This is the sixth post in the series on the hymns I've sung during my lifetime.
One feature of Baptist worship that doesn't exist in all other traditions is the Invitation. Immediately before the closing hymn the minister gives an "Altar Call" inviting people to come forward and to make decisions--a profession of faith, joining the church, recommitting one's life. Occasionally someone will use it as a time to come forward and share a burden or a word of testimony.
In some churches this is a rather straightforward affair. The minister issues a simple call or none at all, but simply stands at the front of the church during the hymn in case anyone comes forward to join the church. There is usually some procedure with ushers assisting the person in filling out a card. Then at the end of the hymn the minister announces those folk who are joining and they are immediately accepted as members by acclamation. Technically, this is a vote, in the very old fashioned tradition of voting on accepting someone into membership.
But the invitation can become far more elaborate, particularly during a revival, and can go on for a while, especially if people are coming forward to make decisions. Sometimes the minister will pause the singing to add to the altar call, usually while the pianist plays softly in the background.
There are a variety of hymns that function as invitation hymns. Here was my favourite as a child:
The Savior is waiting to enter your heart,
Why don't you let him come in?
There's nothing in this world to keep you apart,
What is your answer to him?
Time after time he has waited before,
And now he is waiting again
To see if you're willing to open the door,
Oh, how he wants to come in.
And the second verse adds to the appeal:
If you'll take one step t'ward the Savior, my friend,
You'll find his arms open wide;
Receive him, and all of your darkness will end,
Within your heart he'll abide.
There is a powerful emphasis upon making a decision in this and other invitation hymns. Remember that a core teaching of the Baptists is that adults make a choice about their faith rather than being compelled into it because of what nation or family they are born into. At least that's the original idea from the 1600's.
But there is also emotional manipulation in these words and melodies and how they are used within the service. The most extreme invitation and altar call I ever witnessed was at the Arkansas State Baptist Youth Camp. Christa Arnold wanted me to see how the other kind of Baptists did youth ministry, shortly after I moved to Fayetteville to be Associate Pastor at Rolling Hills Baptist Church, which was part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. That particular invitation was so extreme I called it spiritual abuse, as the minister encouraged the teenagers to find those friends who they weren't sure were saved and if they died would be in heaven and go to them and persuade them to come forward. I about came out of my seat with the horror of such a manipulative, abusive appeal. At this extreme it is a quite clear violation of the fundamentals of the Baptist faith. That minister was arrested a few years later in Oklahoma City for soliciting male prostitutes.
Of course the paradigm example of a Hymn of Invitation is "Just As I Am," popularized by the Billy Graham Crusade.
Just as I am, without one plea,
But that thy blood was shed for me,
And that thou bidd'st me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!
"Just As I Am" has a powerful life in queer-affirming congregations who have used it effectively as an affirmation of God's inclusive love. And that was there in the hymn all along. For example, here is the sixth verse from the Baptist Hymnal.
Just as I am, thy love uknown
Hath broken ev'ry barrier down;
Now to be thine, yea, thine alone,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!
Many of these hymns are very effective:
Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,
Calling for you and for me;
See, on the portals he's waiting and watching,
Watching for you and for me.
Come home, come home,
Ye who are weary come home;
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling, O sinner, come home!
There's room at the cross for you,
There's room at the cross for you;
Tho millions have come
There's still room for one,
Yes, there's room at the cross for you.
O soul, are you weary and troubled?
No light in the darkness you see?
There's light for a look at the Savior,
And life more abundant and free!
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in his wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace.
Without him I could do nothing,
Without him I'd surely fail;
Without him I would be drifting
Like a ship without a sail.
Jesus, O Jesus,
Do you know him today?
You can't turn him away.
O Jesus, O Jesus,
Without him, how lost I would be.
As with that last one, these hymns are also an affirmation for those already professing faith. They reassure you of God's love and inspire gratitude toward God for the forgiveness of your sins and your welcome home.
Those above were directed toward the person, inviting them. Some are written from the first person perspective, calling out to God.
Speak to my heart, Lord Jesus,
Speak that my soul may hear;
Speak to my heart, Lord Jesus,
Calm ev'ry doubt and fear.
Speak to my heart, oh, speak to my heart,
Speak to my heart, I pray;
Yielded and still, seeking thy will,
Oh, speak to my heart today.
I always found that "yielded and still" to be effective in inspiring precisely that.
I am thine, O Lord,
I have heard thy voice,
And it told thy love to me;
But I long to rise in the arms of faith,
And be closer drawn to thee.
Draw me nearer, nearer, blessed Lord,
To the cross where thou hast died;
Draw me nearer, nearer, nearer, blessed Lord,
To thy precious, bleeding side.
That one also has the feature of confession, which is common in some of these. A corporate Prayer of Confession is not a standard part of the Southern Baptist order of worship, though it appeared in other ways.
Have thine own way, Lord!
Have thine own way!
Thou art the potter, I am the clay!
Mold me and make me
After thy will,
While I am waiting,
Yielded and still.
There's that "yielded and still" again.
All to Jesus I surrender,
All to him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust him,
In his presence daily live.
I surrender all,
I surrender all;
All to thee, my blessed Savior,
I surrender all.
Of course in the United Church of Christ we value making a decision, except we don't include this weekly invitation or have any hymn that serves this particular purpose. For us the decision is generally focused at confirmation, when adolescents choose to join the church fully and profess their faith. And that after a time of spiritual formation and Christian education.
William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience wrote that there are two types of conversion--the immediate kind (Paul on the road to Damascus) and the kind that occur over time and are a process (the general spiritual formation and Christian education of the Sunday School). The truth is that even in Southern Baptist churches the latter happened (that really explains my own journey to the faith) even though the language, the hymns, and the formulas view all professions of faith as the former.
Most of these hymns would serve no function in our UCC order of worship. Any like this that we sing would usually appear after the sermon, when we are most likely to sing a softer, more emotionally plaintive piece. Our closing hymns are generally triumphant, leading the people out with joy. Often they are commitments to some form of service.
Michael Piazza once told me that some former Baptists at the Cathedral of Hope criticized him that he didn't offer an invitation every week. Michael answered, "But I do offer you an invitation every week. And it is even an invitation to come forward and accept Jesus. It is the invitation to communion."