Give an Alternate Invitation
As I recall the story, Rick Warren had just started Saddleback Church. They were meeting in a theater that did not have a middle aisle. Warren realized that a traditional altar call would not be effective in that building, because most people in the room would literally have to crawl over several others to get to an outside aisle. So, out of necessity, Warren reluctantly decided to use response cards as his "invitation." Surprise! The response cards were crazy effective. Warren continued to use them, even after moving out of the theater.
In my experience, response cards are one of the best means available for people to respond to what God is doing in their heart. I try not to let a service go by at Selmore where I do not let people know they have this opportunity. In our case, we have a tear-off on our bulletin that people can put in the offering plate (we take our offering after the sermon), or they can give it directly to me as they are leaving the service. I would say 70%-80% of the people who make a public, spiritual decision at Selmore use the tear-off as their first step. Why is a response card a good thing?...
1) The decision to publicly profess faith in Christ, or present oneself for membership, are important decisions that should not be rushed. In my opinion it is impossible to have a productive counseling session with someone when you have the added pressure of knowing every eye in the room is on you (even if their eyes are supposed to be closed), and that everyone is waiting on you to get done so that they can go to lunch! Setting up an appointment with the pastor during the week, via a response card, allows people adequate time to talk things through and "count the cost" before making a public decision.
2) Many people are scared to respond to an altar call. They don't know what to expect, or what the pastor may make them say or do. (Remember, studies show people are more afraid of public speaking than dying.) Filling out a response card and setting up an appointment with the pastor first, gives them the benefit of knowing what to expect when they do make their decision public, and thus relieves a lot of anxiety. If we truly care about people, this should be important to us.
3) It is a benefit to the pastor to start with a response card, rather than being blindsided by an awkward situation during the invitation. (By the way, if your church's policy is to receive candidates for membership immediately after they come forward, I would highly recommend implementing a policy that requires membership counseling first. This will eliminate a lot of potentially embarassing scenarios.)
Over the years, our invitation at Selmore has evolved more into a time when decisions are announced, than a time when decisions are actually made. And to be honest, I think it's healthier that way. Of course, if someone feels convicted to do business with the Lord right then and there, we certainly do not quench the Spirit.
Some will say that if people love the Lord, they should not be ashamed to come forward during an altar call. Such statements are founded in tradition more than Scripture. People responded to Jesus in a variety of ways in the New Testament. It is true that we are to publicly profess our faith in Jesus, and God gave us a specific way to do that... baptism. Let's make sure that the only stumbling block we present to people is the Gospel itself, and not our manmade traditions. (The altar call as we know it has its origins in 19th century America.)
Pastors, I would encourage you to give your people some form of alternate invitation. Even if you don't use a response card, at the very least, let people know that you are available to talk to them anytime. The working of the Holy Spirit is not limited to the song we play after the sermon.