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Evaluating the “Altar Call”

Seth Meyers provides a critique of “altar calls”:

In spite of my heritage and the prevailing moods of contemporary ministry, I do not anymore support the use of the altar call as a method for evangelism. Four lines of Scriptural thought produced this change in me. These reasons could possibly be subdivided or viewed in different ways, but they should be clear enough to drive home several Biblical points.

Here is his list of reasons:

  1. The altar call is not in Scripture.
  2. The altar call assumes a defective theory of regeneration.
  3. The altar call discourages careful thought about spiritual matters.
  4. The altar call encourages an emphasis on numbers as the evidence of ministerial success.

Read his full explanation here.

What do you think of his critique?

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

8 Responses to Evaluating the “Altar Call”

  1. My reply to post on Seth’s site: Hi Seth. Interesting thoughts. I would encourage you to develop each of your points further. As your post currently reads, it can leave the tone of some extreme broad brushing. One would be tempted to think that anyone who extends an altar call is being labeled as an anti-exegetical pragmatic, Finney – emotionalist, anti-regeneration arminian, notch the Gospel gun decisionist. I think you need to offer some clarification as to just what you are defining as an altar call. When I consider the interaction between Peter and the other Apostles with those who heard his proclamation of the Gospel on the day of Pentecost, Acts 2:37 seems to identify that there was post – preaching inquiry that was met with clarification and direction with regard to repentance, Baptism, and Church membership. I suggest that this is a good model for what should be practiced by the church with regard to inviting response to proclaimed truth.

    In some regard, your case here is an argument from silence – “We Don’t see it in scripture, therefore it is unscriptural.” I Don’t believe that you would reduce all ecclesiological practice down to what we find only as normative injunctions in the text of the New Testament. I believe that you allow for there to be cultural practice in historical narrative that doesn’t demand Repetition in Church practice. Furthermore, in the opening of your article you identified some church practice that doesn’t have scriptural precedent and yet does not receive this same level of censure.

    I guess I would challenge you to become more specific and drive at the heart of the matter. Finneyism is fraught with theological error like perfectionism and crisis sanctification. Keswick theology leads to experientialism as a means of measuring sanctification, decisionism is the step- child of easy believism, and a misinformed soteriology leads to a soft selling of the Gospel accompanied by emotional pleas to “just say yes to Jesus,” and “to open your heart.” These are real errors that we must warn against, but must guard against assigning to everyone that gives a post sermon invitation.

    There are many good men and ministries who would decry all of the aforementioned, and yet extend a time of response and opportunity for clarification and help at the end of the proclamation of truth in keeping with an Acts 2:37 model.

    Just some humble thoughts from one simple Pastor

  2. Thanks for the feedback gentlemen.

    A couple thoughts:

    1. There is a vast difference between a verbal invitation to accept the gospel and a “come forward” invitation or “altar call.” No biblically faithful person objecting to altar calls does so out of rejection of the universal call of the gospel or admonitions to be holy. These are necessary parts of any faithful preaching.

    2. We have to acknowledge at least that come forward invitations were not part of the church until sporadically in Methodist camp meetings and then popularized with Finney. We also must acknowledge that Finney’s theology of conversion, as was stated in the post above, was biblically deficient and served as the foundation for his practice of altar calls. For example, did you know that Finney insisted that unless a person physically moved in a service (i.e., came down the aisle), he was not truly converted, and he suggested that the altar call could be a replacement for baptism as the visible sign of true conversion? I’ve actually heard this kind of language from well-known fundamentalist “evangelists” (not the replacement of baptism, but the necessity of physical “proof” in walking the aisle).

    3. So I would ask to those who defend the practice, what is its purpose? Why the necessity to have people come down the aisle? Why have them raise their hands? Why have them kneel at the steps (it’s NOT an altar!!!)? Why can’t the Holy Spirit work in their hearts where they are? Why can’t they repent of their sins or commit themselves to holiness in their seats or at home? What is it about coming down the aisle that you defend so strongly?

  3. Scott, I acknowledge and accept both your statement affirming the difference between an “altar call” – where did the name come from, and the general pleas for response to truth as part of preaching, and the aberrant theology and practice of Finney. I guess what to is the tendancy to “reverse legalism” and broad brushing that tends to come out of discussions like this. To assume that since a preacher provides a time of response at the close of a service he must be a thorough student of the theology and practice of Finney, has a misunderstanding of regeneration, tends to emotionalism, and is anti intellectual in causing people to rush to a decision is somewhat unjust. When someone gives an invitation, is it right to presume that they embrace Finney’s theology of conversion? Could it be that they have totally other purposes? You have experienced this with the use of technology in worship services – ie. if someone puts screens in their auditorium then they are on the slippery slope of worldliness because everybody knows that screens are used to introduce shallow worship styles. I think that both these arguments are demonstrate narrow thinking that brings division needlessly.

