Are Altar Calls Biblical?

"The success rate of genuine conversions at crusades hovers between 5% to 15%. Some may argue, "But seeds are planted." Yes, seeds are planted, but are they seeds of salvation or seeds of false assurance?"

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I've personally seen more false lack of assurance--but that's with altar calls in the church setting. I've seen it done reasonably well, but also recall more than church where a subculture of "going forward is the surest sign of a healthy spiritual vitality" developed ... and so large numbers went forward at the ends of sermons every time, regardless. In other churches, I've seen the same few tormented souls trying to "get right" or "get assurance" week after week after week. Sad.

For growing (i.e. normal) believers, progress in sanctification is slow but steady, not a series of disasters interrupted by weekly efforts to start over at the altar.

G. N. Barkman's picture

The most important question regarding altar calls must be, are they Biblical?  Did Jesus give an altar call?  Peter?  Paul?  Anyone in Scripture?  If not, there must be a reason.  Do we really think we can improve on the methods of Christ and the apostles?

In 1982, I completed a series on the sermon on the mount.  The next Sunday I said something like this.  "We've spent many months examining what's in this sermon.  Now we will take one Sunday to consider what is not there, namely an altar call."  We traced where the sermon began, where it ended, and what was next.  We continued with a quick examination of all the recorded sermons in the New Testament; where they began, where they ended, and what came next.  We discovered that there were no altar calls in the Bible.  I concluded with:  "If Jesus didn't give an altar call, and if neither Peter nor Paul nor any other Apostle gave an altar call, I've decided that I probably shouldn't be giving one either.  You've just had your last altar call in this church."  There was a gasp.  You could've heard a pin drop.  For months, people waited to see if my declaration would hold.  It did.  Thirty-five years have passed without an altar call.  Yes, we've had fewer "decisions."  But souls have been saved and baptized and people have joined the church without altar calls.  And we have had virtually no professions of faith that dropped out later.

Altar calls are not only unnecessary, they are largely detrimental to healthy, Biblical Christianity.

G. N. Barkman

David R. Brumbelow's picture

Two great books on the Altar Call, or the Invitation:

The Effective Invitation by R. Alan Streett

Giving a Good Invitation by Roy Fish

David R. Brumbelow

TylerR's picture

Editor

I didn't do altar calls when I was a Pastor; I simply asked folks to pray and consider how the Word of God from the message applied to their own lives and had 20-30 seconds of silence with a piano accompaniment. I only did this for the Sunday Morning service.

Chafer made some good comments about how awful the practice was in his book True Evangelism, and his remarks stuck with me. At my church now (where I am not the Pastor), there are no altar calls at all.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

Theologically, I guess we could debate whether the matter is adiaphora (left up to interpretation) or settled in the negative by the Scripture's silence on altar calls, per G.N. Barkman's comment, but the simple fact that an altar call allows close-up manipulative tactics that result in false decisions ought to temper any enthusiasm we have for them.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

I see that hand . . .

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Steve Davis's picture

I was discipled in an altar call culture where I never questioned why the word "altar" was used. It was so ingrained in me that when we moved to France I continued to give altar calls for a time even when meeting in our house. I was in churches in the US where the altar calls were interminable and at times the urgency pressed in many ways through seemingly endless verses of "Just As I Am." I've seen the other extreme where people are never urged to do anything, not even to repent and come to Christ, no opportunity to even speak to someone after the service.

Where we serve now we always have an invitation. It's the Lord's Supper which is held every Sunday after the message. It's an invitation to the saved to be nourished and feast on Christ, to the unsaved to see their need of a Savior who gave his life to save ours. The only walking forward is those who are asked to leave their seats to join the line to receive the elements. We urge with caveats those who are not believers to abstain, to remain in their seats, and encourage them to confess Christ as Savior and to speak with an elder after the service. We have a meal after every service where their are opportunities to speak with others. I have little enthusiasm for altar calls. I have a great to urge people to repent and believe the gospel. 

TylerR's picture

Editor

If you feel the Spirit working in your heart, I want you to just slip your hand up right now . . . heads bowed and eyes closed, nobody looking around . . .

See, I still have the technique down after so long . . . I could do an invitation right now! Smile

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ron Bean's picture

I always thought it was interesting that some of my strongly dispensational brethren would name their churches tabernacles and summon people to the altar.

