Editor’s note: In an interview, Greg Laurie of Harvest Crusades and Harvest Christian Fellowship (www.harvest.org) shared his penetrating insights into the dynamics of an effective invitation. Our editorial team considered abbreviating the text but decided against it because his wisdom and experience permeated the whole of the interview and that much value would be lost by removing any of the content. Greg serves on the board of directors of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan's Purse. He has also written more than 30 books. (http://www.allendavidbooks.com/)
This is the third of a three part series on Evangelistic Preaching. For Larry Moyer’s Part 1 on Preaching Crisp Effective Gospel Messages, click here. Part 2, Greg Stier’s article on Motivating Your Congregation to Evangelize, can be viewed here.)
The Dynamics of an Effective Invitation
An Interview With Greg Laurie
SermonCentral: Can you, for the SermonCentral audience, describe what’s happening in your church and at Harvest Crusades right now? What’s percolating?
Greg Laurie: Our church started about 30 years ago. I started preaching when I was nineteen, started pastoring at 20, and have been with that same church since it began. We have a weekly attendance of around 15,000 people. Back in 1990, we started large scale evangelistic events that we call Harvest Crusades. Since then, we have been able to bring the gospel in person to almost 3,428,000 plus people and have seen some 280,000 people respond in person at the events coming forward to make professions of faith to follow Christ. (We’re very careful to say that those are professions of faith because only God knows if they are conversions, but they are people that have at least come forward at the invitation.)
Then we have a radio broadcast called A New Beginning that is international on 500 markets, and we have a television program as well. So that’s pretty much what we do. Our mission statement at Harvest is, “Knowing Him and making Him known,” so that pretty much sums up what we’re all about.
I think one of the unique things about our organization is that, in contrast with other evangelistic organizations, we’re not really parachurch. Though we function in a parachurch way, we really are from the church, for the church, to build up the church. Everything that we do emanates from our church. We’re a congregation and a family first, and then an evangelistic organization second. This creates a unique, and I think, wonderful dynamic to what we do, because we go at it with a real sense of unity from the beginning, and a theological and philosophical grid that we all operate by which is very helpful.
SermonCentral: What advice would you give other preachers about making an invitation effective when they preach?
Greg Laurie: Well, I think that there are a couple of ways to look at this. I think it’s really important that we have evangelistic growth in our churches. You know, you look at the early church of Acts, and [Scripture] says, “The Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” I think that a church that is not growing is a church that is going to be stagnating. We have a choice, and it’s evangelize or fossilize. And one of the ways to bring about that growth is through the invitation. I said there are two ways to approach [an invitation]. I will approach it differently in an overtly evangelistic message than I might approach it in a regular Bible study that I might give on a Sunday morning.
When I’m preaching in an evangelistic setting like in one of our Crusades, essentially the invitation begins at the beginning of the message. In other words, I make it very clear that I am preaching for a decision, and I make it clear that I am going to bring them to a point of decision by the end of the message. I might even pepper my message by saying things like, “And in a few moments, I’m going to give you an opportunity to make that commitment to Christ,” or, “That is why I’m going to give you an opportunity in just a moment to put your faith in Jesus Christ.” I think it’s very important that people know that it’s coming. It creates a tension that I think it really important.
SermonCentral: So you kind of set the table then?
Greg Laurie: I do at the outset. I don’t sneak up on them. They know I’m coming to this invitation because I am preaching, as I said, for a decision. I’m challenging them to make a decision about Jesus Christ, and I often will conclude my messages with a statement along the lines of, “Jesus said, ‘you’re either for me or against me,’ and this is an either/or proposition. It’s yes or no. And to be undecided is to be decided.” So, I make it very clear to people that to not accept Christ is to reject Christ, effectively.
Now in the invitation, in a crusade, I will invite them to come forward publicly. I will usually repeat before the invitation, “I’m going to ask you to get up out of your seat and walk down this aisle, stand down here in front of this platform. Why do I ask you to do that? Because everyone that Jesus called, he called publicly. And he said, ‘if you acknowledge me before people, I will acknowledge you before my Father who is in heaven. But, if you deny me before people, I’ll deny you before my Father in heaven.’” And then I’ll say, “This is a way to do that.” (I’m not saying this is the way, because I recognize that people have made commitments to Christ in their seats. Others have made commitments to Christ in the parking lot afterwards, because I’ve heard their stories, or a week later, so I don’t want to imply that going down an aisle makes you a Christian. But, this is a way to put feet to your faith and publicly demonstrate your desire to follow Christ. So that’s in an evangelistic setting.)
