‘Professional Evangelists’ and the Invitation System: In Search of a Prooftext

By Evan May

The Christian Index recently interviewed Keith Fordham. In this interview, he expressed his opinion concerning, among other things, “professional evangelists” and the invitation system:

Index: Keith, What is your understanding of the biblical role of the evangelist?

Fordham: The evangelist is the harvester. Faithful pastors can preach the Word of God for months and Sunday School teachers expound the Word week after week with little visible results, but evangelists can often come in and draw the net and people respond.

Index: Why do churches need to use God-called evangelists?

Fordham: I could give a dozen reasons for using evangelists in the local church, but Ephesians 4:11 specifically implies that every church should use an evangelist to aid in the church’s maturing process. Churches that do not use evangelists will have a warped growth.

Index: Although the biblical mandate should be reason enough to use an evangelist, what are some other reasons?

Fordham: Evangelists typically send revival preparation manuals that are tested and proven. Thorough preparation will result in more conversions, greater attendance, more stirring in the church, more praying and witnessing. Furthermore, by using a harvest evangelist you can almost be assured that someone will be saved.

Index: You mentioned revivals – Why are they important? I know some folks who think revivals don’t work any more.

Fordham: This past year the pastors of the churches where I’ve been have been pleasantly surprised to see the wonderful attendance we’ve had and the number of decisions God has granted. Statistics show that 33% of all baptisms come out of revival meetings. In churches that hold revival meetings it takes 24 members one year to reach one person for Christ, but in churches that do not hold revivals it takes 36 members one whole year to reach one person for Christ.

My primary concerns are 1) the way he defines an Evangelist, 2) his use of Eph 4:11 to support his definition, and 3) his doctrine of conversion that necessitates his definition.

What is an evangelist? Well, a proper exegesis of Eph 4:11 will not only contradict Fordham’s conclusions, but will give us a Biblical definition of the office. In this passage, the Ascended Christ’s gifts to the church (apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers) were given that the church might be equipped to do the work of ministry itself (v. 12-15). The emphasis here is the maturity of the church (v. 13).

An evangelist differs from a pastor in that, while the primary concern of a pastor is the sanctification of believers, the primary concern of evangelists is the saving of the lost. But both offices are meant to build up and mature the church.

And another component of this passage that is often missed is that an evangelist is to teach the church how to do evangelism itself. An evangelist is not merely someone who travels around from church to church preaching the gospel (that would be closer to the role of apostle). Rather, an evangelist is someone who equips the church in the area of evangelism. The ministry of an evangelist is not disjoint from the local church.

But how does Fordham define an evangelist? His statements later inform us:

Index: What do you hope to accomplish as president of COSBE?

Fordham: I hope to raise the visibility of the office of evangelist. I want pastors to realize that 98.6% of the time you use a vocational evangelist people are saved. That percentage even increases if you prepare. I would like to see the number of revivals and the number of evangelists increase.

Earlier Fordham spoke of the evangelist “coming in” and holding revival meetings.

I think it is pretty clear that Mr. Fordham’s understanding of the office of evangelist is one who travels from church to church holding revivals while failing to look back on his way out to note the state of the church in which he once ministered. But we have already noted that this is not at all the definition posited by the Ephesians 4 text.

My concern is Mr. Fordham’s doctrine of conversion that would allow him to make a statement like this: I want pastors to realize that 98.6% of the time you use a vocational evangelist people are saved..

Of course, divine sovereignty does not contradict human responsibility; so, in a way, we are Biblically permitted to note when and how people are more likely to be saved. But ultimately, I believe, our emphasis should not be on our techniques in presenting the Gospel, but on the God who saves through the Gospel. If we over-emphasize our techniques, we will end up with grounds for boasting in ourselves for a work that God wholly and completely performs himself: regeneration.

And conversion must be Biblically defined: what does it look like Biblically? Does it look like filling out your name on a card? Does it look like relocating your body in a church building? Is that the effect of regeneration? What kind of doctrine of conversion do we have where we can note the numbers of people who get “saved” through our techniques whose only follow-up to this conversion is having their names placed on a roster list?

If Mr. Fordham would really like to aid the SBC by addressing these issues, it would be very beneficial for him to point us toward a practice that results from a Biblical understanding of the doctrine of conversion.

Index: I have heard you speak of the importance of a “come forward” invitation. Why do you speak so emphatically about that?

Fordham: I believe it is a Biblical command. Of the 108 times the Greek verb parakaleo is used in the New Testament, five times it is used in conjunction with preaching and means “give a come forward, stand by the preacher” invitation. In Acts 2:40 Peter exhorted [parakalei] the people on the day of Pentecost. He asked those who believed on Christ to come forward and stand by him publicly and 3,000 came. He kept on calling them and they that received Christ were baptized.