 

 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

bob rogish's picture

In Bible College, we were trained how to give invitations.  The crafting of our message was based around that one decision at the end of the presentation of God's Word.  It was very hard not to feel "disappointed" when no one would "visibly" respond to God's truths.  When I was nearing 40 years of age I began to study the messages in the New Testament and noticed that people responded during the presentation of God's truth, while the preaching was happening.  So that has changed my approach to how I prepared a message.  This shows that if we do something long enough, it becomes almost doctrine.  

Bob Rogish

TylerR's picture

Editor

Everybody should find Chafer's book True Evangelism online (it's public domain), and read his short discussion about altar calls. He came from the revivalist circuit, and what he wrote against the practice is powerful. He suggestions for doing invitations are excellent, and I used them. It's good stuff. Here is an excerpt from one section (scroll down to Part V). Consider what Chafer wrote:

Many serious men have concluded that to send out workers to plead with individuals in a miscellaneous congregation is not only embarrassing to the people thus approached, but is, in the majority of cases, a service which hardens and repels. Forced decisions sometimes follow such appeals. These, they observe, are usually premature and unintelligent decisions; for in such methods there can be no certainty concerning the conviction by the Spirit and no very definite dependence upon His leading. On the other hand, the many who have resisted the personal appeal have been hardened or driven away.

Public methods which embarrass any person or class of persons may be not only useless but intrusive. There is little gained by inviting all Christians in a public gathering to stand, thus forcing all others into a conspicuous position, causing them annoyance and creating an occasion for prejudice. It is not strange that intelligent unsaved people sometimes avoid meetings where these methods are employed. By adopting such a program the evangelist or pastor may be hindering the very work of GOD which he is attempting to do.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

WallyMorris's picture

Agree that altar calls can be and are misused and misunderstood. I've seen that misuse many times and also have seen some of the same questionable characteristics that some here have mentioned. I use altar calls sometimes, other times I do not. Depends on the message & circumstances.

But does the misuse of a practice/tactic mean that the practice should be discontinued? Not necessarily.

Does the fact that Christ and the early church did or did not use a specific practice mean that we can or can not use that practice? Not necessarily.

If true, then we must prohibit door-to-door work, Sunday School, tracts, even blogsites like this one.

Just because some, maybe many, misuse altar calls doesn't mean the practice is wrong.

 

Wally Morris

Charity Baptist Church

Huntington, IN

amomentofcharity.blogspot.com

Ron Bean's picture

A new pastor announced that hew would not give altar calls. "How will people get saved?" someone asked. "the same way they always have," said the pastor. "By repenting from their sin and trusting Jesus Christ as their Savior." The inquirer then asked, "But how will people make a public profession of their faith?" The pastor pointed to the baptistry..

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

TylerR's picture

Editor

"With heads bowed and eyes closed, ask yourself - do you want to spend eternity in hell? You can settle that right now. Just slip out of your seat, come down the aisle to this old-fashioned altar, and get things right with the Lord. Nobody's watching. Nobody's looking around. Don't resist the Spirit. Come to Christ."

Cue "Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling."

At the appropriate moment, whisper:

Jesus is calling you. Won't you come? Won't you come?

At another opportune moment, ask,

Jesus is watching for you and for me. If you feel the Lord spoke to you this morning, raise your hand so I can see it. Yes, I see that hand . . . Why should you tarry? Won't you come?

So many memories! Smile

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ron Bean's picture

Why is it that a preacher, at the conclusion of the sermon, may "invite" those who have Gospel questions to speak to him or any others he may designate is not considered by many to have given a legitimate invitation?

I would venture the assertion that a Gospel invitation does not require an altar call or any of the aforementioned abuses. As one man told me, "I can invite somebody to lunch and it doesn't take me 20 minutes.

There are numerous Biblical examples of inviting people to believe the Gospel but none of them resemble altar calls and invitations to walk an aisle.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

TylerR's picture

Editor

I have no problem with invitations, if they're done right. For what I believe "right" is, see my comments on Chafer, somewhere above.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

David R. Brumbelow wrote:

It seems to me 90% of the criticism of the public invitation is criticizing the misuse and abuse of the invitation or altar call.  From a pro-invitation viewpoint: 

 

Why I Give A Public Invitation by Evangelist Junior Hill

http://sbctoday.com/why-i-give-a-public-invitation/

<snip>

David R. Brumbelow

Looking at David's link to Junior Hill's column, it's interesting that he's using circular reasoning to argue that invitations were given in the Scriptures.  He starts with the assumption that where there is response, there is an invitation, see the response (but no recorded invitation) in Scripture, and then concludes...shazam....that there must have been altar calls.   It's the creatio ex nihilo of argument, really.  

