Joe LaGuardia’s new book, Awe and Trembling: Reflections for the Christian Journey, is scheduled to be released in late May. As an anthology of articles and homilies from the Baptist Spirituality archives, the book encourages, inspires, and deepens a life of faith and our pilgrimage with God. This article, originally released in 2013, is included in the book.
By Joe LaGuardia
Like so many churches in the South, the church I pastor, Trinity Baptist Church in Conyers, Georgia, still has a time of invitation after the sermon every Sunday. It consists of an altar call or a request for worshipers to reflect on the message, along with a moving hymn to stir the heart.
Although this might seem a bit antiquated—a hold-over from a simpler, revivalist tradition of yesteryear—it still holds a meaningful place in the midst of our worship to God. It is, at its basic level, a time to respond to God and reflect on a personal challenge for the week ahead.
I realized long ago that our church is too small to give an altar call every week. I’m not one of those preachers who make the pianist play the hymn repeatedly until someone comes forward, so over the years I’ve had to expand my invitation to include other calls of response. I now urge my parishioners to take the initiative to respond to God on their own terms.
The shift in emphasis from invitation to initiative is a reminder that there are many ways to respond to God aside from an altar call, decision for baptism, and prayer with the preacher. In fact, all of us—no matter where we are in our faith—should realize that an invitation is a time to follow God’s leading. God is in the business of calling us to action, obedience, surrender, and mission. We are obligated to respond if we claim to believe in Jesus as our Lord and Savior.
One way we can respond is by committing to a life of praise and song. I don’t envy the Christian who only hears or sings praises to God for a few hours a week. Ours is to be a life of song, and we can sing and recite hymns or choruses wherever we are, no matter the day or the hour. The Bible is full of praises that intend to respond to God: “How good it is to invite us to respond to God,” Psalm 147 states, “for God is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.”
Another response is to do something for the Lord each and every week. This action can be as simple as writing a card to a friend in need or a church member who is struggling. It can be something more demanding, such as “paying it forward” by purchasing a stranger’s groceries at the store.
You may also choose to do something based on the sermon. I’m sure your preacher’s messages include at least one challenge for the week ahead. When your pastor gives a challenge or sermon application that is fitting, write it down so you don’t forget. Consider posting or tweeting your commitment on social media so that people can hold you accountable.
A final way to respond to God is to live a “life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Ephesians 4:1). I realize that people are called to do different things in life: one is called to be a teacher while another is called to be a missionary. All of us, however, are included within the calling we are all obligated to fulfill—namely, to practice the Great Commission and “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). This requires holy integrity and obedience to God’s empowering Spirit, to walk in righteousness, and to advocate for justice and grace.
Some churches have done away with the traditional invitation, and more than one church has put hymns such as “I Surrender All” aside. But all of us, whether in a church with revivalist leanings, contemporary praise songs or formal liturgies, bear the weight of responding to a God who calls, seeks, knocks, and commissions with relentless passion.