SermonCentral: I think I’m ready to walk the aisle right now! (laughter)
Greg Laurie: So, in our church, like any other pastor on Sunday mornings, I’m feeding the flock, I’m teaching them. But I have found that whatever topic I’m teaching on, there will always be one, or two, or three evangelistic hooks in it, I mean any topic. For instance, let’s say you are talking about prayer. At the end I would say something along the lines of, “Prayer is a privilege for those who have put their faith in Jesus Christ. And God says, ‘My hand is not short that it cannot save, and my ear is not heavy that it cannot hear, but your sins have separated you from me’ [Isaiah 59:1-2]. And maybe you’ve tried praying, but the reason it hasn’t brought any results is because there is a wall that separates you from God, and that wall is called sin.” And then I’ll just go right from there into the gospel. “But you see, Jesus Christ died for you 2,000 years ago on the cross, and if you’ll turn from your sin, and put your faith in Him…”
If I’m speaking on the subject of trials, I might say something like, “You might find yourself going through hardship today. But the difference between you and a follower of Christ is the believer knows that God has a purpose in it and a plan in it, and can work it together for good. But if you’re not a believer, you don’t have such a promise. Maybe your trial has gotten your attention, and caused you to turn to God. As the Psalmist said, ‘before I was afflicted, I went astray, but now I have kept Your Word’ [Psalm 119:67]. God can use these things to show us our need for Him, and I ask you today, do you have a relationship with God?”
I think you can take any topic, any topic, turn a corner, and make it evangelistic (without making it an evangelistic message from beginning to end). And one thing that I would add is that, surprisingly to me, some of my best responses to invitations have been with topics that I think would have been the least appropriate for evangelism. For instance, when I was preaching on Job, or when I was preaching on marriage and divorce. These were not evangelistic meetings. I just want to make that clear. These were just teaching through the Bible as I do. But, when I gave invitations, they resonated. I think that people are just looking for reality. Tell them truth. Give them truth, and I think when you just tackle these subjects unapologetically and from a Biblical perspective, people appreciate that. In a way, it’s like the non-believer is eavesdropping on a family conversation. And I think it stimulates in them a desire to want to be part of our family. So what you’re saying is, “Hey, you that are joining us as a visitor today, would you like to be a part of our family? Here’s how you do it.” I think that even having a family conversation can be appealing to a nonbeliever, when they come in our midst and they join us as a visitor.
SermonCentral: Last week in our SermonCentral newsletter, Greg Stier recommended that a pastor decide beforehand that he will give the gospel in some form every single week. One, is that your practice, and two, is that your recommendation?
Greg Laurie: I would say, principally yes. But I can’t say that in every message that I give, I give the gospel and an invitation. For instance, in a mid-week study, I may not do it. But generally, I give people an opportunity to make a commitment, or a recommitment to Christ, at the end of the message in some way, shape or form. So, I think it’s a good idea. Because you never know who is going to be visiting. And you never know that this is going to be that person’s only opportunity to hear the gospel.
SermonCentral: A couple of weeks ago, Larry Moyer told our audience that the gospel is three basic things: One, you are a sinner. Two, Christ died for your sins and rose again. And three, you have to trust Christ. Does that capture it for you?
Greg Laurie: I would say it captures it, but you really have to define your terms. We’re living in a time when we can no longer assume that people know what we mean by any of the expressions that we use. For instance, when we say, “sin,” when we say, “believe,” when we say, “cross,” I think that we really need to explain every single term. One of those to begin with is, “What is sin?” It’s very important that people understand that sin is, “You’ve broken God’s commandments and you’ve offended God.” The meaning of the word “gospel” is “good news.” And to fully appreciate the good news, I have to know the bad news. The bad news is, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” [Romans 3:23]. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” [1John 1:8]
So, we have broken God’s commandments, we have offended God, we have fallen short of his standards, and there is nothing we can do to satisfy his righteous commands. That’s the bad news. The good news is, God loved us so much, he sent his Son to die in our place, and pay the price for the sins we have committed. This is really important to me (and I believe that it’s Biblical) that, if we will repent from our sins and put our faith in Christ, we will be forgiven.