But when we look at Acts 2, one of the passages Hill mentions, what we see is Peter more or less saying "Jews of Jerusalem, you have committed a capital crime that ought to consign you to being stoned and consigned to eternity in Hell." Are we to seriously claim that someone so confronted, rightly or wrongly, would not respond?  To argue that an altar call must have been used insults the intelligence of the crowd, really.  Would any of us, told by our lawyer that the DA had evidence that should send us to the gallows, require an invitation before asking the same question the Jews of Jerusalem asked: "What then shall we do?"  In the same way, the Ethiopian eunuch did not need an altar call to respond to the fact that his promised Messiah had come, and the Phillippian gaoler needed no altar call to realize that something big was afoot when all of the doors opened on their own.  It was simply a natural, logical response to events.  We may as well argue that we need an altar call to cheer when our favorite team scores!

In my experience, too many altar calls are more or less a second sermon, where the pastor talks for 30 minutes about what he wants to talk about ("how 'bout them Patriots?"), and then spends the last five or ten minutes seeing if people will respond to Christ.  Well, maybe if we instead preached His Word as it's written for 20 minutes or so, we might be surprised what the Holy Spirit does, no?

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

WallyMorris's picture

The criticisms of altar calls in this discussion generally seem to follow 2 themes: Misuse/Abuse and Lack of Scriptural Examples. I submit that neither of these demonstrate that altar calls are wrong or not necessary. I use altar calls in about 20% of message. Used properly and wisely, they can be effective and helpful in the right message. I also stress that I am available to meet with people after the service in a more private setting.

As far as a lack of specific Biblical examples: Yes, some who attempt to justify altar calls overplay their argument by "reading into" the Biblical text what isn't there. That, of course, is wrong and dishonest. But the lack of Biblical example does not automatically prevent the use of altar calls.  As I have mentioned before, that type of reasoning would eliminate many practices which we follow today, such as Sunday School, VBS, Summer Camps, etc.

This thread is making a mountain out of a molehill. So what if some people want to use altar calls? If they do it properly and carefully, respecting people's emotions, what's wrong with that? If some do not want to use altar calls, that's fine too. There are many ways the Lord can use to reach the heart at the end of a good message.

If we eliminate everything in church that has been abused/misused by believers, we won't have anything left to use.

Wally Morris

Charity Baptist Church

Huntington, IN

amomentofcharity.blogspot.com

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Debates often get stuck in meta-debate of one sort or other. By meta-debate I mean anything that is not actually relevant, which takes alot of forms: views nobody really holds, disputes about how people debating rather than the merits of their claims, personal stuff, etc.

In this case, it might help filter out some metadebate if we remove a view that nobody actually holds to: the position that altar calls are always done properly by everyone and never abused at all.

Since nobody holds that position, there's no point in arguing that sometimes invitations are done badly. That's pretty much agreed. We can stipulate it and move on.

But I hear somebody objecting, "No it's not sometimes it's a whole lot of the time." OK, but we still have to ask what view does that observation support?

  • View A: Nobody should do altar calls because they are frequently done very badly
  • View B: Nobody should do altar calls because they are always done very badly... there is no good way to do it.

It should be obvious that View A is pretty unsupportable. So the "frequently" argument is once again not relevant. It can't realy support View A and it contributes nothing to View B.

View B is pretty hard to prove, period.

Probably the most potentially supportable views are going to be more moderate. They end up being stronger views because they're well supported. In this case, maybe the View C: Altar calls are inherently prone to abuse and accomplish nothing of value that can't be achieved some other way.

On the flip side, the view that it's wrong not have altar calls is the hardest to support (View D). A more moderate and supportable view might be View E: Altar calls are not inherently prone to abuse and can accomplish some things better than the alternatives.

So if View E and View C go head to head, we can skip all the stories about bad invitations... and all the stories about good ones.. not relevant. The challenge is to prove or disprove inherent tendency toward abuse and/or unique effectiveness.

David R. Brumbelow's picture

Yesterday, as usual, we had an altar call at my church.  A lady responded by joining our church.  Recently a man responded by trusting Jesus as his Savior.  Later he followed the Lord in baptism. 

