Biggest Misunderstandings About Public Responses

Neal Pollard

There are a couple of examples of public responses to the gospel message in the Bible, both in Acts.  One is positive and the other is negative.  As Peter was preaching that God has made Jesus Lord, the Pentecost crowd interrupted him with the question, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37).  As Stephen was delivering a similar message, his audience stopped listening and they cried out with a loud voice before putting the preacher to death (Acts 7:54ff).  Mention is made of a one another response that could apply to the corporate assembly, confessing sins (Jas. 5:16; 1 Jn. 1:9).  How public the setting was when Peter called for Simon to repent we do not know for certain (Acts 8:18-24).  So, why do we end our sermons with a call to publicly respond?  Is this simply borrowed from the denominations or is it just a rote tradition devoid of deeper purpose?

Often, we have explained the invitation as being an “expedient,” which I think it is.  When we speak of an “expedient,” we refer to a practice that is thought convenient, practical, suitable or appropriate but neutral (neither right nor wrong) and a-biblical (not found in the Bible but not unbiblical).  It is a sensible activity.  Hopefully, the sermon contains a call to change and is persuasive in nature.  Maybe, the person comes in the door that day convicted of his or her need to become a Christian or repent of public sin.  Affording a moment that makes it easy for one needing to obey Christ in one of these ways to do so is appropriate.

I have been in assemblies in this country and overseas that do not have such a time set aside or that do so at other times during the gathering—some do so at the beginning of the service so that a person can worship without being alienated from God (cf. Mat. 5:24), some invite anyone who needs to publicly respond to remain standing after the lesson and a song, some encourage people who need to respond to write their need on a card or piece of paper and hand it to an usher, the preacher, the elders, or someone designated to collect such communication.

While I think it is good for us to consider that there is more than one way to do this and that we are not mandated to do it at all in the assembly, I believe our current arrangement is a fine way to try and help people who need to make spiritual changes and improvements.   Yet, someone who feels the need to make such a response often hesitates or decides against it.  Certainly, the problem on such an occasion might be fear or delay, but is it ever due to some misunderstanding such a one has?  Here are a few of the biggest misunderstandings people have about responding to the invitation:

  •  Nobody but me is struggling with sin in their lives.  Truth: Romans 3:23.
  •  It is a sign of weakness to respond publicly.  Truth: Luke 15:10, 17
  •  Everybody will look down on me, judge me, or gossip about me if I respond.  Truth: Luke 15:28-32
  •  People will distance themselves from me if I respond.  Truth: 1 Corinthians 12:26-27.

Maybe you are thinking this or something similar.  May I assure you that every righteous person on earth and all the inhabitants of heaven would like nothing better than to help you be right with God.  Death and the Judgment loom, and we cannot let anything keep us from making proper preparation for them.  So, if you need to respond today or any day, won’t you come?

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Why Has There Been A Decline In Public Responses?

Neal Pollard

While I am certain that there are those who will say that they are still seeing as many public responses in their assemblies as ever, most will observe what I have observed.  As I think back to my childhood, public responses to the invitation were commonplace—nearly every service.  When I first began preaching, public responses requesting baptism or public repentance by members very regularly occurred.  Steadily, particularly in the last five to 10 years, such responses have declined. The burning question is, “Why?”

One might point to the growing influence of the world and its impact on the heart of hearers.  One may point to weaker, less distinct preaching.  One could talk about how potential responders will feel judged or condemned by the others present.  One could speak of the philosophies and world views of the age, whether secularism, naturalism, postmodernism, or emergent theology.

Though these are no doubt factors, I am not fully satisfied with them.  Weren’t these stumbling blocks in place in previous generations.  The names of the philosophies may have changed, but they were there. Consider another theory.  Are we losing the traditional, real social connection and fellowship of days gone by as we lose ourselves in the virtual world of social media (some of the same desensitizing factors could apply to TV and movies, too)?  Before you dismiss this theory, consider some reasons why I promulgate it.

  • Some use social media as their “confessional” or front pew, where they confess their failings in marriage, attitude, speech, or actions.
  • On the other hand, social media outlets—particularly those having photos as part of their makeup—create an artificiality.  We don’t post unflattering pictures (and may plead with those that tag us in them to delete them), don’t generally admit to weaknesses of character or anything that may make us seem inferior to others (financially, socially, intellectually, etc.).  Image replaces integrity.
  • Increased time on social media, cultivating that virtual world and its relationships, may be robbing us of real-time, real-life relationships.  We often neglect those in front of us for those we’re “visiting” by phone or tablet.

How might this impact public responses?  Are we meeting the needs of James 5:16 and 1 John 1:9 via the virtual world? Are we afraid to show vulnerability, need, or weakness, lest we be deemed “inferior”?  Have we desensitized ourselves, losing the ability to be “real”?  There may be huge holes in my theory, but I suspect there is at least some truth to it.

What can we do to reverse the trend? Hopefully, giving it some serious thought is a start.  We cannot reduce ourselves to mindless minions who are consumed with the superficial while disconnecting from the authentic.  We must renew a dedication to fellowship and relationship, now more than ever!  The people on Pentecost were disturbed enough by clear, divine teaching to make that known in the clearest terms (Acts 2:37).  Let’s help the church be a place of real connections and relationships so we can help each other when spiritual needs exist.