“…and make disciples of all the nations….” (Matthew 28:18-20)
From where I sat as pastor, the deacon appeared to be brow-beating people into praying the sinner’s prayer with him, then accompanying him to church the following Sunday to make public this “commitment” and be baptized. The whipped look on their faces told all one would ever need to know.
So, one Sunday I asked his most recent trophy, a sad-looking lady, “Do you really want to do this? You know, you don’t have to be baptized if you don’t want to.” She said quietly that this was her choice. So, we baptized her and never saw her again.
In time, we changed the way we received church members to make certain we were not simply baptizing someone’s converts but were actually making disciples of the Lord Jesus.
Jesus did not send us to make converts or church members. He did not command anyone to make decisions or pray a nice little prayer. He did not commission us to talk people into walking an aisle or undergoing baptism or getting religious.
He commanded the church to make disciples. A disciple is something far different from a convert or a friend or decision. Becoming a disciple involves a commitment for the rest of one’s life.
We cannot sneak people into the kingdom.
A pastor I know had hundreds of cards printed up with the “sinner’s prayer.” He gave them to his members with a little training to “get people to pray this prayer.” His goal was one thousand people each year “praying the sinner’s prayer.” By this plan, according to him, they were reaching people for Jesus and populating heaven with the born again.
No matter if those people never darkened the door of his or any church. So long as they invited Jesus into their hearts–which was the content and object of the prayer–nothing else mattered.
Except it doesn’t work that way.
Nowhere in Scripture are we commanded to “get people to pray the sinner’s prayer.” We were told to make disciples, which is a far bigger business. It’s also harder, which accounts for our efforts to shortcut the process. We keep trying to go the Lord one better.
Someone protests that if convincing people to “pray this prayer” gets them into heaven and out of harm’s way (i.e., hell), then haven’t we done a good thing? Answer: if it would, then we have. But if that’s how it works, wouldn’t the Lord have told us to do it that way?
We must careful of trying to improve on the Lord’s methods.
So many ways to manipulate…
I was a young minister, a few months prior to heading to seminary, and the assistant pastor of Central Baptist Church in Tarrant City, Alabama. I sat in the choir the week of revival led by an evangelist by the name of Harry Trover. He seemed nice enough and his sermons were acceptable, as I recall. But there was something about him….
The evangelist had a scheme to get people “down the aisles.” Each night, his sermon lasted only 15 minutes. The invitation which followed lasted another 15 to 20 minutes. Here’s what he did…
At the end of his sermon, the preacher asked everyone to bow their heads and close their eyes. Then, he spoke to those who wished to get to know the Lord better, or had a prayer request, or wanted to make some kind of decision, or such. “Would you raise your hand?” he asked.
“Keep your hand up.” This went on for a time. “Come on, and put your hand up!”
Then, next step.
“All of you with your hand in the air, would you lift your head and look at me. Come on now, all of you. Lift your head. Look me in the eye. You can do this.”
After a bit, the third step.
“Now, those of you looking at me, I want you to stand to your feet. The rest of you continue with your heads bowed and your eyes closed. But if you raised your hand and are looking at me, I want you to stand up right now. Come on. Stand up for Jesus.”
“Now, as the choir sings and the pastor takes his place here in front, I want you to step out into the aisle and come forward, making that decision for Jesus. We have counselors here at the front to deal with you. Come on. Who will be first? Step forward now.”
That went on for a long period.
An outsider might conclude that Scripture places a great value on raising one’s hand, opening one’s eyes and looking at the preacher, standing to one’s feet, and especially walking forward to the front. As though this proved something or guaranteed something.
The first night the evangelist did that, I found it interesting. The next night, when he did the exact same thing, I found it slightly less so. By the third and fourth nights and through the rest of the week, as he repeated the process again and again, we all found them repetitive and manipulative. And more than a little insulting.
I assume the evangelist reported the numbers of those “making decisions,” as though that proved the Spirit of the Lord was bearing great fruit through his labors.
Did anyone who actually walked the aisle come to know Jesus as Savior and live forever? We surely hope so. But only God knows. If so, I suspect it was in spite of the preacher’s technique and not because of it.
Scripture does not tell us how exactly to make disciples.
There seems to be no one biblical way with all the others being wrong. God uses any method He pleases. (See Psalm 115:3)
God used a deacon in the desert when Philip talked to the eunuch of Ethiopia (Acts 8).
God used a woman with a terrible reputation in Sychar (John 4).
He used a preacher with an impromptu message on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2).
God used a converted rabbi when he called Saul of Tarsus. He used a bunch of untrained fishermen when He called the apostles. He used women and children, the elderly and even royalty.
Today God uses the internet, radio, television, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and a hundred things I never heard of. He uses books, magazines, pamphlets, and hand-written notes. He uses personal conversations, phone calls, and poor preachers.
Some might ask whether the Lord doesn’t also use “sinner’s prayers printed on cards”. My answer is two-fold. One, He can if He wants to. Two, however, we should think about the hundreds and possibly thousands of people who are now walking around with a false sense of security because “I prayed that prayer.” Whoever duped them into that did them no favor.
Our prayer ought always to be “Thy will be done.” Any method that is not His will should be abandoned forever.