I believe that repentance is the flipside of believing. I believe that the two are inseparable. And I think the problem is today, I hear a lot of people talking about believing and not explaining repentance. But on the day of Pentecost, Peter told the people to repent. And the first words out of the lips of our Lord when he began his ministry, was “repent.” So it’s really important that we explain that, because to believe is essentially to take hold of something, but to repent is to let go of something. We have to explain [that to people], to the best of our ability. I do believe you need to give them the essential message of the death of Christ, a substitutionary death for them, that they need to repent from their sin, and put their faith in him and him alone to save them. And that the profession is but an outward showing of that. There is a lot of watered-down Gospel preaching today, where there is either no teeth in it (that they’re not really explaining what [the gospel] means), or they’re adding things to it that the gospel does not give. Paul warns about a false gospel.
SermonCentral: What are some of those things that you have seen added?
Greg Laurie: I think adding any kind of extra things where the person must do something apart from really repenting and believing to receive that salvation. Certainly when you would add any kind of ritual. In other words, you would say that to accept Christ, you must first be baptized, or you must do thus and so, adding, I would say rituals or anything of that nature.
And [regarding] the other one with no teeth in it, it would be like offering God’s forgiveness without any mention of repentance, or presenting Jesus Christ as though he were some mere additive to one’s life, to make it a little bit better, or more successful. It’s much, much more than that. It’s not just an improvement plan; it’s a salvation plan.
SermonCentral: It’s a change of direction.
Greg Laurie: Yeah, it’s a change of eternal address. And I think sometimes we downplay that and make it seem that if people ask Christ into their lives, he’ll just make their lives a little better, but it’s so much more than that. The joy, the peace, the happiness, those are all fringe benefits. But the big issue is when you turn from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, you know you receive an inheritance and the hope of heaven.
SermonCentral: In the psyche of the convert, the thing that is going to be the most prevalent in their thinking, according to what you’re saying, isn’t, “Wow, I’m going to trust Christ so I can be really happy.” It’s that, “Wow, I’ve got this burden on my heart, and I need to be rescued.”
Greg Laurie: I would say it’s both. I don’t think it’s one or the other. And some would be very critical of any preaching that would appeal to the need of man, saying, “That’s a man-centered gospel.” But, if that’s true, then Jesus was guilty of preaching a man-centered gospel. And so was Paul. Jesus appealed to the woman at the well about the thirst that she had in her soul. “If you drink of this well, you will thirst again,” speaking to her of the fact that she had come to the well, if you will, of personal relationships, and had come up empty five times and was living with a man. He appealed to her about the thirst, and told her that he would satisfy her deepest spiritual thirst. Then Paul, on Mars Hill, says, “I want to talk to you about the unknown God. I can see you are religious people.” He was building a bridge to these people, he was appealing to these people. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the building of a bridge. To essentially say, “The reason you are empty, the reason you are lonely, the reason you are afraid to die is because you need God in your life.”
SermonCentral: So, to use a bridge is not to necessitate that you’ve watered down the gospel?
Greg Laurie: I don’t think building a bridge is watering it down, if the bridge always brings us to the cross. This is my point. Paul begins there in Athens, he builds a bridge to his audience. He could have said, “You Athenians are a bunch of pagans, and you worship false gods and you’re going to go to hell.” Now would that have technically been true? Sure. But he said, “Now I see that you’re religious. And, you have this one image erected to the unknown god. That’s the one that I want to talk you about.” Then he quotes one of their own poets to them, building that bridge, and then ultimately he says, “But listen—God has commanded you to repent,” and then he gets down to brass tacks. So, my point is, yes, build the bridge, appeal to your listener, speak in a way that they understand, make your terms understandable. And then, bring them to the cross. My criticism would be that some people would build a bridge and not bring them to the cross. Other people might talk about the sin, and how you’ve offended God, but they would make no effort to build a bridge or to even put it into a vernacular that the nonbeliever would understand. That’s a problem with that approach.
