This is a paper i wrote recently for my New Testament class. Enjoy!
A General Study of Altar Calls
When the overwhelming, pervasive thought of a religious society is firmly established in certain traditions, it becomes an arduous endeavor to be the one presenting the opposing side of them. The traditions I will be writing is whether altar calls are really Biblical or not, where altar calls originated from, what are some types of altar calls that are used today, and how are formulated prayers such as the sinners prayer used. I invite you to sit back, grab some refreshments and enjoy the journey. I do ask you to rid yourself of all the your presuppositions you may have about the subjects before continuing. My prayer is that God will speak truth through my paper, and if it offends, so be it because sometimes traditions have to die in a hard way.
According to Dictionary.com, the definition of an altar call is a specified time at the end of a Protestant service when worshipers may come forward to make or renew a profession of faith. Also called invitation. Let us not forget that some churches also use altar calls for inviting people to become members of that particular church body.
The altar call is strange in that it is still relatively a new practice among Christian believers. Carey Hardy was cited as writing, While there is debate over the exact origins of this practice, most agree that it came into prominence in the late 1830s with Charles Finney (1792-1875), who popularized it through the mourners bench. For those unfamiliar with the mourners bench, it was also called the anxious seat. The anxious seat referred to those who were anxious about the state of their souls (Green). To help understand why Finney implored this approach, let us look to him for the answer: "Preach to him, and at the moment he thinks he is willing to do anything
bring him to the test; call on him to do one thing, to make one step that shall identify him with the people of God. If you say to him, There is the anxious seat, come out and avow your determination to be on the Lords side, and if he is not willing to do a small thing as that, then he is not willing to do anything for Christ" (Zaspel).
Though Finney never led them in a prayer, but he and a few others would spend a great deal of time praying with and giving specific instruction to each one. Until finally, everyone was sent home to pray and continue seeking God until they had broken through and expressed hope in Christ, as Finney would say (Green). While it may be hard for some to believe, the altar call according to church history is only about 170 years old at most.
Twenty-one years after the inaugural altar call was implemented to the general public, Charles Huddon Spurgeon, also nicknamed in church history as the prince of preachers, began to preach. He was given his nickname because of his burden for souls, the countless number of souls ushered in during his ministry, his preaching methods, and his influence on the Baptist scene in England in the late 1800s. With these astounding achievements under his belt, he still did not adhere to the same practice of altar calls that Finney had stuck to. In his preaching to sinners he refused to direct anyone to an altar or to the front of any building. He directed them only to Christ. Go to your God at once, even where you are now! he would insist. Cast yourself on Christ, now, at once, ere you stir an inch (Zaspel)!
At the same time Spurgeon was rejecting the practice of altar calls, the early Salvation Army who was led by William Booth carried what started with Finney a bit further. Both William and his wife Catherine established the Salvation Army in July of 1865 in London, England. They even renamed the anxious seat to the mercy seat.
They, like Finney, would pray for the people individually. Keith Green got to meet some older Christians who had experienced the Salvation Armys approach to altar calls. They told him, Sometimes people would stay there all night, and on a few occasions, even a few days, weeping and confessing their sins with broken hearts. There were always some who would stay right there to instruct them further, encouraging them to make a clean sweep of sin from their lives (Green).
That does not sound like the way the church does it today? Billy Graham, who has popularized the altar as of late, does altar calls like this:
"Im going to ask you to come forward. Up there-down there- I want you to come. You come right now-quickly. If you are here with friends or relatives, they will wait for you. Dont let distance keep you from Christ. Its a long way, but Christ went all the way to the cross because he loved you. Certainly you can come there few steps and give your life to Him" (Hardy).
Now, lets look at some other modern practices of altar calls that are still used today. An altar call may but is not limited to the following techniques:
Slow music being played in the background while the preacher talks to the crowd.
The preacher tells everyone to bow their heads, close their eyes and for the saints to begin interceding for the poor lost souls in the crowd.
If no one has responded after a few minutes, the preacher will usually tell some sad story about how a preacher once gave an altar call and some boys did not respond. And because of them not responding, they died that night and went to Hell.
If that does not work, they give a general altar call.
But for those who feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit tugging at their hearts, they are asked to slip their hands up while being reminded that no one is looking around.
The people who raised their hands are now asked if they really meant business that they should leave their seats and come to the front of the church while they play Just as I am softly in the background.
As they go to the front of the church, assigned counselors who are to help them pray the sinners prayer, meet them.
You are now asked to go to a separate room with a counselor, and they may ask you some questions about why you came to the front and try to help answer any questions you may have.
So how effective is the present day altar call system? A popular evangelist, named Ray Comfort, wrote some alarming statistics concerning this topic in his book Hells best kept Secret: The September 1977 issue of Eternity Magazine reported the results of an evangelistic crusade that involved 178 local churches. Out of 4,106 decisions, only 3 percent joined a local church. That series of meetings created 3,981 backsliders (Comfort 11)! Only 125 people actually joined a local body out of the 4,106 decisions made. More up-to-date statistics are hard to come by because they are not published with much enthusiasm (Comfort 11).
