Get out your sharpened number two pencils, it’s time for a short quiz.
1) The customary altar call familiar to evangelical churches first appeared
a.) In the last 200 years
b.) When Noah’s ark came to rest on dry ground
c.) When a song leader stroked and kept repeating “we’re gonna sing just one more chorus.”
The altar call came onto the scene around 1820. Somehow since then it has been elevated to a required God thing. If you don’t do it you must certainly be ashamed of the gospel and ashamed of God. As a pastor, other pastors say you’ve watered down biblical teaching and are a liberal. In Pastor World those are major slams.
Okay, I’ll just come out and say it. I don’t like altar calls.
Why not? Most of the altar calls I see border more on manipulation than they do a move of the Holy Spirit. I see some different styles.
1) Work ’em up. This one is a favorite in youth camps. The key is to stir the emotions and work the people into a frenzy. Get a few teenage girls crying and you are guaranteed results. Please don’t misunderstand me. Spontaneous tears happen but when we set out to trigger the tears, we manipulate. I remember a youth setting where an adult wept while introducing a drama I had seen before. The adult went on at length talking through tears about how emotional the drama was calling it “powerful.” Numerous teens in the audience were crying before it even started. As the actors came out one by one with poster boards explaining a painful time on side one and then flipped it to reveal how God blessed brought victory, the weeping became louder and louder. The kids in the performance clung tightly to each other weeping outside the auditorium. It was a mess. The interesting thing to me was that I had seen the same skit performed at other conferences with an entirely different spin. The kids were pumped and excited about sharing God’s victory over trials. In the other settings the performers brought the audience to applause. The only difference was the introduction.
2) Make ’em doubt. If you have been around evangelical churches for any length of time you have probably run into this one. The evangelist works hard to precede his call to commitment by getting his audience to question if they are truly saved. “If you were to die right this minute, are you 100% sure you would go to heaven?!?!” he booms. “Do you know the day when you came to Christ? If not, how can you be sure you are saved?” I’ve followed Jesus for 30 years and these guys can get me wondering.
3) Sneak ’em in. “With every head bowed and every eye closed, if you want to accept Jesus would you just raise your hand right now?” This one always puzzles me. First, I want to know why they have to raise their hands if not to give validation to the speaker? Can’t they just pray right where they are without the hand in the air thing? The second thing I can’t figure out is why we would call people to hide their decision from anyone else. It just doesn’t make sense to me. I can’t picture Jesus telling His disciples in a whisper, “Hey, follow me. No one will know. No one’s looking.”
4) Lie a little. I’ve heard the rationale for this but it just doesn’t add up for me. I remember being trained as a counselor for an evangelist rolling through town. We were to come to the front immediately when he gave the invitation. As others saw us coming they would be more likely to say, “Hey, look at all those people going forward. I’m going to do it too.” It seemed deceptive to me. The other one goes along with #3 above. I’m bad. I tend to keep looking around even when a speaker tells me to bow my head and close my eyes. The guys who start counting hands baffle me because I just don’t count the same way. They are up to 12 or 15 and I’ve only seen one. “Yes, I see that hand. Yes, young man, thank you. Yes, there’s another.” I asked a guy at a coffee house about his count one time and after he cooled down he told me he just does it to encourage other people to put their hands up too. He does it so they don’t think they are alone. Hmmm …
5) Scare them. Skip abundant life with Jesus and go straight to telling them that they are going to die on their way home. Make it clear that they could get hit by a bus, have a heart attack or brain aneurysm or get shot. It’s true, they might not make it another day. Without faith in Christ the bible tells us we will spend eternity in hell. But why do we abandon the prospect of a relationship with God right here on earth so quickly? I remember being at an all-night youth event when the speaker scolded some guys who were goofing around and not paying attention. He told them that he spoke at an event just like this one the year before and some kids were laughing like they were. Then he dropped the bomb on them telling them those kids’ bus crashed on the way home and several died without knowing Jesus. They sat up and paid attention. Me? I didn’t believe him. I had heard nothing of this bus crash and found no trace of it on the Internet. Bus crashes where kids die make the news. Maybe they missed this one.
6) Attract a crowd. The speaker starts off inviting people who don’t know Jesus to come forward. Then he expands that to include people who want to recommit their lives to him. Next, he invites people who need prayer about anything. Then it’s the “fresh touch.” Then he moves to people who want someone to pray with them for someone else. Before you know it, it’s down to, “If you’re breathing, come forward.” Well, at least it seems that way.
I’m curious about the whole “come forward” thing. I know that there are times in church history when it was about logistics and giving people a place to meet for prayer or to talk further. But over the last two hundred years it appears that some sort of power is associated with “coming to the altar.”
I know there are lots of evangelists who don’t manipulate and I know there are many who decided to trust Christ by going forward at an invitation. I’m among them. I’m also sure that I would have committed to follow Him right where I sat, if that had been the invitation.
The other problem I have with altar calls is that I think they convince the average believer that she can’t introduce a friend to Christ. For many, evangelism has become the act of inviting someone to attend a special presentation rather than a process of loving, serving sharing life with people who don’t know Christ.
For me, the potential value in going to the front is the opportunity to help connect someone who wants to follow Christ with someone who says, “I will be your friend and help you build your relationship with Him.”
Evangelism is the act of one hungry beggar showing another where he found bread. (paraphrasing N.T. Niles)
I don’t like “Altar Calls” either. I grew up Baptist and converted to the Catholic Church as an adult. But, as a child, I think I got “saved” at least 10 times during “Altar Calls”. They are so emotional and tend to lead those who are guilt ridden to over-dramatize. I particularly hate the ones where the pastor insists on announcing the results of the altar call afterward. That is particularly awkward.
This is Carre Gardner weighing in. I can dredge up a lot of bitterness on this topic without even trying. We're basically in Russia because we were emotionally manipulated into it during an altar call in college. Not that God doesn't have his plan in this, but still… Funny story: When Tim's brother was at Cedarville, a well-known speaker came and gave an altar call of the "every head bowed, every eye closed" variety. During the invitation, he kept saying, "Yes, I see that hand. Amen brother. God bless you sister. Yes, I see that hand too…." Only, Tim's brother's friend was peeking, and nobody was raising their hands! Later, the friend wrote to this famous speaker and called him on his deception. The speaker complained to the college President, who punished the student for speaking up for the truth! Guess it's one of those things where appearances triumph over truth.Gah.
Thanks for taking this on so forthrightly, Scott. Sadly, most of those who "make a profession" show no evidence of following through within a short time. How many are led to believe that having once repeated someone else's words they are forever right with God? How many miss living abundantly because they believe they have done all that needs to be done to get to heaven? Why does "professional evangelist" sound like an oxymoron?spk><>
Scott I am so glad you wrote this. I have always felt extremely awkward, guilt ridden, embarrassed, or nervous during altar calls. I know Jesus and he never makes me feel any of those things so it just doesn't add up.Also, I remember the one you were talking about in #1 with the signs and the crying. I remember being so grateful when after you said to the sobbing group around the camp fire, "We need to remember that they flipped their cards over."Anyway, keep doin' what you do. 🙂