The fundamental and repeatable message of Jesus was some version of this: “The rule of God is near. Repent and believe this good news.” “Repent and be baptized” is the way Peter responded when asked by his hearers, “What shall we do?” both of these are classic appeals to people to do something in response to what they have heard. Such appeals have been, from the beginning of the Christian movement, a basic element of the gospel sermon.
The call to action can be:
These are just a few of the many invitations that can punctuate or conclude a good gospel sermon. Tyler Best, AoP ’12, illustrates this perfectly in his sermon “No More Bubbles!” preached at the 2013 National Festival of Young Preachers in Atlanta when he was a sophomore at the University of Evansville:
“This morning, throughout the remainder of the festival, and even as you return to your home ministry, I pray that you will join me in praying for unity like w have never seen it before. I pray for a sense of intentional unity among the body of Christ in your city. I pray for sense of unity that is noticeable by all people, to the glory of God. Our Father in heaven wants his people not just tolerant of one another; God doesn’t just want us slightly acquainted; instead, God calls for a close family working together for the kingdom. Our savior died to make it possible. Out of the ashes of hostility and hate between the Jews and Gentiles, the Holy Spirit brought about true beauty. Can we seek that same beauty in our own Christian community today?”
The presence of a strong and clear call does not turn the gospel preacher into a salesman, although many preachers have tended in this direction. Much criticism has been properly directed toward those who use emotion to manipulate listeners into actions (including those that relate to money!) that are unwise, inappropriate, and disconnected to the gospel. But the presence of an altar call or public invitation does not necessarily distort the gospel all. In fact, such tactics have been instrumental in mobilizing millions of people to faithful service in the kingdom of God. War hero Louis Zamberini witnesses to just such an experience, as narrated in the book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.
One of my favorite sermonic appeals, though, is one described in Neil Diamond’s ballad, “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show:”
Now brothers, you got yourself two good hands.
And When your brother is troubled
You got to reach out your one hand for him,
’cause that’s what it’s there for.
And when your heart is troubled
You got to reach out the other hand,
Reach it out to the man up there,
’cause that’s what he’s there for.
Sermonic appeals do not have to so forceful or overt. Professor Robert Reid of the University of Dubuque unveils for us what he calls the four “voices” of preaching. He analyzed American sermons and grouped them into four types based on the response expected by the preacher. The four responses are:
These four types of responses to sermons help people understand their preacher and also help preachers understand their own intentions and expectations; I know it was an eye-opener for me, and not just about other preachers. These types of “voices” illustrate the full range of sermon responses, from the subtle to the sturdy, from the overt to the implied. But each shares this one thing: the expectation of response to what has been preached. All have a distinctive element of provocation to action, even if that “action” is contemplation or conversation.
Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have complained, upon leaving church one Sunday: “He never tells us what to do” (thus illustrating what Reid calls the Sage Voice, with the “What am I going to do with that?” response). I, too, have departed many a sanctuary unsure of what the preacher was calling me to do. Personally, I prefer the appeal that is strong, clear, and direct. “Put aside the sin that clings so close,” Hebrews urges us, “and run with patience the race set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). THERE is a call to action—using a powerful metaphor! Let every preacher be clear as to what he wants the people to do—or else be silent!