Why no Altar Call?
Halloween is nearly upon us and candy is flying off store shelves as kids and adults alike search for the perfect costume. Some costumes will be humorous, others whimsical, while others will be down right disturbing. If I can be straight up, I’ll admit that a nightmarish H-day costume for me would be of a King Jimmy toting, three piece suit wearing tent-revival preacher who, with cherry-red face and sweat-soaked brow implores the listeners to “come to the altar” as the calypso eerily plays just one more stanza of “Just As I Am.” Ok, so that would be more frightening scene than holiday outfit, but either way, that haunting nostalgia would freak me out.
For those who did not grow up in the church – particularly the white-knuckling, Bible-thumping, altar-calling church of the southeast United States – the above setting would bore but not bother you. However, for those, like myself, who were subjected to this environment (not at the hands of my parents, thank God, but in some churches/camps of my youth) you know the emotionalism, coercion, and manipulation that at times cascaded from oversized pulpits. Fear-mongering and even bullying was common place during “invitations.” To this day, if I am at a concert, a youth camp, or a worship gathering and someone wraps down their talk with “now, bow your heads and close yours eyes…no one looking around…raise your hand…walk this aisle…” I instinctively cringe. So, to say I have a tainted history surrounding what some would label an “altar call” would perhaps be an understatement.
For those who are unfamiliar with what I am addressing, you are likely bored by this point, but if you are still reading allow me to summarize. An “altar call” is a tradition in some denominations or churches within evangelicalism in which those who wish to make a new spiritual commitment to Jesus are invited to come forward publicly, gather at the “altar,” and pray. Though some churches would hold this tradition to be a sacred necessity of genuine Christianity, it is in actuality a recent historic practice. In the late 18th century God began to stir once again throughout the newly formed United States. This movement of theological accuracy and mass soul transformation came to be known as The Second Great Awakening. In an effort to corral believers and report conversions, preachers came up with a system that required devotees to make public professions in crusades or church services. Other early names for the “altar call” were the “the anxious seat” or the “mourner’s box.” The most famous (or I would say “infamous”) revivalist of the 19th century was a former lawyer by the name of Charles Grandison Finney. Finny is championed by some current evangelicals, but in actuality promulgated much false doctrine including a denial of substitutionary atonement, original sin, and imputed righteousness. He preached moral rectitude and meritorious righteousness, as evidenced by his systematic theology. He believed in sinless perfection for the believer, and therefore each time a Christian transgressed he or she fell from grace and was in need of salvation once more. It was Finney who popularized the altar call as a means of roping people back into “believing again.” The tradition gained steam in the late 19th century with the preaching of D.L. Moody and Billy Sunday and accelerated under the ministry of Billy Graham in the 20th century.
Over the course of the past 5 years I have received at least a dozen inquiries into why we at BLDG 28 do not employ an altar call, with the most recent coming just last week. It is not because we believe that altar calls are from the pit of Hades or woefully outdated. Rather, there are legitimate concerns that give us considerable reason to shelf this tradition:
We do not want folks to be confused over “the means” of the Gospel.
It is faith that unites us to Christ, not strolling down an aisle or gathering at an altar (Romans 3:24).
We do not want folks to place their faith in a decision, a movement, or a prayer, but rather in Christ Jesus.
I am not a Christian because I repeated a trite prayer or raised my hand in church. I am a Christian because King Jesus lived, died, and lives again to gift me saving faith and reconcile me to Himself. When asked how we know we are truly Christian, our response should be that we are trusting Him (Acts 16:30).
We want to avoid any hint of manipulation.
I don’t want someone begrudgingly “taking” Jesus just because I was overly coercive or wouldn’t shut up. I want them to trust Jesus because the Spirit of God, through the Word of God, by sound preaching has opened up their hearts to actually love God.
We do not want to grant false assurance.
There are countless people, particularly in the Bible-belt southeast that would ardently claim that they have Jesus because they have done one or all of the action items I’ve spelled out above. Their assurance is tethered to something they did for God rather than something God has done for them. We can have assurance of salvation and it is a beautiful thing. But that assurance is found in the sovereignty of God, the conviction of the Spirit, the denial of self, the submission to the Scriptures, and the merits of Jesus – not in my religious practice.
While I would never condemn a church or preacher for utilizing an altar call, I would advise such a church/minister to do so cautiously and without manipulation. As for us at BLDG 28, we have been privileged – through the unadulterated Gospel – to see legitimate conversions take place regularly over the past five years, and will continue to rest in the Spirit, to take His Word, regenerate hearts, and use our impassioned pleadings surrounding Jesus to bring rebels home.