Somewhere around 400 times I have led altar calls in my early days of ministry. Somewhere around 2,500 times in my life I have stood as the pastor called people to make a public decision at the end of a church service. This theological heritage is as familiar to me as a child’s mother tongue.
But it’s not merely my experience, the altar call is common in contemporary Christianity. I have met a number of other African pastors from rural areas (including my own village) who are familiar with this method even while unable to offer better verses to support their salvation testimony than “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4:13)
What is it? The altar call is a method of evangelism (and even sanctification) used after a public presentation of truth whereby people are urged to respond immediately with a physical action.
In spite of my heritage and the prevailing moods of contemporary ministry, I do not anymore support the use of the altar call as a method for evangelism. Four lines of Scriptural thought produced this change in me. These reasons could possibly be subdivided or viewed in different ways, but they should be clear enough to drive home several Biblical points.
Before launching into the heart of my objections to this particular method, one of my reasons to oppose altar calls is not that altar calls are connected to other aberrant methodologies. I do believe that often an assembly of God’s people that is wrong in one area will be wrong in another area of similar kind, but determining necessary causes for religious movements and practices is notoriously difficult. So I shall content myself to stay closer to Scripture.
1. The altar call is not in Scripture.
Christians commonly employ methods that are not in Scripture such as Bible societies, seminaries, publishing houses, church associations, and mission boards. However, altar calls are methods employed in the worship of local assemblies. And even though there is some flexibility in applying the regulative principle to church worship, proponents of altar calls cannot appeal to a Scriptural example or command for their reasoning. Whatever their motivation, it must be a logical implication or a merely pragmatic decision.
The water gets even muddier when history’s pages show us the roots of calling people forward to make decisions on the spot. Charles Finney was, if not the first then definitely the key man, responsible for popularizing the altar call. Yet here are a few lines summarized from his autobiography. His Revivals of Religion and Lectures on Revivals also offer more statements similar to the ones below.
- He repeatedly uses the words: feel, impression, seems, overwhelmed, and other language of experience. (These citations are from Charles Finney’s Autobiography, ed. Helen Wessel, 1977. Pages 21, 24, 25, 45, 56, 75, et.al.) In his autobiography there is little discussion of Scriptural theology.
- At 30 years old the Presbyterian church asked him to study theology at Princeton Theological Seminary so that he could be a pastor. He refused to study theology though he wanted to be a pastor. Eventually, they allowed his pastor to train him. But in his own words, “I [Finney] could not receive his [the orthodox, confessional pastor’s] views on the subject of atonement, regeneration, faith, repentance, the slavery of the will, or any of the kindred doctrines. … He used to tell me that if I insisted on reasoning on these subjects, I would probably land in infidelity.” (46-47)
- Finney deceitfully said that he accepted the Westminster Confession of Faith even though he knew that he had not even read it. (49)
- Somehow he was ordained as a Presbyterian pastor and within a short time came to his own unique doctrinal conclusions. (50-51)
- Finney describes what was a common pattern for his sermon preparation. Though he had to preach in the evening he wrote, “I had not taken a thought with regard to what I should preach. Indeed, this was common with me at that time.” Later he wrote, “For some twelve years of my earliest ministry I wrote not a word and was most commonly obliged to preach without any preparation whatever, except what I got in prayer.” (57, 75) His sermons often lasted 2 hours.
- He repeatedly references the Holy Spirit communicating privately to him. (92, et. al.)
- In order to get more people to be saved, Finney looked for ways to get them to make decisions. These were called “new measures” at that time. The most famous is the modern altar call. Seats were placed at the front where people who wanted to be saved could come and receive prayer. (55, 158-160)
The altar call is not the result of careful Scriptural exegesis so that the preacher is backed in a corner by the text and with no room to wiggle, he must bow his knee to the Scriptural doctrine of the altar call. No, the theological heritage of the altar call is steeped in pragmatic revivalism with an emphasis on numbers.
