I remember a conversation I had with Mike. He had been attending church with his wife for nearly 30 years but had never been baptized. I asked him, “Have you ever thought of being baptized?” He indicated that, at times, he had. “Mike, what’s stopping you from being baptized?” I asked. After a moment of silence, he said, “I don’t know.” When I suggested that he make that decision, he did. He was baptized a couple weeks later. To get that decision, I had to appeal to his heart.
One of the most important aspects of ministry is helping people make decisions for Christ. It involves both personal appeals in informal settings, such as one-on-one conversations, and public ones from the pulpit. One of the biggest factors determining whether a minister (or a layperson) will be a successful soul winner is whether he or she is willing to boldly ask for decisions through Spirit-led appeals.
Why is it necessary to make appeals? Because people do not normally make decisions without prompting. Most do not wake up one morning and announce, “I must decide for Christ today.” It often takes a direct appeal to awaken conviction in hearts and minds.
When we make appeals, we have the opportunity to assist the Holy Spirit in His work of conviction. The idea of aiding the Holy Spirit may sound strange to us. But God did not design for the Holy Spirit to do the work of conviction while the church sits back and does nothing. The Holy Spirit works through people to reach other people. Yes, the Holy Spirit alone does the convicting, but by asking the right question, by making a loving but direct appeal, we can help that person hear the voice of the Holy Spirit and sense conviction in an even stronger way.
Two powerful appeals
Two phrases that I learned early on in ministry can create powerful appeals. The first is: “Have you ever considered . . . ?” Rather than telling a person what to do, you are simply asking a question that plants a seed in their minds. Most people respond better if you ask them a sincere question that causes them to think on a deeper level.
When we intentionally make appeals in the pulpit, people will respond, and baptisms will increase. In every congregation, there exists someone whose heart is ripe to respond.
For example, if I sense that someone is at a point where they are experiencing conviction and should be thinking about baptism, I can ask them, “Have you ever considered being baptized?” That does not come across as threatening or manipulative. I am simply raising a question. But the question is really an appeal that can lead to deeper conversation. Should they reply that they have not thought about it, I can gently inquire why? If they answer that they have thought about it, I can ask them whether something is standing in their way and then move the conversation toward dealing with the obstacle.
A second powerful appeal is the phrase “I’d like to invite you to . . .” (then fill in the blank). Again, you are not telling the person what to do, but you are giving the person an invitation. For example, “I’d like to invite you to think about being baptized” or “I’d like to invite you to consider accepting Jesus as your Savior.” When you give a simple but direct appeal, you are speaking to the heart and causing them to examine what is most important.
Of course, the way you raise the question or make the appeal is essential. If you come across as insincere, harsh, or self-righteous, you will push them away. But if you ask with a gentle but bold spirit, with an attitude of love and concern, it will usually yield beautiful results. People can tell if they are just another number to you or if you truly care about them.
That’s why a relationship is always the first step of soul winning. When you develop connections with people, trust forms. And when trust forms, you can ask the bold question or make the direct appeal.
Personal appeals—the process
Let’s take a look at the process of making personal appeals.
1. Ascertain whether the subject is clear to them. People do not make decisions about things they do not understand. So we need to be sure that things are clear and then give them opportunities to ask questions. When you know they understand the topic or issue, then it’s time to make an appeal.
2. Ascertain whether there is an obstacle. You might ask, “Is there anything that stands in your way to follow Jesus in this matter (whatever it is)?” As long as there is an obstacle in their path or in their mind, whether perceived or real, they are not likely to risk a decision. Find out what the obstacle is and help them with it. Once their conviction is stronger than the obstacle, they will move forward.
Here is where listening plays a key role. It is a huge part of leading people to make decisions. In fact, it is even more important than talking. Listening helps me know what questions to ask and how better to appeal to them. To best help them, I need to understand what their obstacles are and what they are thinking.
3. Invite them to make a choice. You might say, “Would you like to tell Jesus you are willing to follow Him in this matter?” Then let the conversation go deeper. If they say yes, seal the decision with a prayer of commitment together. Invite the person to pray in their own words and verbalize their decision for Jesus. Then follow up with a prayer of blessing, reinforcing their decision and asking the Holy Spirit to lead and guide them.
Be patient. If they are still not ready to say yes, encourage them to take some time to think and pray about it and let them know you will also be praying for them and are willing to talk whenever they are ready. Continue to pray for them, and then appeal to them again in the near future as the Holy Spirit leads. Remember, a “no” right now does not mean “no forever.” A soul winner does not give up. Neither does the Holy Spirit.
