Being in the Baptist sphere came with its own idiosyncrasies. One such awkwardness was what was known as the invitation. Growing up in the Bible church meant that I had not been introduced to the end of service time, where individuals are encouraged to walk down the aisle as a means to solidify salvation. A given Sunday's sermon could be on the topic of vanity in Ecclesiastes, romance in the Song of Solomon, or the children of Israel crossing the Red Sea. No matter. At the end of any sermon on any topic, the compliant Baptist preacher was duty-bound to abandon his topic and give a gospel presentation replete with a sinner's prayer and a call to "come down front." All this was done as the familiar pipe organ melody of Jesus is waiting played softly through the lofty rafters. It seemed to me that Jesus spent a lot of time waiting because most Sundays, no one traversed the velvet carpet.
I was the square peg in this round hole system. I quietly resisted this traditional practice, not feeling that it had a clear basis in Scripture. When I was a guest speaker at various churches, which happened a lot in those days, I would pull the local minister aside and ask if he would do the invitation. I never gave my true reason for wanting to avoid calling people to the front. "As a guest speaker," I would explain, "I don't know your congregation as well as you do. At the end of the sermon, I'll pass you the mic, and you can give the invitation."
This approach probably seemed quite strange to many a pastor who invited me to speak, but it was my half-hearted attempt to stay true to my wavering convictions. It only represented part of my concerns. In reality, I didn't have any faith in the aisle. I was certain that something was amiss with the entire affair, but I could not quite grasp the problem. In addition to this, I had heard so many different contradictory invitationals, that it seemed the actual content was not important. It didn't seem to matter what the preacher said during the invitation as long as he got butts out of pews and down front. The number would be divided into salvations and rededications, recorded and cataloged as if it were an actual victory. Though for me, it never felt like an uptick in the scoreboard. It felt like those who had moved to the front were hardly ever changed by the journey to the altar.
The most audacious reason that I resisted doing an altar call was because I wasn't sure what it should include. Some preachers pressured parishioners to promise their lives to Christ publicly. Others included a faith alone approach, which always seemed to contradict the need to walk down the aisle. Other pulpit bangers claimed that their listeners needed to repent of their sins and get their lives right. I simply was not sure what "version" I should invite people into. It seemed that with every invitation I heard the gospel was blurring further out of focus. The growing fuzziness drove me to avoid ever giving an altar call.
In my capacity as interim student minister at the big Baptist church, I tried my best to hide my aversion to the invitation. At first, it was easy enough, but I had to get more and more creative as I went along. A Baptist who doesn't do an invitation is like a fish that doesn't swim. I was able to avoid performing an invitation for nearly six months before the whole thing unraveled. It wasn't the deacons or the pastor who finally pressured me into the uncomfortable practice. The impetus came from an unexpected place.
Stan had left me a healthy youth group that was ripe for even more growth. I had focused on creating an inviting environment for kids to come and spend time together. We had a great student worship band. They took the reigns and weekly gave their time to improvement. In short, they rocked, but they would soon gain a member that would take them to the next plane of existence.
I remember the day that Tommy showed up. He was a solid six and a half foot man. At least he looked it, though he was only seventeen. "Where do I set up?" He said in a deeply mature voice as he walked through the door with his Jackson electric guitar and Orange amp in tow. I was stunned by the sheer size of the guy. "I'm playing with the band tonight," he informed me. I'm not sure if he had been invited to do so, but if he had, the invitation didn't come from me. I quickly surveyed him, noting that he was wearing chains thick enough to tow a car, and jeans so baggy he could hide an arsenal of weapons. He was not legally old enough to have them, but his arms were covered in tattoos. No doubt, he had easily convinced the frightened tattoo artist that he was of proper age. Not wanting to get beat up by a "youth," I pointed him to the stage, and he began to set up his rig.
The "kid" could shred. I'm not sure that what he added was exactly worshipful, but it was impressive. He stood head and shoulders above the rest of the band, and his massive size made his guitar look like a toy in his gorilla-sized hands. The band from then on played a little louder, faster, and more aggressively.
He quickly became a regular attendee. I'm sure it was no coincidence that the female population of the youth group began to grow exponentially. The rock n' worship band melted faces with ripping solos, and melted hearts with soaring ballads. Tommy was quick becoming an inadvertent leader in the youth group, though he didn't seem to know it. He had a fan club of about a dozen girls who were at least his age, but half his height. They seemed to be ever in orbit of him with spacey looks in their star-filled eyes. I'm sure, had their daddies known the look of the situation; they would have come after me with torches and pitchforks. Tommy was the church's bad boy and the good girls, who had seen only soft palmed emo-kids were smitten.
