The Glass House
Reason 3: The Invitation To Discipleship
Likely the very worst thing the black church does
is our epic ruination of the invitation to discipleship. In
the overwhelming majority of black churches I’ve either visited
personally or seen on TV, this portion of service is poorly
done. It is routinely treated as a matter of routine, something
to be gotten out of the way.
I suspect the black church’s routine desecration of this vital
sacrament is the chief reason the church does not grow. There
is, to my experience, absolutely no investment—none—made in the
invitation to discipleship. While the trend nowadays is to drag
the offering out to ridiculous extremes (in the bizarre hope
that, the longer you talk, the more time you give congregants to
write a check; a theory which presumes congregants are, frankly,
stupid), the invitation to discipleship continues to be an
afterthought, usually handled as either routine pulpit business
by the pastor or handed off to some rookie who has no idea what
he or she is doing.
There is no more important, no more vital a moment in your worship service than the invitation to discipleship. If you spend more time on the offering, on the altar prayer, on the choir—you are simply being unscriptural and ridiculous.
The invitation to discipleship is the reason we are there. Church folk like to say we’ve come together to worship and magnify the Lord, and that is indeed partially true. But Jesus never commanded us to worship and magnify The Lord. Jesus never instructed us to fellowship with the saints, to clap for the choir. Jesus commanded us to go and make disciples [Matt. 28:19]. That, beloved, is what the invitation to discipleship is all about.
Instead, we make it a trivial matter of routine. We stand the congregation on its feet, which now rather insists the invitation be given short shrift because people get tired of standing. Then the music starts, with the choir and congregation singing at the top of their lungs—I mean wailing—while the minister babbles a few words—usually rehearsed, silly platitudes—which are routinely drowned out by the singing.
Up-tempo, foot-stomping, loud music gets the congregation swaying and clapping, a signal the long service, the overly-long sermon, is coming to a close and fried chicken is in our immediate future. This is the nonsense of our tradition: ushers placing chairs in front of the pulpit, these chairs facing away from the pulpit, facing the congregation. This odd tradition actually works against discipleship as it seems designed to intimidate and humiliate the seeker while attracting the Church Folk who just want attention (and who routinely prolong service by another half-hour while they gas on about their issues).
This is an incredibly stupid tradition. Most unchurched people would rather run in front of a bus than sit in those chairs. Most long-term church folk, convicted by the Holy Spirit, will nonetheless shun your circus of an invitation for fear of embarrassment, of admitting they have no idea whether or not they are truly saved. If you want to know why your church isn’t growing, stop looking at the choir and the marketing and all of that. Your church is not growing because you are not making disciples. Because you spend an hour preaching (way, way too long), enjoying the sound of your own voice, but you rush through the invitation like the joint is on fire. You allow the hand-clapping and foot-stomping to drown out the soul-saving. You allowed the choir to sing too many selections. You’ve worn folks out begging for money and reading announcements and a half-hour of pastoral observations (more of you gassing on about you).
And you never offered to share Jesus Christ with anyone. Not even your own church members, many of whom believe they are saved but have never accepted Christ. And you've never asked them. They assume they're saved, you assume they're saved. Everybody's just playing church.
That, pastor, is why your church is not growing. The folk you already have know little about Christ, about their own salvation, because it is not discussed in any serious way at your church. Since they themselves don’t know what salvation means, they cannot effectively share their faith with anyone else. Which is why many black church folk are frankly embarrassed to be Christians. Oh, they like hanging out with other Church Folk, but the average black churchgoer is paralyzed by fear when it comes to sharing their faith with others. Additionally, their inconsistent testimony—most being undercover Christians in the workplace or in social situations—makes it doubly hard for them to credibly invite others to know Jesus Christ.
This is a condemnation of the black church’s penchant for clinging to traditions which do not conform to biblical standards. It is an epic failure of leadership, of well-paid and well-fed pastors who have attritioned to a “don’t rock the boat” strategy of go-along, submitting to the will of the people. Public opinion is usually formed from misinformation and ignorance. Pastors being pushed around and led by people who know nothing of the love of Jesus Christ, who know nothing of the Bible, are condemned by scripture [Acts 19:13-20]. These men are lost. These men are more concerned about their salaries and pensions, their fine cars and lifestyles, then they are about doing the work of a pastor. They don't rock the boat. They watch what they say for fear of upsetting tithes-paying members.
You can’t possibly lead people you are timidly following. And, any “don’t rock the boat” pastor too scared to put a stop to unbiblical foolishness going on on his watch has no place in the kingdom of God. He is a fool who is more about self than about God.
The fact that many if not most of our pastors are too weak to put a stop
to this (or, worse, are apparently not bothered by it), tells
the story of a church in decline, of a people in bondage to
silly and unscriptural traditions.
It’s so bad that, when I give the invitation, the deacons,
congregates and musicians actually get annoyed—annoyed—with me
because I ask them to please quiet the music and singing, The
deacons are annoyed because I don’t want those chairs put out. I
want the deacons and the congregation to remain seated, heads
bowed, eyes closed, while we meditate briefly on what salvation
is and why it’s important. Many church folk have never in their
lives, in their decades of hand clapping, meditated on what
salvation is or why it’s important. To my horror, I have met
hundreds if not thousands of Church Folk who could not explain
the plan of salvation. One pastor—a pastor—shocked me when he
said he didn’t know what The Sinner’s Prayer was.
