“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).

 

The Front Porch
Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Receive the latest updates from The Front Porch

Invalid email address
Stay up to date with us.

22 Comments

  • Avatar Louis Love says:

    Hey Phil:
    Nice article and nice touch. Your graciousness is to be commended. I resonate with your article. In my early days of preaching I sought to master the invitation system. Most brothers know whether they admit it or not that a good invitation can make up for a poor message any day.

    I was dropped when I discovered there was no biblical paradigm for the practice. However I was really encouraged when I looked deeper into the solid, Spirit-filled, Christ-centered preaching of Peter on the Day of Pentecost and at Cornelius’ house. Brother man didn’t need an invitation.

    Very thoughtful, Phil.

  • Avatar Joshua Servanthood says:

    I agree with Mr. Love, the altar call, generally, tends to make up for a poor message and follow with the infamous “Sinner’s Prayer”, to which you ask Jesus into your heart. The tragedy of this call is not only does it create a false assurance with someone who believes that no matter what they do they are saved, but it also leads one to believe we, essentially, need to pray this prayer to be saved.

    Thus, the seeds of this movement, typically, produce men and women who live their lives as they choose with Christ on the periphery or waiting to be called upon for emergency use. Fortunately, God is gracious enough to not just save us in spite of our efforts, but lead us from this popular means of pointing others to Christ to actually pointing them to Christ in expository preaching and teaching.

    Brothers, I thank you for upholding Scripture above your own opinions or traditions, because not only is that what we have been call to, but this glorifies God rather than man. Therefore, please continue to be faithful to Christ, so that we as young men and women can intimate you.

    Respectfully,
    Joshua

  • Avatar Philip Duncanson says:

    Praise God, Pastor Love! I am right there with you. Your discovery was mine as well. Praise God for his grace.

  • Avatar Philip Duncanson says:

    Josh! Welcome to the porch, brother! Thanks for your comments and for stopping by. Keep it coming. Love your passion for the gospel and your heart for the Church.

  • Avatar Matthew Marshall says:

    Good word! Amen brother! The alter call has been used for years by many as a alternative to true discipleship. That is not true everywhere and in every situation, but by and large that has been the case. All for the sake of saying, “Look how many people responded to my message,” or “Look how many people we baptized this year,” or “Look how many people we have on our membership role.” Praise God that churches grow numerically, that’s a good thing. But, praise God even more when churches grow in spiritual maturity as well. “Therefore, go forth and MAKE DISCIPLES of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the son Son and of the Holy Spirit, TEACHING THEM…”. “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.” –Diectrich Bonhoeffer

  • Avatar Joshua Servanthood says:

    Glad to have an opportunity to learn from the elders on the front porch. I’ll make sure to bring something drink or something, next time. What kind of neighbor am I, not to bring good tidings for the journey ahead. Take care and remain faithful brothers!

  • Avatar James Pedley says:

    Amen to this article! Everything we need is in God’s Word. It’s time we get back to using Scripture alone as the way we follow Christ, structure church etc…The Apostle’s completed the firm foundation of God’s church (Eph 2:20), adding these kinds of new techniques is like adding too much sand to cement, and just when you think “Ha, look how fast I built this wall!” the waves of the world wash it away and prove it’s lack of care. Build on ‘The Rock’ with ‘The Rock’ and stand firm.

    Thanks again
    JP

  • Avatar Tabulous says:

    Great article. It really hits home. I used to be one of those folks that loved the altar call. I used to cry when masses of people would walk forward. In hindsight, I think this is what you called “care for the lost”.

    I have adopted the Reformed views several years ago… since then I now feel uneasy when the altar call happens. I have a greater sense of sadness during the sinner’s prayer. I recently sat next to my 6 yr old son while a leader of a popular youth program, I will not use the name to protect the guilty :), tried to lead my son in a sinner’s prayer. When he said he didn’t want to do it, she offered to help him say it… as if that would save him. I allowed this to happen to help me determine if I should allow my children to participate with the program… we never went back.

    It appears as if most are not familiar with the history of these practices and as a result, see them as harmless. When in fact they can do much harm. But these practices seem to be everywhere and have been used by folks with good intentions for so long that proposing anything to the contrary will probably be met with significant opposition.

    I thank God for your humble approach and clarity on the matter.

    To God be the glory!!

  • Avatar itshome says:

    Hey folks,
    I enjoyed the article, and for the most part, rings of making sense to me. We do see in scripture where folks believed without the aisle…

    What do you make of Evangelistic Crusades such as Billy Grahams? Seems the altar call in a congregational setting is being primarily discussed, but having a venue where the lost are invited to come, hear the Gospel, and then given an opportunity to “come” and proclaim faith or to pray subsequent to their desire for life, would be good.

