Is the "sinner's prayer" compatible with the great commission given by Jesus?
Many Protestant church organizations lead people in a sinner's prayer to initiate them into Christianity. Various evangelists like Billy Graham and Campus Crusade for Christ have used the this type of prayer for many years. Perhaps the first to popularize it in modern times was Dwight L. Moody.
After a sermon by Moody, people interested in becoming a Christian were invited into an "inquiry room" where counselors asked them some questions, read Scriptures to them, and finally lead them in a prayer in which they "received Christ" as their Savior.
The Billy Graham crusades put the sinner's prayer in full swing with a format such as this: "Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior. In Your Name. Amen."
But, is such a prayer how one really becomes a Christian? While we could ask a minister or a priest, perhaps the best way to see what Christianity is all about is to look to the instructions of Jesus. He gave clear instructions about the mission he wanted his disciples to follow. Here are two passages where Jesus made his thoughts clear.
In the first case, two disciples were on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus when the risen Jesus joined them. Though they did not at first recognize him, Jesus began to talk with them. Concerning their ongoing mission, Luke records that Jesus said: "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer, and rise again from the dead the third day; and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem."
Then, just before Jesus ascended into heaven, Matthew records Jesus' final commission to his disciples. Often called the "great commission," Jesus said: "All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Teach them to observe all things that I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world."
From these statements, Jesus appears to be telling his disciples (students) to become teachers, telling others everything he commanded or taught his disciples. Jesus' teachings primarily involved how to live together in love. As people learn these teachings they may realize that they have been living wrongly and desire to make changes in their lifestyles. As they change their minds about their lives (repent), they are to be baptized. They then should continue to learn what Jesus taught.
Since this process is to continue to the end of the world, these new disciples (students) will eventually become teachers to a new generation of disciples. And, this process is to continue until the return of Jesus.
On the other hand, the sinner's prayer seems to be a momentary response to an emotionally charged sermon that has little effect on the "sinner's" ongoing lifestyle. Some studies indicate that only about 25% of the those who respond to the evangelist's message join a church while only about 6% of make any long-term lifestyle changes.
Jesus calls for discipleship rather than emotional evangelism. Discipleship is commitment that is intended to last. And it takes time. Paul, for example, stayed with the church in Corinth for a year and a half, was two years at Ephesus, and Paul visited Philippi at least 3 times over the course of a decade.
If you want to follow Jesus, become his disciple by learning how he commanded you to live. Then put those teachings into action in your life. Teach those commands to the next generation. This is following Jesus' great commission.