SermonCentral: So they’ve burned a bridge.
Greg Laurie: Yeah!
SermonCentral: What goes through your mind as you’re giving the invitation? Is there ever a sense of intimidation, or, ‘Oh no, what if…?’ What brings the force of confidence to you?
Greg Laurie: I think everything goes through your mind when you’re giving an invitation. When I’m giving an invitation in a crusade, I come under a great deal of pressure, and I believe it’s because I’m acutely aware of the fact that a very real spiritual battle is raging. I once asked Billy Graham, “What are you experiencing when you’re giving the invitation?” And he said, “I feel like power is draining out of me.”
I feel the same way. Physically, I feel like I am just exhausted. I’m just physically, emotionally, and spiritually drained as I’m doing it. I do believe it’s that conflict that’s going on. That’s not the case every time I give an invitation at church, but I think in an evangelistic setting, especially in a stadium, everything seems to be kind of multiplied. You always are aware of the fact that people might not be coming forward. But, it’s a risk you take. And it’s a risk worth taking.
Look at it this way: The Bible says that there is rejoicing in heaven over one sinner that comes to repentance. You just want to faithfully proclaim the gospel. I think one of the reasons that we have small responses to our invitations is people don’t really understand what we’ve asked them to do. I’ve been to so many services or listened to guys preach and I thought that they actually did a really good job with the message. The message was sound; it was evangelistic; it was appealing. I liked it. I thought it had all the elements it needed, but it fell apart at the invitation. And it’s simply because you have to put yourselves in the shoes of a non-believer. This is all new to them. They may not even know what it is you are asking them to do. So I will give the invitation, I will repeat what I have asked them to do, and I will repeat it again. I mean, to the point where they really will understand what it is I am asking them to do, and why I’m asking them to do it.
For many people, either it breaks down for a lack of clarity or it breaks down for a lack of confidence. They almost sabotage their own invitation because they’re afraid to put it out on the line and say, “Just come and make your commitment to Christ.” There are a lot of ways to do it, and I think that it’s important to give people an opportunity to make a decision for Christ, in some way, shape or form. Sometimes, I’ll just have them go to a room on the side. Sometimes, we’ll have counselors waiting, or sometimes I’ll have people stand up in the congregation and I’ll lead them in prayer right where they stand.
SermonCentral: In our culture today, it seems there are all kinds of people that have made “decisions for Christ.” But, there’s an apparent diversion between what they’re saying and the fruit that they’re producing. What I’m hearing from you is that it’s probably occurring because they haven’t been properly presented with the gospel, and what they are responding to isn’t actually the gospel. Is that an accurate summary?
Greg Laurie: It is my opinion that most Americans have not really heard the gospel message. And that surprises people when I say that. But, I think that when you look at a lot of what is out there today, it really isn’t gospel preaching because it really doesn’t focus on the death of Christ. It really doesn’t tell a person they’re a sinner, it really doesn’t tell a person to repent and put their faith in Christ, and so I really don’t think most have heard [the gospel]. And because they have heard a watered-down gospel, they’ve perhaps been given a false hope.
But, there also can be those who have heard the real gospel presented in an accurate way, can walk forward, and have no change of life at all because it’s not a conversion. It’s as simple as that. If you look at the parable of the sower, one out of four made it. It’s really up to the individual, and that’s why when we say someone came forward, we don’t say they were converted because time will tell if they are converted. The only way that I can tell whether people are Christians or not is not by what they say, but it’s by their fruit. “By their fruit, you shall know them.” So I’m looking for that spiritual fruit to be evidenced in their lives, and if I don’t see it, then my conclusion would be that they never really believed. Because, if genuine conversion has happened, there would be genuine results, and if that isn’t happening, then it’s probably because genuine conversion hasn’t happened.
Having said that, my job is not to convert people, because I don’t have the ability to do that. My job (and our job as pastors) is to proclaim the good news to as many people as we can, and leave the results in the hands of God. Some would criticize what I do in these crusades, so called “mass evangelism,” and they’d say, “You know, that’s not effective, because not all of the people who go forward are converted.” But wait—my job is to proclaim the gospel. Coming back to the parable of the sower, the sower just threw the seed out in an indiscriminate manner. And it fell on various types of soils. It’s not like he was planting little neat rows of seeds, he was just throwing his seeds. “A sower went out to sow seeds.” That’s how they did it in those days. Some landed on receptive soil, others landed on rocky soil, and so forth. And so in the same way, our responsibility is to proclaim the gospel, and leave the results in the hands of God.
