When God called my wife and me to plant a church, Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 3:10 took on a more serious meaning than ever:
“Let each one take care how he builds . . .”
Before becoming a church planter, I mainly applied this verse to my personal spiritual growth. Believers must be careful, I thought, to build their spiritual lives with gold, silver, and precious stones rather than wood, hay, or straw.
This passage, however, was written as a warning to those who were choosing poor materials to build the church in Corinth, not their individual Christian lives. Paul is saying, “Hey, I laid the right foundation, but now that I’ve left, you’re messing everything up!”
As a church planter preparing to plant a church from scratch, there was no one else to blame for any wood, hay, or stubble. There was no previous pastor or board or committee or even any members to blame! If Christ Centered Church ended up being built on a bad foundation or constructed with cheap materials, there would be no one to blame but me! Realizing this drove me into deep prayer and study about the type of church God wanted me to plant and build, and it caused me to carefully examine every building block.
While there were many things to consider, nothing was more paralyzing to me than the question of leading people in a prayer of repentance, or a sinner’s prayer. We moved to Miami to plant Christ Centered Church in May of 2013, and the hot debate in the evangelical world seemed to be over the use of a sinner’s prayer.
At first, I was drawn towards the seemingly super spiritual position of rejecting anything like the sinner’s prayer. After all, I wanted our church to be deeply spiritual, and I didn’t want it to be full of people who just thought they had been saved. This seemed more like gold, silver, and precious stones to me.
So there I was, considering being a church plant unwilling to use something as shallow and easily misunderstood as a sinner’s prayer. This led me to an obvious, yet often overlooked question in the larger debate, “When someone is ready to follow Jesus, what do I tell them to do?” As I read through books, articles, and tweets about the subject, I came up empty. What’s more, as I considered alternatives like asking people to fill out a commitment card, focusing on baptism as the act of commitment, asking newly committed followers of Jesus to share their decision verbally with our elders or the congregation, or taking potential followers through a seminar, I realized something—all of these have been used at different points and by different groups in church history with some success and some obvious drawbacks, and they can all be misunderstood.
What does the Bible say about this? That’s the same question I asked, and guess what I found—sometimes, in the Bible people expressed repentance and commitment through baptism (Acts 2:38,41; 8:36); other times, they made a public confession (Romans 10:9). There were other times when a commitment to follow Jesus was expressed by drastic behavioral change (Luke 19:8-9) or even physical movement (Matthew 4:20). There were even times when people expressed repentance and a desire to follow Jesus through something that seems very similar to a sinner’s prayer (Luke 18:13, 23:42).
The problem is, whether it’s a come forward invitation with a sinner’s prayer, a confirmation class, baptism, a list of new disciplines to follow or any other method for expressing a commitment to Christ, as hopelessly legalistic humans, we will perform any act asked of us in a vain effort to earn our salvation. This includes having super spiritual conversations about “really following Jesus and not just saying a prayer.” We have a deep-seated, sinful desire to work our way to God, and we want to belong so desperately, that we will participate in whatever ritual our tribe prescribes.
So what do we do at Christ Centered Church? We often lead people in a sinner’s prayer while carefully explaining what it is, and equally important, what it is not. I’m sure that since launch day on February 9, 2014, we have had some false professions of faith. I am equally sure that some people have been rescued from the dominion of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of Jesus.
Salvation is an internal work of the Holy Spirit that brings a dead sinner to life. No ritual can replace or mimic that work, and those who have truly been born again will follow Jesus and persevere to the end by God’s grace. Any ritual or practice we use can and will be mimicked, and we must be aware of that and guard against it—false conversions are, however, inevitable in my church, your church, and every church this side of heaven.
Each church, and each church plant, must determine the best way to help people express repentance and faith, and at Christ Centered Church, we have decided it is best to encourage them to talk directly to the One to whom they are repenting and in whom they are placing their faith. Call me short sighted; call me shallow; call me whatever you’d like, but I just can’t see how it’s a bad idea for a broken sinner to cry out to Jesus, “Be merciful to me, Oh God, a sinner!”