a commitment to follow Jesus. All they have to do is raise their hand…and no one else is going to be looking. It’s that easy.
When I was leading a church in Ithaca, NY one of the big names in our denomination, who seemed to speak at nearly every conference, was a huge proponent of this part of the service. He would basically make the point that if you weren’t doing this every Sunday, you needed to consider whether or not you were legitimately a church.
Now, I ate up a lot of what this guy taught…but that…not at all.
In fact, not only did we not do some version of that every week…I have maybe done that 2 or 3 times in 30+ years of ministry. And usually, that was after a conference where that guy or someone else made me feel guilty that I was letting down Jesus.
As you can probably tell, I have numerous issues with that practice. Here are three:
First, it is normally done as a bait and switch. After raising your hand anonymously, you are usually asked, once every eye is open and every head raised, to stand up and walk to the front of the room by yourself where someone will pray with/for you. That always felt dishonest.
(Integrity issue #2 is that it is often more about bragging rights than anything else. “We had X people come to Jesus this week!” “Okay, well what are you going to do to help them begin their discipleship?”)
Second, it often plays on emotions. The soft music is playing, you are being told that all you need to do is this one simple thing and your life will be transformed and your future secured. And maybe hell even gets thrown in the mix…if Jesus isn’t attractive enough…hopefully, hell can sufficiently scare you.
Justo Gonzalez in his book Luke, writes about two parables in Luke 14 where Jesus talks about counting the cost and asks, “What does this say about our common practice of inviting people to raise their hand, or to come to the altar, to “accept Jesus,” with little or no warning about the actual cost of such a decision?” Exactly!
When I was in college a guy came back mid-summer, and took a group of us out to “lead people to Jesus.” Five or six college guys would walk up to unsuspecting people who were just out to enjoy the nice summer weather, we would surround them (completely non-threatening I’m sure), and badger them…I mean talk to them until we had convinced them to accept Jesus. While the rest of the group was celebrating our incredible success that night, it hit me that the only thing most of those people wanted that night was for us to go away.
Too many these types of decisions never translate to a life of discipleship.
A third reason is that it uses “us versus them” or “insider versus outside language.” If you are in America and consider yourself to be on the right politically. How much left-leaning political commentary would it take for you to realise that everything you believe is wrong and “switch sides”? If you are left-leaning, how many hours of right-leaning political commentary would be necessary before you said, “you know, they are right! I’m going to change everything I believe in today!”
In Ireland it would probably be framed by whether you drink Barry’s tea or Lyons.
But I hope you get the point. Things that are central to how we see ourselves are not something that we simply change on the spot. In fact, the more direct and frontal the assault, the more we tend to dig in.
All that said, I think one of the key things churches do is help connect people to Jesus. While there is a place for wisdom and logical proofs, most people come to Jesus because they have experienced Jesus. While some of us may have initially come to Christ because we were told that if we didn’t we’d go to hell…I’m willing to bet that if you are still following Jesus years later, it is because you have had an experience of him…not because you are afraid of hell.
There is this passage in the Bible where we are told to “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” So what we have always done, rather than asking for an anonymous hand is to encourage people, whether they consider themselves a follower of Jesus or not, to invite Jesus into a part of their life.
• It might be something as straightforward as encouraging them to say at some point in the next few days, “Jesus if you are real, would you help me see that this week.”
• It might be, based on what we just read in scripture, Jesus says if we do this, then here is what will happen. Would you be willing to try that? Why not ask Jesus into that part of you life and see what happens?
Here is the common argument against this, “But what if they do this, and Jesus doesn’t respond?”
You may feel that tension as well.
My response, “that is way above my pay grade.”
If a person reaches out in some manner to Jesus…Why would our first thought be to assume he wouldn’t do anything. I mean we do believe all this stuff we say about him, right?
And, let’s be honest, most of us have a tendency to be control freaks and this practice takes people and their connection with Jesus out of our control…we may not even get to hear all of the stories of how he responds. But if we believe that Jesus is who he says he is, then the best thing we can do is help others experience him for themselves.