SermonCentral: Has there been a time when you have actually felt like you have botched an invitation?
Greg Laurie: Oh my goodness yes, many times. What concerns me is that I have heard gospel presentations that have left the cross out. In our attempts to “cross over,” we don’t bring “the cross over.” But I’m even more concerned that I have done that. And I’ve given messages where I’ve done a presentation and have forgotten key elements and I’ve thought about it later. I have given messages where afterwards I realize, “Oh no, that’s really not what that should have been!”
So I’ve had many occasions where I’ve felt that it fell short, but I have to say that God will honor his Word. And as you give it out, you will see him bless, and you will see results. There have been times when I’ve felt I’ve done my worst, and we have had great responses. It ebbs and flows. Sometimes it’s larger, sometimes it’s smaller. Again, it just goes back to something I said a moment ago. You have to leave the results in the hands of God.
I’m reminded of a passage in Acts where it says, “As many as were ordained unto eternal life, believed.” When I’m giving that gospel presentation, I believe that the ones that the Lord has called will respond. I just leave that in God’s hand. When you look at the day of Pentecost, 3,000 believed. And when you look at Paul on Mars Hill, a handful believed. Was Peter a success and Paul a failure? I don’t think so. I think they both faithfully presented the gospel. You have days where it goes better than others, and that’s just life.
SermonCentral: As I understand it, Billy Graham is kind of a fan of Greg Laurie, and that you guys have had some interaction on these matters. What have you learned from Billy Graham on giving an invitation and how does your style differ from his, if you see any?
Greg Laurie: I’ve learned so much from Billy Graham; I don’t even know where to start. He’s preached to more people than anyone on the face of the earth. He’s led more people to the Lord than anyone ever. God has really gifted Billy in a spectacular way. He has always said that he never thought that he was a great preacher. But, he felt that he had a gift in giving the invitation. I would differ with him on that. I think he has been a great preacher. But he does also have that gift for giving the invitation, and in many ways (and I’m not embarrassed to say it) I’ve modeled what I do after him.
But at the same time, I’m not from North Carolina; I’m from Southern California. Good preaching has been defined as “truth through personality.” So these truths that I’ve learned from the Word of God, and that I’ve seen Billy utilize, have to work through my personality. So, it’s going to come out a little bit differently, but I think that you find that the primary principles that I utilize would be very similar to what Billy would utilize. I have certainly followed his model, and getting to know him personally has been a great privilege because I’ve been able to ask him questions, and find out a lot of background information and little things that you wouldn’t pick up watching him or reading his sermons. When he was finishing his crusades in the last few years, he was also utilizing me to help him prepare sermons. So I had the opportunity to go and take his messages, finding him fresh illustrations that were current, and that was a real thrill for me to help him with his messages.
SermonCentral: Did you use illustrations from SermonCentral?!
Greg Laurie: I didn’t know about SermonCentral when I was doing it, actually. It was about five or six years ago that I was doing that a lot for him, and there wasn’t a SermonCentral. But it would be the kind of thing you would find in a SermonCentral and I do use SermonCentral. I like it for illustrations, and sometimes humor. A lot of times, what I’m looking for in a message (I may already have the message written, but I’m looking for that opening story or something to bring it home). And so I’ll type in the text, and look over whatever the other guys have done. You get a little tidbit here, a little tidbit there, and maybe you’ll really like a certain story, and you’ll open with that story. Those things can be very very helpful.
SermonCentral: Does hell come into play when you present the gospel? Can the concept of hell be mishandled in preaching?