    Also, it seems in the comments, an assumption is patterned where the altar call is the same as a lack of discipleship, or really living the Gospel. This would be true, I would think, whether a person responded to an altar call and failed to show signs “meet for repentance” or had they practiced spiritual disciplines off and on with the same result. That’s seems too wide a brush for my understanding. Should we make these innuendos?

    I’d appreciate hearing back from you brothers and sisters on these questions. I grew up in churches with and without altar calls; seen it first, I think, at a Nicki Cruz crusade. In the years up to now, I’ve continued on a course of more and more reformed theology, where churches have consequently refrained from altar calls for the similar reasons. So I guess I’m still working out a proper position on this topic.

    Many thanks in advance.

  • Avatar Philip Duncanson says:

    Itshome
    Thanks for stopping by the porch and sharing your comments. Glad you are seeking clarification and even wrestling with your experiences. Your question about the Billy Graham Crusades is a good one. Calling people to repent and believe the gospel is always biblical and right to do. And so my problem is not with that. It is thinking that an altar call is necessary and perhaps the only means by which God saves. Many times after an altar call is given, it is followed up with the proclamation of assurance. That assurance is tied to the walking of an aisle, the raising of a hand, or reciting of a “sinners prayer.” Again, I am not saying that people were not saved at Graham Crusades or other venues and churches where altar calls were used; the point is, they are too often tied to salvation. Meaning, I am saved because I responded to the altar call, rather than; I heard the word of the Lord calling me to repent and believe and I did because my heart was regenerated.

    I hope that helps a little bit. Please keep stopping by. You are always welcome.

  • Avatar Philip Duncanson says:

    Amen, brother! Thanks for your comments.

  • Avatar Philip Duncanson says:

    Tabulous,

    Thanks for stopping by and for sharing your story with us. It is a testimony many of us are familiar with. Glad this article was an encouragement.

    Blessings to you!

  • Avatar Larry Miles says:

    Itshome, It seems at times, because a particular system became the “way to do it,” (in our lifetimes) the Biblical alternative seems less involved and/or less weighty and we may seem inclined to interface the two, so as to leave “no stone unturned.” The altar call as a practice is 200 yrs old. The question is, “what did people do from the origin of the NT church until 200 yrs ago? In my opinion, the proper position is a Biblical one.

  • Avatar itshome says:

    Larry and Phil,
    Thank you, and I agree to being Biblical. Seeing that the Gospel was preached and thousands were added to the church, we don’t see what was happening and what those converted immediately did upon their belief (save Philip), such as private prayer. We do see, however, much about a conversion having signs of repentance. So where the scripture isn’t prescriptive, I would think we have freedom, such as an altar call or not, but this other business that leads folks to believe they are saved due to aisle walking and card signing, without change to their heart and life is foolishness and harmful to the individual and the church. Is this then how you see it?
    Also, good topic and I appreciate it.

  • Avatar Larry Miles says:

    Yes, itshome, I’d say that’s how I see it. I think in general the prescriptive was not the “altar call,” since we can only go back approx. 200 yrs and “see it.” Rather than the question being “should we do it or not?” perhaps, it should be, “can we find such a prescriptive in scripture or church history?” and whatever that answer is, I’d settle there.

  • Avatar itshome says:

    again reminded of the goodness of God, even as displayed through interaction on the porch. Thanks guys.

  • Avatar Trevoron Jones says:

    This article does a great service by going to the historical roots of the altar call and then comparing it to the scriptures. At one point I was in a church where they boasted of saving 300 souls during the prior year. Yet as I looked around the church, there was probably 100-150 people in attendance max. It just didn’t add up to me.

    I also liked how it is mentioned that the altar call is not itself good or bad, but should not be used as the sole means to salvation. I have attended churches where a version of an altar call is used, but the work of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit is preached in every sermon and the church actually follows up with those who respond to the call to ensure they are actually believers and weren’t caught up in momentary believism.

    Great article. I’m loving this site.

  • Avatar Vince says:

    Great article!

    I was wondering if some saints might have some insights on prayer amongst those with skewed vies of the scripture? I have many friends who ‘plead the blood of Jesus’ or ‘bind and loose’ some person, spirit, or thing. Should we ask for prayers from our friends who adhere to such practices? Would we ‘add fuel to their fire’ if we do so?

  • Avatar clarkent116 says:

    Phil, great article! Thanks for good, concise theology on this issue which pointed us back to scripture rather than yielding to church tradition.

    Grace and Peace,
    Kent

  • Avatar jeyjey34 says:

    Thanks for the post. I was made aware that altar calls aren’t explicitly biblical some years back and it’s refreshing to see others sharing that same sentiment. As I think about all the people over that I’ve seen come up during altar, I can only imagine how many false converts have come out of this practice. It’s unfortunate.

The Front Porch

Conversations about biblical
faithfulness in African-American
churches and beyond