Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Trouble With Altar Calls

A friend & I had a brief discussion the other day regarding altar calls.  Coming from a Lutheran background, I simply don't understand them.  Calls to repentance & faith in Christ, I get, & I've been in churches that do just that with offers of someone to talk to after the service & assurances that leaving your seat isn't a requirement for salvation.  Having been surrounded in my youth by revivalistic Baptist churches as the only models for the practice of altar calls, I usually find them to be irksome, not the least of which is because they are often emotionally manipulative & lead to false professions of faith.  There are entire churches, rather than just an invitation here or there, where this manipulation is not the norm - mine being one - but this is nonetheless a common pitfall for altar calls.  And then I have the problem of not being able to find the precedence of altar calls anywhere in Scripture.  The fine people over at The Gospel Coalition were asked, in short, how to call people to Christ without relying on altar calls.  Jonathan Leeman - editorial director at 9Marks & a PhD candidate researching ecclesiology - gave quite an astute response, one that I agree with wholeheartedly.  Not everyone will agree with Jonathan's assessment, or my assent to it; however, I still ask that any readers of this post will not rely on their own feelings & opinions, but give careful thought to his words & check them - & the institution of altar calls - against the Word of God.  This, not the traditions of man, must be the final arbiter of truth & the guide for all our practices & beliefs.  So, without further ado, here's Jonathan's answer to this query.

Before I had arrived, the previous pastors had always given altar calls. I was now one month into an interim pastorate, and people were beginning to ask whether I would ever give them. I remember a long, meandering car ride with one sweet brother---a good friend to this day---devoted to the question.

I told this brother and the rest of the elders that I wouldn't do an altar call. Why not?

Because I think altar calls are wrong? No, I think a pastor is free to give one. It's not a sin.

Because I don't believe that people must make a decision for Christ? No, I think people must decide to repent and believe in order to be saved.

Because I don't think Jesus calls us to make a public profession? No, people must publicly profess their faith, which is why Jesus instituted baptism. (Emphasis mine)

Because I think inviting sinners to repent is inherently manipulative? No, I believe preachers should invite non-Christians to repent and believe throughout their sermons. I did this during the interim pastorate, and I did it just last Sunday when guest preaching at another church. I very clearly invited non-Christians to repent and believe in the middle of my sermon, and then told them to speak with me afterwards, or the pastor, or the Christian friend who brought them.

So why wouldn't I give an altar call? In short, I believe that this particular man-made practice, this 19th-century innovation, has produced more bad than good for Christian churches in the West. The altar call relies on the powers of emotion, rhetorical persuasion, and social pressure to induce people to make a hasty and premature decision. And producing professions is not the same thing as making disciples. Surely a number of factors are responsible for the many nominal Christians that typify Christianity in the West, but I believe that the altar call is one of them.

How many people in the last century walked an aisle, and spent the rest of their days convinced that they were a Christian, never considering how they lived!

The alternative to giving altar calls is sticking with the practices we see modeled in Scripture:

     *Invite people throughout your sermon to "repent and be baptized" like Peter did in Jerusalem (Acts 2:38). But when you do, don't just stand there waiting with emotionally charged music playing, staring them down until they relent. Rather, make several suggestions about how and where to discuss the matter further.

     *Ask people what they believe when they present themselves for baptism, just like Jesus made sure the disciples knew who he was (Matt. 16:13-17; also, 1 John 4:1-3).

     *Make sure they understand what following Jesus entails (Matt. 16:24f; John 6:53-60).

     *Explain that the fruit of their lives and persevering to the end will indicate whether or not they really believe (Matt. 7:24f; 10:22).

     *You might even explain that Jesus has commanded your church to remove them from its fellowship if their life moving forward does not match their profession (Matt. 18:15-17).

Yes, let's pray hard for conversions. But then let's do everything that Scripture requires of us in the long work of making disciples---a work that generally requires lots of teaching, lots of time, lots of invitations, lots of meals together, and finally the commitment of an entire church body.


The Boyds said...

I initially started having problems with altar calls 20 or 21 years ago when I started reading and listening to men of God like John MacArthur, and then because of him, I was exposed to all the great men of God throughout church history and they further led me to be critical of this practice, especially Martyn Lloyd-Jones. An important book dealing with this is "Revival and Revivalism" and "The Invitation System" by Iain Murray. Once the origination and history of this practice are understood, then it becomes troublesome. The thing is, Christians pre 1800s would have major issues with it, especially the Puritans, who were some of the most Scripture-filled, Jesus loving Christians ever. Some of the greatest preachers and evangelist in the history of the church (Jonathan Edwards, George Whitfield, John Wesley, Martyn Lloyd-Jones) and present (MacArthur, Piper, Platt, Washer and many others) did not/do not use it, and it certainly did/does not effect the number of conversions under their preaching. They faithfully preach God's Word and trust the Spirit to open up and convict people, bring about the new birth and effect conversion to Christ. Of coure, it is pointed out or understood the minister is available to talk to people after the service. I like the way David Platt does it at Brook Hills with the "Access Corner". He directs people to the Access Corner (a private area), which is clearly marked with a lighted sign after preaching for counseling or if they have questions about the Christian faith. This is also the way it's done in many other churches today.~Michael