Why I Don't Do an Altar Call


Why Pastor Blake Thinks an Altar Call is More Harmful than Helpful

To the best of my ability, I seek to base my pastoral practice on God’s Word. Here are some of the reasons why I do not practice an “altar call.”

History

The altar call is actually a fairly new phenomenon in church history, being invented by the false teacher Charles Finney in the early 19th Century. The practice was based on bad theology and man-centered manipulative methodology, focusing on music, emotion, rhetoric, and peer pressure in order to force premature decisions. Finney called it a new method and one searches in vain to find an example of this practice prior to 1820. Successful evangelists such as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John Wesley, and Charles Spurgeon never gave an altar call. For 1800 years, it was unheard of, and pastors were faithful and God saved and grew his church without it. In some sectors in the SBC, largely as a result of the influence of Billy Graham, it has become a “third sacrament” but is by no means “the Baptist way.” In fact, out of seven churches we have belonged to, I have never been a part of a church where one was practiced. None of my pastor-friends practice one, which is partly why I was surprised to learn of the expectation. By not doing one, I stand in the grand stream of Christian tradition. Here is how Jim Elliff puts it in a superb article:


"Though sacrosanct to Baptists, careful study should be done related to the historical use of the invitation system evangelistically. For eighteen hundred years the church did not use such a method. It was not until its principle originator, Charles Finney, a true pelagian in his theology, promoted his “new measures.” Earlier preachers were content to let true conviction play a greater part in conversion. They needed no props for the gospel—no persuasive techniques to prompt people to make a “decision.” Instead of relying on a method, their confidence was in the preached Word and the Holy Spirit. Baptist giant, C. H. Spurgeon, for instance, saw thousands converted without the use of an “altar call.” His message was his invitation. We should always offer a verbal invitation in our gospel preaching, meaning we must invite people to repent and believe. But there is no real benefit, while there is much potential harm, in our inviting them to the front of the church and then assuring them that their short walk or tearful response proves their conversion."

Bible

This is obviously the most important thing. Tradition is important, but tradition must always bow to Scripture. The altar call is found nowhere in the Bible. Mention of it is simply and completely absent from the pages of the New Testament. This is significant and should be definitive. God is all wise and we do well not to add to what He has prescribed for our Sunday gathering (prayer, fellowship, singing, preaching, the ordinances – (b-days/anniversaries and meet/greet is another conversation for another day ;)

The desire for a public profession of faith is a good one. The problem is that in Scripture that public identification is found in the ordinance of baptism – not walking an aisle.

The pastor is not a priest. There is one mediator between God and man, the Lord Jesus Christ. The pastor has no special access. He is not needed for a person to be saved. They should look to Christ – not a pastor.

People tend to elevate the pastor above “normal,” “everyday” Christians. The altar call only perpetuates this misperception. He does not have a greater measure of the Spirit. Making myself the center of attention at the end of a service is very uncomfortable.

The altar call can foster false assurance. People can put stock in walking forward, or making a decision, when Scripture everywhere says we should only put stock in faith working through love. It confuses what God requires and confuses the definition of faith. Nowhere in Scripture are we taught that we should have assurance because we “went forward.”

It was designed to manipulate the emotions. The music, peer pressure, and begging/persuasive pastor can cause a false, spur of the moment decision. I never want to manipulate for Jesus, but strive to make sure that someone has “counted the cost” before entrusting oneself to Christ (see Luke 14:25-33). Jesus is clear about the cost of following Him and the importance of not being ashamed. Why pastors encourage other attenders to bow heads, and close eyes is strange. If a person is not ready to publicly identify with Jesus, they are not ready to become a Christian.

If the Spirit of God is genuinely at work on a Sunday morning or if a person is seriously committing themselves to the Lordship of Christ on a Sunday morning, it will “stick.” In other words, it won’t go away by Monday morning. Let’s trust the power of the Spirit and the Word.

The altar call betrays the Scriptural purpose of the Sunday morning gathering. The biblical purpose for our gathering is the edification and instruction of believers. I hope lost people will continually come to our gatherings, but the service should not be geared towards the lost, but the saved.

The altar call distorts biblical teaching in that there is no altar in the new covenant. Jesus Christ was the last sacrifice. He died once for all, doing away with the need for an altar. The front is not an altar to be called to. There is nothing special or sacred about the front of buildings where the church meets. The altar call can imbibe a mysticism about the front that is unhelpful. The Holy Spirit is just as present and at work in a pew seat (or car seat for that matter) as He is in the front of a building.

Finally, I do do a biblical invitation. I try to clearly and explicitly call unbelievers to trust in Christ weekly, often throughout the sermon.

Practical

Practically speaking, it accomplishes nothing. It is not the time or place to have deep spiritual conversations that need to be more than 30 seconds long. If a person wants to join the church, they meet with me about “Membership Matters.” If a person wants to be baptized, they meet with me to discuss it then schedule it. If a person needs to pray with me for some reason, I am typically the last to leave the building. It also shifts the focus from the spiritual to the physical.


After the sermon, the people of God should be responding to the Word of God, not looking up front to see what – if anything – is happening. It also confuses the role of the preacher. The preacher is not called to “get decisions,” but to preach the Word. A healthy church is not after getting decisions but making disciples. Success is not measured by decisions, but the definition of ministry success is saints walking and growing in their love of the Lord and people.