“Slip your hand up” and other ways we trivialize the altar call

Many people have been moved to come forward at altar calls and give their lives over to Christ. It can be the start of an incredible journey, no doubt. But do we treat the altar call in a scripted way? When my oldest was a teen he joked around the dinner table one night and in his best southern preacher accent did an entire altar call, complete with the “I see that hand, thank you in the second row.” It was hilarious, accurate and sadly, a little disturbing that he nailed it so perfectly.

Why do so many of these “inspirational moments” sound exactly the same?  Many pastors have decided to skip the “same old, same old” altar call for something more meaningful, and more scriptural. Check out this article from Defending. Contending:

The following article, What About Altar Calls?, is from Thabiti Anyabwile:

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).

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?

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2 Responses to “Slip your hand up” and other ways we trivialize the altar call

  1. Mary says:

    With every eye bowed and every head closed….AMEN to this article! Like Like Like.


  2. Mr Davis says:

    I do believe it is scriptural to implore people to be reconcilled to God, in the manner God prescribes. That is to approach the thrown of Grace that is in Heaven, in brokeness over our sins, in humility, in truth and acknowleging the body that was broken for us that is the Lord's Christ, pleading with The Creator of the Universe, to have mercy and save us from ourselves.

    For a truth we may be in state for a while, we can fool ourselves into thinking we are being honest with God when we are not. Our heart is afterall desperately wicked and we are already convinced our sin isn't our issue, our situation is. So we see ourselves casting blame elsewhere in efforts to justify ourselves. As long as we are doing this there is no hope, until you stop and realize your own sinfullness and you cry out to God in truth.

    Then the incredible happens, God himself gives you peace and you know you have been forgiven and above all things you know you are now His child. And you rejoice as did David in Psalm 32:1-2 Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the LORD imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile. The Lord has changed your heart and you have been born again. Your desires are being changed, your Love for God's word grows because it is His word and you know it is His word. No one needs to convince you. You desire to identify with Christ in Baptism as He himself was Baptized and calls all who believe in Him to follow in His steps. You love God's people, you Love fellowship with God's people. You know there is no denominations just believers. And you love the Apple of God's eye, the Jews, who, for His own Glory, He will restore and bless like no other people on the face of the planet. You do all of this because you are compelled to obey because now God is working in you and through you and His Love is welling up in you. Something else will happen too. We will see more and more how wretched and detestible our sins really are in God's sight and we will loath ourselves for it, thus we will find ourselves in constant repentance continually seeking God's grace and in our apparent weakness seeking His strength to obey.

    Until this happens you would be wise to try to practice what you know from God's word what you should be doing. What you will quickly find if you are honest is your inability to do this. That should bother us. God called us to obedience not disobedience. The scriptures will also be hard to understand at many points and those blessed lists we be the only things you will be able to read and understand.
    This is truely where we are confronted with our own weakness and that should make us desperate men. Desperate for God's salvation, for His intervention in our hearts and minds by His Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth.


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