“With heads bowed and eyes closed; no one looking around.”
“Just step out into the aisle. Don’t think about the people around you. Come forward and give your life to Christ.”
All of us are familiar with these phrases in some form or fashion. It has come to be known as the altar call, or the invitation. Music plays softly in the background, the preacher stands at the front of the congregation with arms stretched wide. It is a staple in churches, conferences and summer camps worldwide. Many Christians have the raising of a hand or the walking of an aisle as a part of their testimony. The message of the gospel pricked their heart and they found themselves responding to the invitation. They renounced their allegiance to sin and surrendered their life to Christ.
It is no wonder that many have such an affinity for this practice. They might think, “if this is the means God used to save them and others, then this must be the primary means he uses to save sinners. Its tradition; it’s part of the church.”
So why don’t Reformed churches in general practice it?
This is a question I have gotten over and over again. Particularly from African-Americans who have come from churches that use the altar call not only to identify converts, but also as a means for joining the church. Many can’t understand why at the end of an expositional, Christ-saturated sermon there can’t be an altar call? I have even had people go so far as to ask, “How are people going to get saved?”
“So why don’t Reformed churches in general practice altar calls?”
To be fair, I can sympathize with the question. If that is your experience, and you have never been to a church service where an altar call was not held, you should rightly ask the question, “Where’s the altar call?” It shows your care for the lost and your keen awareness to test things that are different than the norm. But in this case, the norm isn’t always what is best.
The altar call, contrary to what many believe, is a recent phenomenon made popular by the early 1800’s preacher, Charles Finney. Finney asserted that men and woman could be persuaded into believing the gospel by simply creating the perfect storm. An appeal to the emotions, the right lighting and music, and voila…you had yourself a convert. OK, I may be taking it a little further than Finney expressed, but it is clear he intentionally appealed to the emotions, believing that men and women could will themselves into belief.
While preaching with the emotions and affections in mind is not necessarily a bad thing, seeking to play to the emotions to illicit a response is. And unfortunately, this is the mentality that gave birth to the altar call. That’s not really a glowing endorsement for making it a practice in the church.
So, while altar calls are not in and of themselves sinful or heretical, the truth of the matter is they are not very helpful. First and foremost because they are extra-biblical; meaning, it is not a practice we find in the pages of Holy Scripture. Throughout the Scriptures, we find that the apostles exercised urgency and a pleading with people to repent and believe, but there is the glaring omission of invitations to raise hands or walk to the front of the crowd. Instead, the Holy Spirit regenerates the hearts of sinners and they cry out, “What must I do to be saved? (Acts 16:30)”—right where they are. For the Scriptures seem to lay out the blueprint for us: preach the gospel, call people to repentance and faith, and urge them to believe now — right where they are. No music, no mood lighting, just the Word of God made effectual by the Spirit of God.
But also problematic is the false-assuring, easy believism that the altar call produces. It ties repentance and faith to walking an aisle or raising your hand, giving the false assurance a genuine conversion has taken place. And that very well may not be the case. Evidence has shown, not all who accept the invitation to come forward are genuinely converted. Too often we see the same people week after week, leaving their seat to head for the altar, only to leave church with no change of heart, no turning from sin. For true repentance is just that, a turning away from sin and death to freedom and life in Christ. That work is Spirit wrought in believers not conjured up by persuasive techniques.
Then there is the easy believism that promotes the ideas that the Christian life begins and ends with the altar call. Once I walk the aisle, that’s it! No need for growth, no need for community; it’s “once saved — always saved.”
I remember talking with a friend who led the new believers’ class at his local church. This church incorporated altar calls at the end of their worship services, and encouraged those who came forward to attend the new believers’ class on a Saturday. Much to the dismay of my friend, while the altar calls were often full of people on Sunday, the attendance in class never equated.
But that is not the response we see in Scripture. An encounter with the living God produces within the heart a desire to grow, and more importantly, a desire to worship.
The lame beggar in Acts 3:8 follows Peter and John into the temple, leaping, worshiping and praising God.
“But that is not the response we see in Scripture.”
Lydia in Acts 16:15 is compelled to start a church in her home.
The leper in Luke 17:15-16 desires to come back to Jesus in order to worship.
When a genuine conversion takes place in the life of a sinner, the overwhelming desire is to worship; it is to learn more about the Savior who has ransomed you from your sin. An indifferent, disinterested attitude to the things of God is not the response of a heart that has been changed. But unfortunately, too often that has been the result the altar call produces.
And that’s the danger.
It’s not that people don’t get saved through the means of an altar call; it’s that they can produce grave consequences for those not genuinely converted.
So, if you have recently begun attending a church and asked the question, “Where’s the altar call?” I hope this has helped. I do want to end by saying that expositional preaching, as we learned in this conversation, done righty, always seeks to reveal the person and work of Jesus Christ, namely the gospel. And therefore, as the gospel is proclaimed throughout the sermon, there should be an urging and a pleading with people to repent and believe the good news, right where they are. The Holy Spirit doesn’t need an aisle or a raised hand. He is pleased to take a heart of stone and turn it to a heart of flesh (Eze 36:26), and shine into that heart the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:2).