2. The altar call assumes a defective theory of regeneration.
Regeneration, also known in Scripture as being “born again” (John 3:3), drawn by the Father (John 6:44), or “called” (Gal. 1:15), is the powerful working of God whereby He creates new desires in the heart of the sinner so that those who hated Him (John 7:7) now love Him. (1 Peter 1:8) However, the practitioners of the new measures hold firmly that men can cause their own spiritual birth by exercising a latent faith which every man has in his own power.
Jesus said, “The wind blows where it wishes… so is everyone that is born of the Spirit.” This illustration is unavoidably clear regarding how believers are born again. The miracle of the new birth comes from a sovereign act of God’s Spirit. It cannot be juggled into a mildly interested attendee at a religious event by means of a potentially coercive method.
Yet the altar call implies that men have control over the matter of their own spiritual birth. When they are good and ready, they can initiate the process by means of a faith which is often—thanks to this method—mingled with some works such as prayer, coming forward, or raising a hand. If regeneration is a monergistic act, then the altar call is potentially dangerous.
3. The altar call discourages careful thought about spiritual matters.
Revivalism in general has always been in a hurry. Whereas Jesus did not rush the rich young ruler to respond publicly, successful modern evangelists may have handled this seeker differently and thus added a number to their tally though the soul was still lost.
While walking on the road to Jerusalem before his crucifixion, and before having met the rich young ruler, Jesus turned to a crowd of people who were following him and clarified that He was not seeking quick decisions, but measured careful responses by those who had counted the cost. (Luke 14:28) A modern advisor might have suggested that He who is our Wisdom adopt a more prudent and effective method to preserve some of the fruit from an apparently large audience, but fake converts won through hasty methods damage the church by introducing more tares among the wheat.
Certainly there should be urgency in the Christian life and evangelism. But the pleading of an evangelist should always draw the hearer toward Christ not a work however subtly the two are interchanged. Such discerning urgency has been the hallmark of great evangelists in the past such as the apostle Paul, George Whitefield, Charles Spurgeon, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Each of these men (and many others) was privileged to see hundreds or even thousands come to Christ by employing more strictly Biblical methods.
4. The altar call encourages an emphasis on numbers as the evidence of ministerial success.
Paul’s measure of success was faithfulness to the Word of God. (1 Cor. 4:2) Jesus emphasized the same thing with the parable of the talents and His famous prophecy that the greatest commendation for a believer to receive is, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” A pastor who could honestly be called faithful meets all the requirements Jesus laid out. (Rev. 17:14)
I thank God for delivering this truth with power to me as I read Kent Hughes’ Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome. In less than 200 pages Hughes argues that the great need of the day is pastors who obey Scripture not necessarily examine the past week’s, month’s, and year’s statistics of attendance and giving.
But the altar call provides nearly irresistible temptation to base our feelings and projections of success on how many responded. Some pastors even tone down the numbers’ feel by adding phrases like “professions of faith” rather than “number of people saved,” yet the final result is very similar: We all look to see who had the most. This must happen because altar calls are intentionally visible. On several occasions Jesus gave us good reason to doubt the sincerity of large crowds. In John 6, many—possibly thousands—followed Him, but after a pointed sermon on God’s sovereignty and true faith “many of His disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” The Lord didn’t count these people because He knew what was in man. True faith will demonstrate itself by slow and steady perseverance over time as the fruits of the Spirit become more evident.
Even with these critiques of the altar call, it must be remembered that many who still use this method are fervent and active evangelists, many have been saved through this method, and it is possible for a pastor to love the Five Solas and still use an unscriptural method. May we rejoice for all the good God does through broken tools, but in striving for consistent obedience to Scripture and a method that does not encourage false converts, let us keep shopping without putting the altar call in the cart.
The altar call is not found in Scripture nor is it the product of exegesis. It assumes a faulty perspective on regeneration. It joins the rest of the contemporary world in saying, “Now!” while Jesus says, “Think carefully.” It points us toward numbers when faithfulness is the watchword our Lord left with us.
The altar call is not evangelicalism’s greatest sin, but neither is it the answer to a church’s struggles to evangelize effectively.