Altar-calls (and similar practices) – Good or Bad?

I grew up in a church where every service had an altar call – a time when people were invited to go to the front of the auditorium, kneel at the altar (yes, we had a real altar) and pray to get things right with the Lord.  In my life, some significant things happened at that altar (prayer for family members, my own salvation, etc.).  I can remember us singing the last stanza of  “Just As I Am” over and over while the preacher waited for that one last person to come forward.

As I grew older, and I think wiser in the Lord, the practice became a bit more questionable to me…especially the drawing out of it while pleading with another person to come.  I remember once, my friend went down to the altar after the 7th or 8th time through the last stanza of the song,  just cause he wanted to go home!  Not good!

Anyway, this post is my attempt to explore some of the common practices associated with that type of gospel appeal, not in an attempt to be overly critical, but in an attempt to be thoughtful about what is right.

HEADS BOWED, NOBODY LOOKING AROUND

  1. This technique has been standard practice in many churches for many years.  I know that it’s a good-hearted attempt to minimize the possibility of people feeling “on the spot” or embarrassed.  But a friend recently pointed out to me that it’s possible (even likely) that this practice unintentionally communicates to the unsaved person that the decision to trust in Jesus is in fact an embarrassing thing, or something to be ashamed of.  I wonder if that is true… and if it is, we should NOT be communicating that!  Faith in Christ is a joyous, wonderful thing!  All heaven rejoices when someone makes that decision!  Why would we want to communicate anything BUT that?
  2. Does the “heads bowed” practice unintentionally communicate that a choice to follow Jesus is supposed to be a “secret” thing?  If so, then new believers may feel like their decision is supposed to be “hush-hush” to those outside the church – after all, it’s hush-hush inside the church…
  3. The “heads bowed” practice also keeps any believers present from seeing who is entering into the family of God.  I know that’s the point, but I think it might be very misguided!  When we are not looking around, we don’t get the opportunity to welcome our new brothers and sisters into the family!  We don’t get to affirm their decision and make them feel a part of the Kingdom!  Everyone loses when this happens…
  4. Is it possible that this practice also communicates that the decision is not really all THAT valuable or important?  I mean, if it’s not important enough to let others know about when you do it, then why would it be important in other contexts or times?

WALK THE AISLE / SIGN THE CARD / SHAKE THE PASTOR’S HAND

  1. This practice too is a very time-honored one.  And I know that in many realms it is seen as an opportunity to give someone the chance to “confess with their mouth, Jesus is Lord.”  Great.  I’m all for that.  But is this the best way to do it?
  2. This practice, in my observation, can also be too easily turned into a focus on numbers of people (One Pastor asking another: “How many conversions have you had this month?”), rather than genuine conversions.  As Jesus said, we are born into the Kingdom of God in quite a mysterious way.  It’s a bit too simplistic to me to believe that a person walking an aisle is sufficient indication of a genuine conversion.  While it’s great to know who’s a new believer so that we can follow up with them in terms of effective discipleship, we may inadvertently communicate that their “walking the aisle” was the act of conversion when they may not have really understood the gospel.
  3. I’m feeling more and more that this practice easily gives people a false sense of assurance.  It’s to easily conceived along the lines of a “work” for salvation, instead of an emphasis on faith.  Now I know, many who use this practice verbally stress the faith aspect of the decision – but too many people in our culture equate church with religion and religious actions.  I suspect many from liturgical backgrounds see these kinds of responses on the same level as confessional, mass, confirmation, etc. – and thereby give the action they are doing too much credence.  When asked if they are a believer, their response may be, “Well, I walked the aisle when I was 10 years old…”

REPEAT THIS PRAYER / SINNER’S PRAYER

  1. I agree that many people are so unchurched that they may have no clue how to apply the gospel to themselves.  They need to be led to Christ, no question.  But is this the best way to do that?
  2. In the way that I’ve seen this practiced, it is too close to a “mantra” of other religions and I think it may be in danger of being seen that way by many new people within the church.  Again, they may believe that because they “prayed the prayer” years ago, they are believers in Christ, when in fact they never understood the gospel and therefore never received it in a genuine way.
  3. Honestly, I’m struggling with this one more than any of the others mentioned.  I KNOW that many people don’t have a clue where to begin in becoming a Christian and won’t know how to pray a genuine prayer of repentance.  But I also KNOW that God is sovereign to call His own to Himself.  I want to believe that He will put the proper conviction and repentance in their hearts, to lead them to a knowledge of how to repent, etc.  But I also want to be diligent to do my part in communicating the gospel and a proper response of repentance in an effective way.

Comments are more than welcome… I’m working this one out as we speak…

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2 thoughts on “Altar-calls (and similar practices) – Good or Bad?

  1. Hi Carrie,

    I have always had an issue with this “pressured” leading to Christ. When Matt was in 4th grade, I went along with him to church camp as a girl’s counselor. In one service toward the end of the week, there was a strong message to accept Christ. I was sitting next to a young girl (maybe 10 years old) who was not paying attention at all to the sermon. I strongly suspect she had some form of ADD as she was squirming around, trying to strike up a conversation with everyone in her vicinity and, most of the time, facing away from the speaker. After the service, the pastor asked the kids to raise their hands if they wanted to be saved. This young girl looked around the room, saw all the raised hands and shot hers up into the air. She was then swept up with the other hand raisers and led outside to repeat the sinner’s prayer – which she did. It seemed unlikely to me that this girl actually knew what she was doing; although I do understand that God works in mysterious ways.

    I know many Christians who are very intent on getting non Christians to say “the prayer.” There is no effort at follow-up or accountability. When there is no life change, is the person truly saved just by saying this canned speech?

    Just my 2 cents.

    Laurie

    • Hi Laurie, I trust you and yours are well…

      I agree with your 2 cents… I saw the same thing at camp in particular (and I probably was one of the ones going forward at some point). You are asking the right question – and Jesus says that it is by our fruit that we will be known. John the Baptist said that we are to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. It only seems logical that no fruit = no conversion. And that’s what I’m most concerned about with this topic… giving people a false sense of assurance when they really aren’t believers…

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