It was a hot Wednesday night as the students poured into the youth room. The summer was beginning, and there was a growing buzz for our packed schedule. We did two goofy games, the band played three ear-splitting songs, and now it was my time to get up and teach. I had prepared to talk from 2 Corinthians. For some reason, I had decided I didn't need to mark my Bible. Instead, I was planning to simply open to the right passage and preach to the kids. I thumbed through my pages. The passage I landed on was not in second Corinthians but in first. I don't know why I did this, but instead of fumbling to find the right passage, which I had prepared, I simply preached from the verses that my Bible fell open to. They were not at all related to what I had planned, and I'm not sure what I talked about. It seemed to me that the kids didn't know any different.
As I wrapped up my half-hour of babbling about who knows what, I was about to dismiss the students. It was my practice to turn them out without any kind of invitational, aisle walking, or altar call. As I was about to say, "see you guys next week," Tommy took action.
I watched him rise from his seat like a bottle rocket. All six and a half feet shot up from the back row. His rock star groupies all looked up at him, as surprised as I was. I thought this is it. He’s finally going to do it; he’ll murder us all. Before he spoke, my heart was already beating fast. I looked into his eyes from across the room, and I could see that he was adamant. I steeled myself for trouble.
“What are we supposed to do to get saved?” He said almost as if he was mad. “Whatever it is, I don’t want us to leave until we’ve all done it.” He stood there monolithic like a mountain of stone. This would be my downfall. It was like he could see through me. Everyone else was too soft to admit that I had been avoiding the obvious. He, however, was more of a man than me. He was demanding that I share the plan of salvation, and it looked as if he’d physically block the way if I didn’t give up the ancient secret.
Taking a step forward, he added, "If we need to come down front or pray a prayer, or whatever, then let's do it. I'm tired of not knowing what will happen to me when I die."
A long beat followed as I tried to figure out what to do. I had never been pressured by the pastor, or the deacons, or any of the other staff. I had never been told to do an altar call, but now I was backed into a corner by this giant kid. I quickly rambled through my memories, trying to decide how to proceed.
"Yeah, good point Tommy," I began. "I'll… or I mean… yeah." I bumbled for a few seconds as he stood waiting, staring, maybe brooding. "Ok," I said. It seemed to me that most preachers had people close their eyes. "Let's close our eyes." Heads all over the room bowed and eyes closed. It felt good to get everyone's eyes off of me. I took a deep breath. Now what? Usually, an altar call included music, but that wouldn't work because the guitar player was determined to get saved, so…
"Repeat after me," I said. It wasn't as if I had never heard an altar call before. I knew what others were doing. I knew the industry standard. My conscience was screaming, "don't do it; you know it's not in the Bible!" But I have to, I thought. What a weird form of persecution. I was in danger of getting martyred if I refused to share the plan of salvation. Reluctantly I gave in and surrendered the last vestige of resistance I had.
Step one: have them repeat the sinner’s prayer. I felt weird doing it, but I was too much of a coward to do anything else. Step two: ask who prayed the prayer for the first time being careful to have them raise their hands only while everyone’s eyes are still closed. I was ashamed as I looked out across the crowd, counting silently to myself. No less than twelve hands, including Tommy’s raised higher than all the rest, shot upward. Step three: have them come to the front as a “public profession of faith.” All twelve did.
I clapped along with the rest of the youth group, but the celebratory racket was a den to me. Outwardly I congratulated them, but inside it didn't feel right. I didn't doubt the sincerity of the moment. In fact, I didn't doubt that this was a very important experience for them. Ultimately, what I doubted was myself. I wasn't sure that I hadn't just led them astray. What I had been trying to avoid for six months had placed itself squarely in my path, and I was too weak to go around. I was being transformed into something that I wasn't comfortable with.
In the following weeks, I was hailed as an evangelist. I was celebrated as a life changer. The so-called twelve salvations were announced the following Sunday. Though, the jubilant applause came with an ever echoing emptiness for me. This was not least because it wasn't long before Tommy stopped coming. The fan club, twelve strong who just happened to be the same ones who answered the altar call that night, soon dropped off as well. Out of that twelve, four began a small group Bible study which met for two weeks, and then it too dissolved. Within three months of that peculiar night, I had nothing to show for the twelve salvations which I had supposedly won. Though those twelve salvations were written down in the Church registry, I couldn't say for sure whether anyone had gotten saved. Something wasn't right, and I didn't know how to fix it. I honestly didn't know if we had twelve salvations, a dozen rededications, or nothing at all.