4. Invite them to take a step of action. It may be an act relevant to the decision made. For example, someone who has just said yes to baptism might set a date for it. Someone who has just chosen to surrender their finances to God might return a faithful tithe for three months and see how God provides. An individual who has just chosen to stop drinking might remove the alcohol from the house or have an anointing service that God will heal them (after all, alcoholism is a sickness). Confirming a decision by taking some active step strengthens the decision of the heart.
Public appeals—the language
Now, let’s consider how to make public appeals from the pulpit. Every sermon should have an appeal. Otherwise, it’s just a lecture presenting information. In our sermons, we should unashamedly ask for decisions. If you don’t, then why are you preaching?
Before we examine the types of appeals from the pulpit, let’s discuss the language of the appeal.
1. Be specific. What choice are you asking the listener to make? To be baptized? To accept Christ? To have a forgiving heart? If the decision you are requesting is not clear, people will not respond because they will not know what exactly they are responding to.
2. Be positive, not negative. Do not concentrate on the negative aspects of the decision—challenges, obstacles, difficulties. Focus on the positive aspects—the blessings that result from that decision, the benefits of following Jesus, the peace that comes from surrendering to Him.
For example, suppose I am making an appeal for baptism. In that case, I do not dwell on what the person may have to give up or the obstacles they may encounter or how family members might think they are crazy. Those things may be a reality, but I do not have to unnecessarily stress them. I emphasize the joy and assurance that results from making that decision.
3. Give clear directions. What action are you asking them to take? Are you asking them to come forward? If so, when? While you are talking? During the song? Do you want them to raise their hands? If so, should they do it now while you are talking? Or during the prayer? If you use decision cards, explain exactly what you want them to do with them.
4. Repeat the appeal. When making an appeal while you are preaching, you will need to repeat it a few times. People need time to process the appeal and reach a decision. Often, repeating the appeal clarifies it in the listener’s mind and strengthens the conviction they feel.
Public appeals—the types
There are usually four main types of public appeals that you can use from the pulpit.
1. Raising the hand or standing. Most people respond to the very general appeal to raise the hand or stand because it may not be as daunting as coming forward. This is a good way to help an audience become comfortable if they are not used to appeals. It is also a good type to begin with for preachers who are not used to making appeals.
2. Silent prayer in the pew. Although not employed as often, silent prayer can be very effective for sensitive topics. More of a private decision, it requires very little visible action. You simply invite the congregation to bow their heads and talk to Jesus about what they heard in the sermon. One or two minutes of music in the background will create an atmosphere conducive to prayer. After the music ends, the speaker concludes with a prayer. You may not know what decisions have taken place, but God does.
3. Altar call. The strongest of all public appeals, an altar call requires a major step of action: getting out of the seat and walking forward. One of the benefits of the altar call is that it encourages other people when they witness someone making a decision. As more people respond, you can literally sense the Holy Spirit moving. We should use the altar call much more often than we do—even on Sabbath mornings.
When I do an altar call, I usually make the appeal for a specific decision and then repeat it a couple times to make sure that it was clear and that people understand what I am asking for. After I make the appeal, I let the audience know they can start coming forward as everyone stands and we begin singing the closing song. When the song starts, I step down to the floor. Then I simply wait for the people as the congregation sings. I do it this way for two reasons. First, people are already standing, and that’s half the battle. Second, I do not have to keep thinking of things to say. Everybody is singing. So, I sing along and watch the Spirit move.
When the song ends, I speak a few words of encouragement to those who came forward and then have a prayer of blessing with them. I invite them to stay up front for a few minutes after the prayer so that we can get their names and contact information if they are guests. This is very important because you need to follow up with a personal visit to those individuals during the next two days. The visit will solidify the decision.
4. Decision cards. Decision cards are not just for evangelistic meetings. You can use them in worship services too. Completing and handing in a card is a major step of action but offers a little more privacy. It gives those who do not want to go up front or draw attention to themselves an opportunity to respond.
Review the decision card with the audience and explain what each line means and the decision you are asking for. You might have soft music playing in the background. Then clarify how you want them to hand in the cards. Make it as easy as possible. Options include passing around an offering plate, passing the cards to the aisle where a deacon or deaconess will collect them, or having the cards collected at the door as people leave. I prefer to have the deacons or deaconesses collect the cards and bring them to me so that I can say a prayer of blessing over them to close the service. Be sure to follow up on those cards during the next couple of days with a phone call or personal visit.
When we intentionally make appeals in the pulpit, people will respond, and baptisms will increase. In every congregation, there exists someone whose heart is ripe to respond. Whether we are making personal appeals in a Bible study or public ones from the pulpit, there is one essential thing the soul winner must remember: to get decisions, you must ask for them.