As a boy, I trusted the Lord as my Savior during a Sunday morning public altar call. 

It works. 

By the way, there is no biblical precedent (although there is for an invitation) for handing out gospel tracts and Bibles, and presenting the Word on Radio, TV, the internet.  But they work too. 

David R. Brumbelow

TylerR's picture

Editor

I've never gone forward during an invitation in my entire life.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Lee's picture

...in a private counseling session or public invitation.

  • "As in most things Scriptural where abuse has been evident or is likely, balance is the key (and usually missing) ingredient
  • So what is the proper method of drawing the net, of challenging an individual or collective group to respond to the message of the Gospel and receive Christ?
  • As we have already seen the required response to the Gospel for salvation is the same for all but manifests itself through a wide range of observable, objective responses
    • Most were baptized (Pentecost; Philippi)
    • One prays (Publican)
    • Another asks (Samaritan woman)
    • Some make a simple declaration (Ethiopian; blind from birth)
    • The thief on the cross directly appealed for mercy, etc.
  • So, while it is evident that there is no single objective, observable response that absolutely signifies saving faith (belief), I think there is at least one narrative that encapsulates the formula: a Scripture plan for drawing the net, properly and biblically challenging an individual, or a crowd, to act on the convicting power of the Holy Spirit according to the truth of the Gospel and respond to salvation
  • Acts 22:10-16 “…And I said, What shall I do, Lord? And the Lord said unto me, Arise, and go into Damascus; and there it shall be told thee of all things which are appointed for thee to do…. And one Ananias, a devout man…Came unto me, and stood, and said unto me, Brother Saul, receive thy sight. And the same hour I looked up upon him.  And he said, The God of our fathers hath chosen thee, that thou shouldest know his will, and see that Just One, and shouldest hear the voice of his mouth. For thou shalt be his witness unto all men of what thou hast seen and heard. And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.”
    • Here we have the experience of the Apostle Paul recounted in his own words during his defense before Felix recorded by the historian Luke under inspiration

      • Paul recalls how Jesus Christ had arrested him while on his way to Damascus, reproving him of sin, righteousness, and judgment and revealing Himself as the Savior

        • IOW, Christ miraculously interjects Himself into the typical work of the Holy Spirit
      • Paul once again affirms his response, one common to those convicted who have come face to face with the need for mercy—“What shall I do, Lord?”
      • Paul then states the plan of Christ in this experience, that he should go to a specific spot, and one (Ananias) would come and confirm his experience, communicate the Scriptural truth of what has been perceived, and then “draw the net”  in bringing Paul to true conversion
  • This account gives us tremendous insight into the stratagem of Ananias, under the express direction of Jesus Christ Himself, to persuade Paul to respond to salvation
  • Ananias’ closing argument—drawing the net if you please—can be summarized as follows:
    • Why wait? Why put it off? (“…Why tarriest thou…?”)
    • Act now (“…arise…”)
    • Openly declare (“…be baptized…”)
      • In this case the open declaration is given as a very specific expression
    • Call on Christ for salvation (“…calling on the name of the Lord”)
  • Conclusion: When all is said and done it is difficult for me to conclude that a methodology of drawing the net in a manner consistent with that utilized by Ananias in the conversion of the Apostle Paul under the direct instruction of Jesus Christ and recorded under inspiration of the Holy Spirit is not an appropriate choice in concluding a Gospel presentation where conviction is evident."

 

Lee

Jim's picture

Every message should have an "invitation"

My take: a message should have:

  • An introduction
  • Several key points in some sort of organized way
  • A conclusion / could be the "invitation " to action

in general I am not a fan of the "every head bowed and with no one looking around" ... "raise your hand" .  ... "I see that hand" .. on and on "Just as I am" 

But this: "I am available after the service to answer questions and or connect with any interested"

 

Bert Perry's picture

....is a strong C, leaning into seeing a prolonged altar call as a symptom of bad preaching, but I heartily appreciate the distinction many draw here between making a short invitation at the end of a sermon that ties in with the message, and the longer exhortation I'd describe as an altar call.  

Agreed that a quick "what are you going to do about this?" or "if you'd like to talk with me...." is great. It's a coherent way of wrapping things up and "drawing the net", as Lee says. However, when that morphs into a few minutes of goading people into a response, the thought that arises is so you're telling me that you've got nothing more to say about the Scripture...but you keep talking.... Why?

