I’m often asked by people visiting LifePoint who’ve come from a “church culture” why we don’t give an invitation or altar call at the end of each service. For years, in most evangelical churches, the invitation at the end of the service was as customary as having thrones on the stage for the pastor & a few staff members to sit & watch over the congregation. The pastor would beckon the people to step out & “walk the aisle” as the choir would sing “Just as I Am” until at least one person walked down & took a staff member by the hand & received salvation by praying a simple prayer. This scene is still played out every Sunday in most evangelical churches today.
I want to state up front, I have absolutely no problem with churches who do an invitation or Altar Call each week. It was during such an altar call in Vacation Bible School that I surrendered my life to the Lordship of King Jesus. There are many pastors, missionaries & devoted Christian men & women today who were saved during such an altar call. So, please don’t misunderstand or misquote me as saying altar calls are bad.
The problem is, church members usually do a good job confusing someone’s good idea with Biblical mandates. When a church does something for a long period of time, it’s easy for people to begin associate it as Biblical mandate & anyone who doesn’t do it is liberal or even heretical. So, let me give you a little history of the “Old Fashion” altar call so you can have a better grasp of where it came from and just how “Old Fashion” it really is.
Most people don’t realize that, in the context of church history, the altar call is a relatively new concept. As a matter of fact, no one had ever heard of or seen an altar call for the first 1900 years of Christianity. Evangelistic giants like Jonathan Edwards (one of my heros) & John Wesley never used invitations. Charles Spurgeon, one of the greatest thinkers and pastors in the last century, wouldn’t even consider giving a come forward invitation.
The altar call or invitation was the brain child of Charles Finney in 1830. Finney became known as the father of modern revivalism. He implemented the altar call in order to get results by forcing people to “make a decision” for Christ. It’s important to note that Finney rejected the doctrine of Sola Fide, the doctrine of justification by faith alone. He rejected the idea that Christ imputed HIs righteousness to those who believe in Him and taught that sinners must reform their own hearts in order to be acceptable to God.
As many people began responding to Finney’s pleas to walk the aisle & receive salvation, it became a standard practice during the crusade era used by many evangelists and pastors to get large numbers of people to pray a prayer. It became such a standard practice in evangelical churches that it became as sacred as Communion or Baptism. It was almost like came to think that, after preaching from the King James Version of the Bible, Peter would plead with people to make a decision for Christ while John and the rest of the disciple choir sang 42 stanzas of Just as I am. Finally, Peter would exclaim, “We’re going to sing one more verse & if no one comes forward, we’ll close.”
The fact is, the altar call or come forward invitation wasn’t founded in the church or practiced by Jesus or the discipels. Now, again, don’t misunderstand, Jesus & His disciples after Him definitely called people to commitment. They drew a line in the sand. They called people to repent & be saved, just never by means of a come forward altar call.
As I said above, I don’t believe it’s wrong to do an altar call. But, I do believe there is just as much potential, if not more, for the altar call to do more harm than good. As stated by Jonathan Leeman, “The altar call relies on the powers of emotion, rhetorical persuasion and social pressure to induce people to make a hasty & premature decision.” In short, the altar call is focused on calling people to a decision based salvation rather than a disciple based salvation.
The number of baptism in the Southern Baptist Convention have been in decline and many of the baptisms we count are re-baptisms of people who thought they “made a decision” for Christ earlier but realized nothing changed. Churches are full of nominal Christians…if there is such a thing. We can’t blame it all on the emotional pleas of an altar call, but surely we would agree that it led many people to “make a decision” out of guilt, peer pressure or emotion. As a result, how many people think they’re on the road to heaven because they prayed a prayer when, in fact, they’re on the road to hell because they never repented of sin & surrendered their life to the Lordship of King Jesus? This is why we don’t normally do a typical “come forward” invitation or altar call at LifePoint. But, this doesn’t mean we don’t give an invitation or call people to repent & believe.
I’m always amazed at how someone could sit through one of our services and ask why we don’t give an invitation. I know what they’re really asking. Because of the lens they look through, they only see an invitation if people are asked to walk the aisle and pray a payer. We don’t normally ask people to come down front, but we always invite or challenge people to respond to the revelation given in God’s Word.
For the last three weeks, I’ve been preaching a stewardship series called Sweet Spot. At the end of each message, I’ve told people that know Jesus to forget about money. God wants your heart. If He has your heart; He will get everything else. So, your first step is to repent of your sin & surrender to the Lordship of King Jesus. Please, come back to The Pastor’s Connection after the service and allow us to talk to you about how you can surrender your life to Jesus. If this isn’t invitation, I don’t what is. But, rather than calling people forward to pray a prayer, I asked them to go back to a place where they can be introduced to an encourager who will take as long as required to answer questions, explain the gospel & help them understand what it means to truly follow Jesus.
Sometimes, people say, “Yeah, but they need to do it publicly.” I totally agree that a public profession is necessary, that’s why Jesus instituted baptism. Baptism isn’t essential to salvation. Jesus took care of that on the cross by dying as my substitute. So, baptism isn’t essential to salvation, but it is essential to obedience because it was commanded by Jesus.
When someone surrenders to Jesus, we ask them to record a video to be played at their baptism testifying that they have surrendered their life to the Lordship of King Jesus and are being baptized as an act of obedience to show the world they are now a new creation. This is their public profession of faith.
So, in closing, I don’t think people who give altar calls are wrong, but I also don’t think the altar call is a biblical issue. Like choir robes, steeples & pulpit furniture, it was someone’s good idea to achieve a goal that became sacred. We do give invitations at LifePoint. We call people to repent & respond to the gospel & then publicly profess that commitment through baptism. We don’t ask them to walk forward & pray a prayer because we want to make sure they’re not making an emotionally charged decision based on music or persuasive words or peer pressure or their interest in a special member of the opposite sex. We challenge them to respond and give them the next step to take in surrendering their life to Christ because our passion is to see people surrender to a disciple based salvation, not a decision based salvation.
So, giving an altar call isn’t the issue; the issue is challenging people to truly surrender everything to the Lordship of King Jesus. If you do this, it doesn’t matter whether you call them to come forward, go to the back or get on the roof.