>The "Altar Call"/"Invitation" System – A Critique

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I enjoy, am challenged by, and often receive confirmation from the writings and preachings of Thabiti Anyabwile. He obviously has a great name; he also has a great heart for genuine ministry.

Here’s what he declared in response to the question, “Why don’t you give altar calls?”

I’m sometimes asked by people why we don’t do “altar calls” at our services. Like the people who ask the question, the churches in my personal background pretty much all practiced “altar calls” at the conclusion of a sermon or service. I’ve seen them done in very poor fashion, and I’ve seen some pastors be really clear about the gospel, repentance, faith, and the fact that “coming forward” does not save.

I date my own conversion to the preaching of Exodus 32, which concluded with an altar call.
So, why don’t we practice “altar calls”? I don’t think the pastor who practices an “invitation” at the end of a sermon is in sin, but he may not be acting wisely either. This list of reasons, compiled by Pastor Ryan Kelly of Desert Springs Church, is a pretty good summation of some of my thinking (HT: Z).

(note from Jack; Points 1, 2, and Thabiti’s added #11 are undeniable and unarguable. I’m interested in what some of you think…and would hope you’d express your opinion by leaving a comment)

1. The altar call is simply and completely absent from the pages of the N.T.

2. The altar call is historically absent until the 19th century, and its use at that time (via Charles Finney) was directly based upon bad theology and a man-centered, manipulative methodology.

3. The altar call very easily confuses the physical act of “coming forward” with the spiritual act of “coming to Christ.” These two can happen simultaneously, but too often people believe that coming to Christ is going forward (and vice-versa).

4. The altar call can easily deceive people about the reality of their spiritual state and the biblical basis for assurance. The Bible never offers us assurance on the ground that we “went forward.”

5. The altar call partially replaces baptism as the means of public profession of faith.

6. The altar call can mislead us to think that salvation (or any official response to God’s Word) happens primarily on Sundays, only at the end of the service, and only “up front.”

7. The altar call can confuse people regarding “sacred” things and “sacred” places, as the name “altar call” suggests.

8. The altar call is not sensitive to our cautious and relational age where most people come to faith over a period of time and often with the interaction of a good friend.

9. The altar call is often seen as “the most important part of the service”, and this de-emphasizes the truly more important parts of corporate worship which God has prescribed (preaching, prayer, fellowship, singing).

10. God is glorified to powerfully bless the things He has prescribed (preaching, prayer, fellowship, singing), not the things we have invented. We should always be leery of adding to God’s prescriptions for His corporate worship.

Numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 10 of Ryan’s list are the most compelling reasons in my opinion. These would seem very serious objections for anyone who takes seriously the idea that our Christian lives and gatherings should conform to what the NT commands, models, and prohibits. Perhaps I would add an 11th: The “altar call” teaches the congregation to evaluate the “success” or “effectiveness” of the ministry on outward, visible actions and results.

Further, the need to be pastorally careful and sensitive with the souls of men needing to repent and believe couldn’t be more urgent. So, anything that obscures the reality of God the Holy Spirit’s work in conversion and the necessity of repentance and faith must be regarded–at best–a practice with potential to undermine the very work we’re giving our lives to.

Do people “respond” to the word of God at our services? They do. And we give them a number of ways they may follow up on what they’ve heard, from talking to an elder or Christian friend after the service, to scheduling an appointment during the week, to letting us know they would like us to visit with them, and so on. One thing I appreciate about our approach is that it allows us to meet, listen, question, encourage, teach and pray in a much more thorough way. By God’s grace we’re seeing people converted and profess their faith in baptism as the Spirit opens their hearts. We’re not perfect by any means. But I do hope we’re being faithful to the scripture’s commands, examples, and restrictions.

What do you think about Kelly’s list? Are you “for” or “against” and why? Would you add anything to or challenge anything on the list?

Author: Jack Hager

Jesus invaded my life shortly after my arrest at age 26. I spent the first few years of my new life incarcerated. Went to Bible school after parole; have served with Kansas City Youth For Christ, Headwaters Christian Youth (Rhinelander, Wi), Family Life Ministries (Bath, NY), and now with Midland Ministries (Saint Joseph, Mo). Married with four children, work with youth, adults, inmates. Heavily involved in Bible quizzing for four decades. Narrow minded about Jesus and the gospel; fairly open minded about most other things. Speak in churches, camps (both teen and family), civic groups, public schools, Christian schools and colleges...amazed I get to do what I get to do....favorite verse Romans 15.13 "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing so that you, by the power of the Holy Spirit, may overflow with hope."

One thought on “>The "Altar Call"/"Invitation" System – A Critique”

  1. >Just the other day, I too thought a little about this subject. I never grew up in a church with altar calling. Now, however, I am on staff at a church as a pastoral intern, and there is an altar call for both services on Sunday, and I have to say – I am not a fan. I agree with all of your objections, though I think some are weaker than others. Naturally. The one thing that continued to enter my mind was the idea that people will come up in an emotional state and confess/ask for prayer about something TO the pastor/deacon. And, it seemed to me that many times, people can just leave it at that. "Well I went forward and cried, and had a spiritual person pray over me…I must be good with God now." – but then nothing changes in their lives. It the Spirit that transforms – not a spiritual 'walk of shame.' One more thing: If altar calls weren't so ominous, maybe my opinion would be a little different.

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