Greg Laurie: Yes and yes. I believe it’s important to mention the judgment of God. I was just speaking on Elijah last Sunday and I pointed out some of the qualities of his life, and one of them was that he faithfully delivered the Word of God. And I pointed out that Elijah had the job to go into Ahab and Jezebel’s court—two very powerful rulers—and tell them that there was going to be a drought; basically, judgment was coming because of their sin. And he did it. I said that we have a message to deliver as well. It’s not always popular, and it’s certainly a difficult one in this day and age, to say that Jesus Christ is the only way to God, and to say that the Bible is the Word of God, and that the only way to be forgiven of your sins is through Christ. And also to tell them that they believe there’s a hell. I think they’re very tempted to leave that part out. The “h-word”: should we use it? I believe we should. But as D.L. Moody once said, “No one should ever preach on the topic of hell without a tear in his eye.”
Many people have reacted to the hellfire-and-brimstone preaching as it’s called, and said, “Well, I don’t like that kind of preaching.” But frankly, I can’t remember the last time I heard a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher. We’ve swung so far to the other side that we’ve lost sight of the importance of what the Scripture says, that we need to warn some, and they need to know that there are consequences for their sin. To leave that out is to do them a disservice, and it is to fail to declare the whole counsel of God. We certainly shouldn’t do it in a gleeful manner, but with compassion and love, and warning them that the last thing God wants is for any person created in his image to end up separated from him in this place called hell.
In my crusade messages, I often will dedicate one night to what happens after death. And the message will usually focus on the Great White Throne Judgment. Those who don’t believe will be cast into the lake of fire. And I can say unequivocally that some of our greatest response over the years in the crusades is when I preach on the subject of judgment and warning people about it.
SermonCentral: Do you have a favorite passage that you really like to preach evangelistically from?
Greg Laurie: It’s hard to beat John 3. It really is so beautifully laid out with a beginning, a middle and an end. I love John 3 for evangelism. You have Nicodemus, the religious man, searching, empty, coming to Jesus, and the Lord just unfolds the gospel, culminating with John 3:16, which is the gospel in a nutshell. It’s just so perfect, and a great way to end the invitation. And the other one that I really love to preach on is John 14:1-6. It’s a message that I do called, “God’s Care for Troubled Hearts.”
Another one is Revelation 20, with the Great White Throne Judgment. Those are three messages that I often return to, especially as I travel around.
SermonCentral: It makes me want to make me pick up my Bible and stand in front of a group of people and go for it!
Greg Laurie: Well that’s good, because what I want to do is inspire other preachers to do evangelism. We’re not all called to be evangelists, but as Paul said to Timothy, “Do the work of an evangelist.” And maybe we’re not all called to preach evangelistically per se, but every one of us can be used by God to throw the net.
I once gave a message on evangelism to a group of pastors, and I said, “One of the reasons we’re not seeing conversions in our churches is because we just don’t care. We don’t care that much about lost people.” I challenged the pastors to ask God to give them a burden in their hearts for the lost, and start giving invitations. I had a pastor write me, who said, “I kind of bristled when you said we don’t care. I thought, ‘How dare you say that to me as a pastor.’ But I began to pray and think about it, and realized I really didn’t care that much, and couldn’t remember the last time I gave an invitation. I took your challenge and tried it. Much to my delight, four or five people came forward the first Sunday; then I did it the next Sunday and more came forward; and I did it the next and more came forward.” Now he says, “I’ve made it a part of my preaching. So thank you for challenging me. I never thought of myself as an evangelist, but God is using me in evangelism.” So, I want to encourage others to do it as well.
SermonCentral: Would you close us in prayer for the pastors that visit SermonCentral, that [as they] prepare their messages, they would have that burden for the lost?
Greg Laurie: Father, we pray that you will help us to see this world as you see it. As sheep without a shepherd, as people that are lost, that are dying, that are hurting, that are lonely, that are searching, that you love. Give us your heart for them and help us as we speak to bring your gospel in an understandable way like never before. And use us to introduce men and women, boys and girls into your kingdom. Give us a new burden for the lost, give us a new boldness in our preaching, and give us a new understanding of the gospel message. And we pray that we would see conversions in our churches. We pray that we would see numerical growth in our churches. And we pray that you would add to our churches daily such as should be saved. So Lord, it’s a daunting task, sometimes overwhelming, but as you have told us in Scripture, all things are possible, and you have given us your marching orders to go forth into all the world to preach the gospel, and you have told us as pastors to do the work of an evangelist. So, help us to do that, starting this coming Sunday, and we ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.