To most black churches I’ve known, salvation is achieved through church membership. Join the church and you're in. At these places, it’s all about opening the doors of the church—without ever explaining what that means. People in the congregation—church and unchurched—are afraid to embarrass themselves by admitting they don’t know what “the doors of the church are open” means. I, myself, thought it meant the literal doors were being opened and the congregation dismissed to the chicken joint. Beloved, church membership, as we practice it, is not scriptural. There is no model for getting people signed up and locked into exclusive relationships with this group or that group. The biblical church existed where it was needed, where it was sent. It was flexible, it was organic. Our model is more about head counts, head counts being more about money than anything else.
Ask yourself how many times, in the years you've attended your church, has the pastor called just to see how you were doing? I don't mean when you're sick or bereaved. I mean, the guy just called to be calling. You're his member, right? Truthfully, biblically, we should be members of one church—the Body of Christ. We don't have to fill out any paperwork or sign anything. If Church A has a need, we should be free to move between Church B and Church A to see to that need. We shouldn't need anybody's permission and there shouldn't be any squabbling. We should worship at a specific church because God has called us to that church and we should move when God tells us to move—without the pain and hassle of the legalistic system we've developed. Nowadays, joining a church feels a lot like buying a car: the joy of the moment is overshadowed by the paperwork. The early church, before we all got these titles and before the pastor's name was scribbled all over everything, was much less formal. It was a family. A family who all belonged to Christ. Instead, now we belong to the pastor, the pastor running around talking about "My member." Pastor, she doesn't belong to you. You have neither heaven nor hell to send her to, and it's quite possible you've not once visited her. But she's "my member."
Equally stupid are rivalries between pastors: pastors who dislike each other and refuse to cooperate with one another. Pastors who "guard" their flock by forbidding their members to associate with individuals or churches. These men are usually not led by God, not led by the Holy Spirit. These guys are trying to protect their paychecks, trying to guilt you into staying, block you from visiting anywhere else. The pastor secure in his calling, in his faith, is quite the opposite. He'd want you to visit other churches. That way, you'll learn to appreciate what you have at home.
The invitation should be a quiet time,
a time of sober
reflection and self-inspection, where the congregation is
invited to question their own status and examine their own lives
for evidence of a relationship with Jesus Christ. By asking them
to bow and to close their eyes, the pulpit conductor creates a
quiet space and more personal environment where the congregant becomes, for that
moment, alone in their thoughts. Without consideration of who
might be looking at them, the congregant can focus on the most
simple and yet, in our tradition, most evasive of questions:
do I know Jesus? It’s an easy question. In our tradition, it
is rarely asked.
In 47 years in the black church, no one—and I need to underscore this, not a single person—has ever asked me if I know Jesus. Oh, once or twice, I've been asked, "Are you saved?" But, what if I didn't know what "saved" meant? Not one time has anyone in a black church even once turned to me, introduced themselves, and asked me if I knew Jesus, if they could walk me to the altar or share Christ with me over a cup of coffee. Not once. And, to answer the next question, yes, this has happened to me many times in white churches. Not as much as it should, but at least it's happened. As a minister, I’ve never received any instruction on how to give the invitation. I’ve never heard one pastor—of hundreds I’ve known—do any teaching on it, or stress its importance to his ministers. I have, on the other hand, received extensive training on how to lift an offering—how to talk and talk and prolong the thing so people will have time to write checks. I’ve been trained to put on white opera gloves for communion, even though non-ordained ministers aren’t allowed to even hold the tray (another ridiculous and unscriptural tradition we perpetrate because of the ignorance of biblical doctrine).
Tell your music minister: the Invitation To Discipleship is not a time for a performance. It is a time that demands clarity and focus, two things that are lost soon as Sister Mama starts hollering Packin’ Up! into the mic. Most black churches completely miss the point of this, the most important moment of the service, because we’re not at all interested in making disciples or saving souls. We break the connection between the hearer and the speaker by switching off from the minister who brought the word to some novice who just wants to be seen and who’s been given this vital task simply to placate his ego or to have something to do. There should be absolutely no drums playing. Ideally, no Hammond--just some quiet business on the piano, leaving room for the spoken word to do its part. Let God do His thing. Don't create a distraction, a big wall of noise for people to hide behind. Strip the room absolutely bare, such that the seeker now stands naked and alone with his conscience.
Bottom line: the invitation to discipleship is your consumer point of purchase. Having done all the singing, all the praying, all the preaching, this is the time for the congregant—saint, sinner, visitor, member, church mother, pastor—to decide for themselves where they’ll want to spend eternity. Drowning out meditative thought with up-tempo head-banger music is just stupid. Stop all that hollering and jumping around, and give people space to be alone in their thoughts with the Lord. Stop rushing. Spend some time on this. Don’t let your folk get impatient with you or bored of hearing it every week. Be their pastor, not their buddy. Lead them. Make them give respect to this time. No walking. No digging around in purses for keys. Put an end to the foolishness that so shamefully disgraces this, the most important thing you’ll ever do, and a main reason your church is not growing.
Christopher J. Priest
29 June 2008