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

JBL's picture

It's not the altar call that is problematic, but the fast and easy evangelism and pragmatic decisionism that accompanies it.  

Salvation, at the very least, will entail the convert to understand and believe that

  1. he is a fallen sinner
  2. God judges all sin and he will be accountable for his sin
  3. on his own merit, he is irredeemable due to his sin transgression and sin nature
  4. his sin will be judged
  5. his sin can be judged through a substitutionary penal atonement
  6. the only person capable of satisfying God through a substitutionary penal atonement is a perfect person
  7. Jesus Christ is the only perfect man
  8. Jesus Christ is also God
  9. Jesus Christ is also the Son of God
  10. Jesus Christ bore his sins in His body and died and was judged in his place
  11. Jesus Christ is resurrected and living
  12. Total trust in these truths and repentance from any other world view and repentance from sin is required and necessary to receive eternal life

 

If our invitation methodology allows for the possibility of explaining these truths cogently and accurately in ten minutes or so, we have utterly deceived ourselves.  

John B. Lee

Jim's picture

The 1st Christian church I was in was Westwood Baptist in Cheviot OH. I was baptized there at the age of 21.

It was heavy into prolonged alter calls. When someone came forward a church leader would counsel the respondee in the front as the congregation would continue to sing and the preacher would continue to beseech.

Here's my take on really important matters. Consider:

  • Meeting with a financial advisor where one discloses private matters about debt, income, savings and investments OR
  • Discussing colon polyps with the gastroenterologist OR
  • Having one's MRI reviewed with some sort of specialist (say a spinal surgeon)

The above are weighty matters. Who would wish to discuss these matters sitting in the first pew of a church while altar call goings on are in progress? No one!

One's spiritual condition is far weightier and more complex than those things. The best venue and time is NOT "at the altar"

By the way - it's a table! Not an altar!

WallyMorris's picture

Most of these posts seem to assume that altar calls are always for salvation purposes. Why? When I use an altar call, I use it for a variety of purposes - salvation, someone wanting to come & kneel to pray about something important to them, etc. Seems many here are letting the abuses of altar calls influence their opinions. Can someone pray at their seat? Of course. Can someone come & physically kneel before the Lord and pray? Of course; Why not? I wonder if some of the opinions expressed in these posts are coming from Reformed/Calvinistic influences than anything else.

Wally Morris

Charity Baptist Church

Huntington, IN

amomentofcharity.blogspot.com

Bert Perry's picture

Wally, although some objection to the prolonged altar call is due to being Reformed or Calvinistic, a lot of it simply has to do with how many of us have seen it used.   The pastor spends the first half hour or so talking about the passage he's chosen--sometimes well, sometimes poorly, sometimes with Gospel, more often legalistically--and then for the last 5-10 minutes, there is an intense exhortation to come to Christ or get right with Christ.  About half to two thirds of the sermons I heard in college fit this model, really, and quite a few afterwards, and quite frankly, it gave me quite a bit of distaste for the practice well before I'd read the Institutes (and I am yet not convinced of the full bulb and bloom).    

It's widespread enough that even Hollywood has picked up on it to caricature evangelicals in general.  

Again, no problem with a short invitation--it's simply when it gets to be prolonged, emotionally manipulative, and the like that I've got a problem with it.  Good rhetoric does not require 5-10 minutes for the speaker to state the main point.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Lee's picture

Bert Perry wrote:

....is a strong C, leaning into seeing a prolonged altar call as a symptom of bad preaching, but I heartily appreciate the distinction many draw here between making a short invitation at the end of a sermon that ties in with the message, and the longer exhortation I'd describe as an altar call.  

Agreed that a quick "what are you going to do about this?" or "if you'd like to talk with me...." is great. It's a coherent way of wrapping things up and "drawing the net", as Lee says. However, when that morphs into a few minutes of goading people into a response, the thought that arises is so you're telling me that you've got nothing more to say about the Scripture...but you keep talking.... Why?

Peter might take issue with your take on the altar call as bolded above:

 "Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do? [FWIW, this is the same question Saul asked in chap. 9] Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. ...And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation." (Acts 2:37-40)

Assuming there is some sense of chronology going on in this narrative there appears to be some significant cajoling going on after the initial response to the message.

Lee

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