    I am not sure that I can go back to the historical setting of Finney and the revivalists and find justification for a time of response. Their day was very different with regard to the hectic lifestyles that people lead and the continual barrage of information that people are confronted with through electronic media today. That being said, my reasoning for offering a time of response at the close of our services – though not at every service – is to provide people with a time where they will deal with the confrontation of truth before they are barraged with information and distracted with busy-ness. I do this in keeping with biblical injunctions calling people to “think,” “decide,” and “choose.” I think we live in an information age where it is a danger that the seed of truth can be easily plucked from the surface of the soils of men’s hearts by the “fowls of the air.” The injunction of Hebrews 3:12-15 carries an urgency when we are told to exhort daily, while it is called today. None of this is “prooftexting,” nor an assumption of normative truth. It is merely a principial application of scripture to our practice to help our body have and take opportunity to process and apply truth.

    In keeping with narrative interaction in Acts 2:37, I don’t practice the time of response as a means of convincing. It is not a time to conjure emotion as the engine of decisionism. I don’t believe that a decision is made or not made as result of a physical response, nor an emotional one. I agree wholeheartedly with the errors in the traditional altar call. I decry the theological errors of Finneyism and easy-believism. I am God centered in my theology and believe that God must work in the heart of man for Him to be converted. I believe that God must go first in calling a man to repentance and belief. I believe that a man must first process truth through his mind, then embrace it with his will, before there is a right emotive response therefore I present truth cognitively and cogently with no rush to decision. Yet, with all of that being true, I do feel that there is a place to make opportunity for men to respond.

    Notice I am using the terminology “time of response,” as opposed to “Altar Call.” In that light, I want to address your questions with regard the Holy Spirit working in men’s hearts in their seats or their repenting at home. Praise God, they absolutely can, and many, if not most, do. In fact, I would not provide a “time of response” if I didn’t think that the Holy Spirit was working in their hearts. If he wasn’t doing what only He can do, there would be no work for us to do. However, as with Peter in Acts 2:37, the Holy Spirit was working, and there was a place for inquiry and further direction. My reasoning for having a time of response is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is only a time of commitment for those who have already come to a decision, and time of help for those who are wrestling and need further instruction.

    Unfortunately, many conservative Churches have so built their liturgy and program as to eliminate genuine body life. We use the Hebrews 10 stick of “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together,” to guilt members into being in their seat every time the door is open, all the while missing the fact that what we do is dramatically different than the Body life that Hebrews 10:19-27 defines and demands as “assembling.” We are to have relationships that are intimate enough that we can examine one another (10:24) in such a way that we are able to Encourage one another to right thinking and right doing (love and good works), and to Exhort one another to perseverance. I provide a time of response so that there is opportunity for these relational dynamics to be embraced as a part of our liturgy. It is a way to provide a context for the “One anothers” of the NT Church to be practiced.

    Again, this is one Pastor who has a specific practice for his own autonomous congregation. It may have nothing in common with what other ministries do other than the fact that it occurs at the end of our time of proclamation. Our time of response is very purposeful, and I respond with the hope that there are others who would see a time of invitation in the same light, and do not want to be broadbrushed.

  4. Thanks, Pastor Benson. That was very helpful. I think you articulate an excellent philosophy of a “time of response” that does not reflect what is typical in altar calls. Very helpful.

    I agree with you wholeheartedly about the lack of “body life” and mutual accountability in our churches today; that was quite helpful as well.

    I also agree with your point that in our day of extreme busyness, it is wise to give people opportunity for response to the Word. That’s great.

    When I was serving at First Baptist in Rockford (just west of where you are now!), we had the same concerns. We did two things to help encourage what you mentioned, while at the same time avoiding the errors typical to altar calls:

    First, at the completion of every sermon, we had 3-5 minutes of silence so that people had an opportunity to respond to the Word. This was effective since (a) it did not manipulate decisions nor give the impression that a physical movement was essential to spiritual decision, and (b) it also emphasized the point that whenever the Word is preached, EVERYONE in the congregation should respond in some way, not just people “under conviction of sin.” Gary Reimers made the point to me years ago that when we have a “come forward” invitation, one of the dangers is the impression that only people “convicted” who “come forward” need to respond to the Word. On the contrary, every Christian should respond every time the Word is preached.

    Second, at the conclusion of the service, we always invited anyone in attendance to speak with us after the service if they had spiritual needs, especially the need of salvation. This made sure that we always had a public call to the gospel and made people who were under conviction aware that we were available, but this also prevented emotional manipulation.

    All that to say, I think this philosophy of offering people a time to respond is wise, so thank you for your input on this!

  5. Thanks Scott – excellent input from your time in Rockford. I couldn’t agree more with communicating the need for everyone to respond to God’s truth. God bless and thank you for your ministry!

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