Let me first state that, personally, I do not believe that the invitation system is intrinsically wrong. And there are certain benefits to this system, which is, undoubtedly, why it was first adopted. However, the problem is when the use of this system results in an unbiblical understanding of the doctrine of conversion. We don’t want people to believe that location of the body equates to location of the heart.

But, what concerns me more than this is Mr. Fordham’s mishandling of the Word of God as he searches for a prooftext to support his practice. Is this the normative Scriptural command, meant for us to follow all of the time? And there are many other questions which Mr. Fordham fails to answer for us. For instance, what are the other uses of the particular word? And why only those five? What are the other four? And what about the other 103 uses?

But even the one example that Fordham does give us is very lacking. Look at the actual text:

Acts 2:40-41 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

We see nothing here about “coming forward” or standing near the front physically. We do see the 3,000 joining the church and devoting themselves “to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (v. 42, something often lacking in today’s “converts”). And, more importantly, we see these converts being baptized. You see, there is a benefit to making a public profession. But the Scriptures have already made such an opportunity: baptism. It is only after de-emphasizing baptism when we find the need to place an emphasis on public profession at conversion. What’s the purpose of Baptism if the Bible, supposedly, commands us to “come forward” 108 times?

Now, it is certainly possible that Peter had these converts “come forward” and “stand by him publicly” in answering the actual Gospel call. The problem, however, is when Mr. Fordham attempts to transform this descriptive text into a normative prescriptive command. And that, my friends, will not aid our churches.

Evan May.

Explore posts in the same categories: Doctrinal Issues, Evangelism, Southern Baptist Convention

9 Comments on “‘Professional Evangelists’ and the Invitation System: In Search of a Prooftext”

  1. Nathan White Says:

    Great post Evan. It’s curious to me, however, given the method of interpretation used by Mr. Fordham in Acts 2:40, if he also teaches that all believers should move in together and share all things in common, as described in the following verses, Acts 2:44-45. If he’s going to advocate such a firm position on ‘coming forward’ based on this narrative, then it would only be consistent to follow through with the context, correct?


  2. Talk about “strange.” God surely uses a variety of gifts and ministries throughout the body, but why would anyone want someone who so mishandles the word of God ministering it to their flock?

  3. mikem Says:

    First, let me just clarify so that I am not misunderstood. I give a public invitation when I preach. However, the following remarks by Fordham are indicative of the kind of poor exegesis (eisegesis, really) that is so prevalent today.

    Fordham: “I believe it is a Biblical command. Of the 108 times the Greek verb parakaleo is used in the New Testament, five times it is used in conjunction with preaching and means “give a come forward, stand by the preacher” invitation. In Acts 2:40 Peter exhorted [parakalei] the people on the day of Pentecost. He asked those who believed on Christ to come forward and stand by him publicly and 3,000 came. He kept on calling them and they that received Christ were baptized.”

    Ok. I found 109 uses of the verb “parakaleo” (I’m not using Greek font, since I don’t know how it will post). In addition, of course, we see the nominal form, “parakletos,” used 5 times to refer to the Holy Spirit (by John). Depending on context, it can mean: to admonish, exhort, urge, appeal, or encourage. These seem to be its primary uses (yes, I looked up all 109). It can also mean “to comfort” as in 2 Corinthians 1:4 or “to invite” (sort of) as in Luke 8:41 and Acts 8:31. As always, context is the determining factor (and we don’t want to fall into the common fallacy of assuming that a word can carry a meaning of its full semantic range, regardless of context).

    So, what does context dictate in Acts 2:40? Fordham contends that here and in 4 other places it means “come forward and stand by the preacher.” He says that Peter asked the converts to “come forward and stand by him publicly.” But is that really what the text says? Well, indeed they did assent to baptism, but to say that parakalei (the imperfect active indicative, 3rd person singular of parakaleo) means “come forward and stand by the preacher” is a real stretch. Linguistically and contextually, it is very difficult (see next paragraph) to draw that meaning from the word. Rather, Peter is “urging” them to “be saved” (aorist passive imperative, 2nd person plural of sozo). This is the kind of urging or pleading that is described by Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:20 (present active participle of parakaleo).

    Of course, one might argue that the word literally means “to call along side” since “para” can mean “beside” (it can also mean “from, besides, or because of” depending on context) and kaleo means “to call.” But that is what Carson calls the “root fallacy”–assuming that a word always takes on the meaning of its components (like saying that “butterfly” is a fly made out of butter). If that fallacy were to be applied in Acts 2:40, then it could also be applied elsewhere, such as in Matthew 8:31 when the demons “begged” (imperfect active indicative, 3rd person plural) Jesus to send them into pigs, and Matthew 8:34, when the people “implored” (aorist active indicative, 3rd person plural) Jesus to leave the region. Surely we wouldn’t say that either the demons or the people were inviting Jesus to come and stand by them. While the word may at times actually carry the meaning of “coming along side,” context is the determining factor, and Acts 2:40 makes no such demand on the word.

