Why did you preach last Sabbath's sermon? Did you expect your listeners to do something in response? Or were you just filling the time between offering and benediction?
Perhaps it's time we rethink preaching. Perhaps the times demand that we think about intentional preaching—preaching on purpose! Intentional preaching involves planning what you will say and what you expect in response from your audience. A sermon that does not demand a response is not a sermon. It may be a discussion, a presentation, a monologue, or even cleverly disguised religious entertainment, but not a sermon. Unless what you preach motivates the audience toward some positive reaction to what they have heard, your sermon is incomplete.
Peter's sermon at Pentecost was so powerful that the listeners made the appeal themselves: "Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?" (Acts 2:37). Unless you can preach with such power and conviction, it will be necessary for you to make your own appeal to extend an invitation that calls for a response.
In fact, planning your appeal before you construct your sermon is one of the greatest tools in building a powerful sermon. Ask yourself, What action do I want my audience to take as a result of this message? The question will change not only your sermon but also your sermon preparation. The process will be different because your objective will be clearly delineated at the beginning. Everything you say will be focused to ward the goal of motivating the desired response.
When I first told my congregation that I would extend an appeal at the close of every sermon, they reacted with surprise. But soon they discovered that the appeal not only guided my sermon preparation each week, but also demanded a balanced schedule of texts and topics throughout the year. Further, an invitation every week requires careful worship planning in order to allow sufficient time to accomplish the spiritual business at the end of every sermon.
How can you implement an appeal into your weekly worship service?
Condition your audience to expect an appeal after every sermon. Tell them your intention at the beginning of the sermon: I intend to give you an opportunity to respond to Jesus Christ today. If your people know that a response is expected from them, they will listen to the sermon differently, and let the Holy Spirit work more effectively.
Prepare your audience by preaching a Christ-centered sermon. "The object of preaching is not alone to convey information, not merely to convince the intellect. The preaching of the word should appeal to the intellect, and should impart knowledge, but it should do more than this. The words of the minister should reach the hearts of the hearers." * Sermons rooted in Jesus and bathed in the good news of salvation through the power of the Holy Spirit will reach the hearts of your hearers!
Establish a familiar routine for your appeals. This assures your congregation that the appeal is planned as a vital part of your worship service and allows a person to think ahead of decisions that need to be made. For ongoing use, a generic response card is quite helpful. Such a card could include an opportunity to accept Jesus as personal Saviour, an opportunity to request baptism or church membership (by profession of faith), a request for prayer for specific needs, as well as requests for Bible studies, pastoral visits, etc.
Because I wanted my members to respond every week (attendance records), I found it helpful to include some choices to which they could always respond: I would like the Holy Spirit to continue working in my life. Pray that I will personally apply the lesson of from today's sermon. In order to allow sufficient time, I arranged a musical presentation each week at the time of the appeal.
Consider each response an opportunity to minister. My members appreciated a postcard or telephone call assuring them that I had seen their requests for special prayer and would indeed remember them that week. Guests always received acknowledgment of their responses. Even if they registered only their attendance, they received a post card expressing appreciation for their visit. Always prioritize those who are seeking further Bible studies, acceptance of Jesus Christ, or baptism. During one year we had more than 50 requests for baptism.
Begin now. Ask the Holy Spirit to make you willing to extend regular ap peals and to give you the desired fruit for your labor.
* Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1923), p. 62.