I would like to now comment on the sinners prayer because you cannot have an altar call without it. The sinners prayer, like the altar call, has it musts if you will. They are as follows:
Acknowledging all the sins in their lives
Believing in Christs death and resurrection
Invite Him in your life to live forever
Will live for His service alone for the rest of their lives
These statements, like all the others, are good by certain measures. Acknowledging sin is by no means the same as repenting and saying they believe in Christs death, resurrection, and life without real evidence is a type of faith that the Bible never says to have. The Bible says to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, and mind (Mt. 22:37). That does not sound like the common term blind faith that we use today because if your mind does not believe it, your heart will not believe it either or vice versa.
Since I have surmised, in short, the history of altar calls and the common practices of the modern church concerning them, I must now present a study, according to Carey Hardys research, that I will be arguing against point-by-point:
1. Scriptural Argument
Christ always called people publicly. This is confirmed by texts such as, Follow Me, or Whosoever shall confess me before men
While some of those arguments may seem to be valid, for someone to base their opinions upon just the texts mentioned above, they would fail to be honest with the text in whole. Even though Jesus did call people to himself, there are no unambiguous examples given by Him or the apostles that validates altar calls. The greatest instance of this truth is found on the day of Pentecost. After Peters message, no altar call was given and still 3,000 souls were added to the kingdom. Peter never had to ask people to come forward and accept Christ. In fact, they implored Peter on they could be saved from right where they were standing (Acts 2).
2. Psychological Argument
Responding publicly to a gospel appeal settles it and seals it. The implied meaning seems to be that a step made publicly is more likely to be decisive and irrevocable. There is something about coming forward and standing on front of the congregation that helps the individual be confident that he has made the decision that God honors (Hardy).
The argument of settling and sealing the deal is a demonstration of lack of trust in the Holy Spirit and His convicting power. The Holy Spirit is the one that convicts, not us (1Th 1:5). For instance, the Apostle Paul said, I did not come with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God (1Co 2:1). Paul was basically saying that he did not have to use persuasion in order to get people to turn to Christ. He knew God through the Holy Spirit would give the increase (1Co 3:7).
The other part of that point I want to deal with is on how they seem to be advocating that going down to the altar means your automatically saved. How can we blame the person who went to the altar because they equate going down to the altar with salvation? Then right after they have prayed the sinners prayer, they are then reassured they are born again.
Lets say after the altar call experience is over and they live like they never went to the altar in the first place, they still remember that the people told them they were saved. So, they hold on to believing they were really born again when they possibly were not. Also, the early Puritans were great models on how to be cautions when calling someone a believer before the Spirit Of God had a chance to minister to them that they were really sons of God (Ga 4:6).
3. Practical Argument
The altar call provides an easy, organized way to present new converts to the congregation, and to allow non-members to join. If there is not altar call, the argument goes, How can people publicly identify with Christ and with a local body (Hardy)?
You do not need an altar in order for new believers to identify with Christ and with a local body (Hardy). The early church in the book of Acts had no altars, yet their numbers increased daily (Ac 16:5). I will admit God is a God of organization (1Co 14:40), but God never promised anything would be easy. God did promise though that we would go through hard times and to not be flabbergasted by them (1Pe 4:12).
4. Demonstration Argument
To both the saved and unsaved in the congregation, people responding during an altar call is a visual demonstration and proof of the Word of God. This can be convicting to those who are not saved, and encouraging to those who are (Hardy).
It seems that the church is really concerned with numbers. Every denomination is guilty of it. They always want to brag on who is pulling the best numbers so that they will be the church that is envied by all. Do not get me wrong; numbers will convey many important things about how that specific denomination is doing as far as salvations and evangelism. Unfortunately, it will not explain the number that end up backsliding after their altar call experience. If we were to judge our dear savior Jesus by the same standard we judge our churches today, we would realize that Jesus failed miserably. He did not write any books, did not have good numbers as far as salvations were concerned, and the core men that followed him scattered at any sign of trouble.
In my conclusion, I must say that I do not agree with the way altar calls are performed today, but I do agree with the basic principles of it. It started out as something innocent and fruitful, but the church has misrepresented it ever since. We are in a society that lives on fast results. Take for example fast food restaurants, microwaves, computers, and frozen dinners just to name a few. If used right, they are not harmful, but misuse them and you create a lazy society. The same is true for the church today. If we continue to use altar calls in the same manner as we do today then we will become lazy Christians who are only out for numbers, and the masses will continue to backslide in possibly greater numbers then ever before.
The only solution I can come up with is performing altar calls the way it used to be done. Let them pray as long as it takes without formulated prayers; seek God alone in order for them to know if they are truly saved. Furthermore, the church needs to start fully trusting the Holy Spirit in His work of moving the hearts of humanity, and finally, our accomplishments or lack thereof, should not be what motives us; the glory of God should be our motivating factor and nothing else.