    In addition, Fordham states that “it is a Biblical command” to give a “come forward” invitation, but I would like to know exactly where we see this commanded (and remember, I do give an invitation). Yet another hermeneutical error I see frequently is the assigning to narrative text the force of command. In other words, Peter’s publicly urging the people to be saved is a terrific “example” for us to follow but it is certainly not a “command.” Perhaps a better place to look for a specific commmand related to the word in question would be Titus 2:15 where Paul uses the present imperative of parakaleo in instructing Titus to “exhort” with all authority. Indeed, we are commanded to preach the Word and to be witnesses, but we must admit that the Bible is silent on “how” to invite people to believe.

    Sorry for the length of the post, but a truly thorough word study would have taken much more space. I just felt that the eisegesis used by Fordham should be pointed out.

  4. Gordan Says:

    Evan, though I wholeheartedly agree with your article in the main, I do have an exegetical bone to pick with this. You may not believe that Ephesians 4:11 warrants the evangelist job description looking like this: “An travelling preacher who presents the gospel at many different churches in an effort to make converts.” I may agree with you on that.

    But your preferred job description, something like this: “Someone who teaches individual members of the Body how to do evangelism” has to be equally unwarranted by the text. The truth is that the evangelist is only listed there, and no inspired job description is given.

    One could even argue that an Evangelist after the first definition, if he preaches the Gospel rightly, will by his shining example, at least, teach Christians what a solid Gospel presentation should look like.

    That very tiny point made, I agreed with all of your concerns and conclusions.

  5. Josh Buice Says:


    I think much should be said about the often impure tactics that many churches impose on services for the purpose of manufacturing numbers. While I do give an invitation most services, I don’t think if one chooses not to give an invitation in a specific service that it is considered sinful. I believe invitations can be used for the glory of God – however, men should allow the conversion and results to remain in the hands of God!

    Fordham said: “Thorough preparation will result in more conversions, greater attendance, more stirring in the church, more praying and witnessing. Furthermore, by using a harvest evangelist you can almost be assured that someone will be saved.”

    Is he suggesting that if a church holds a revival and does not do proper preparation that souls could be forever lost due to their lack of effort? Where is the sovereignty of God? Where is the plan of Salvation in which God has purposed before time?

    I am often reminded of the book of Esther. When Esther was commanded to go before the King, she refused at first due to the possibility of severe punishment – even death. Mordecai told her – “For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, [then] shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place;” Therefore, we must remember that if we fail to evangelize, if we fail to prepare properly for the revival, if we fail to pray earnestly, if we fail to do [work] before the revival or any time for that matter – we must remember that God’s sovereignty has not altered – and He will send a faithful witness from another place!

    For the glory of God!

    Rev. Josh Buice
    Practical Theology Discussions

  6. Mathew Sims Says:

    I think the last point you made was the most important. By making an invitation the end all, we have deemphasized the actual, Scriptural means of making private faith a public profession–baptism. Also, this is important in relation to the Great Commission. Christ says, “make disciples, teach, and BAPTIZE.” He does not say convert souls, save souls, or give invitations. This is an issue that must be resolved in today’s Baptist church. This is one cow that, I believe, needs to be tipped.

    Mathew Sims~Soli Deo Gloria

  7. David Hewitt Says:

    Mikem — excellent discussion of the word study and pointing out of the “root fallacy.” I’m reading Carson’s book on that subject right now, and am finding it very useful.

  8. Tim Says:

    Great article. I agree with Gordan concerning the job description of the evangelist. Otherwise I am in agreement with the rest of the post.

    I would like to point out the whole “revival” meeting issue. Are these not right out of Finneyish meetings? Who can plan revival? Can we really pray and organize revival? Personally, I don’t think so. We can ask God for it. We can seek to obey Him, but ultimately revival comes from God just as sovereignly as does salvation. Maybe that why there is such a flawed view of the evangelist: because they have a flawed view of revival.

  9. Rob Says:

    Interesting readings. I found lacks of compassion within your mouths and hearts. Doesn’t the inspired word of God list evangelists into His office listing?
    In His instructions He calls us to intercede for all in prayer. Why hasn’t this been done instead of questioning God’s motives?If you or I have a burden on our heart that the evangelist isn’t getting something biblically, pray for the hand of God to move. By the way, there’s nothing wrong with having revival times either. The devil’s hard at work these days and we all could use a lot of refreshing/awakening of Jesus daily weather personally or with the congregation.Time to stop compromising doctrine and be directed from the truth in the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ name Amen

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