Thoughts on the History and Proper Use of ‘Altar Calls’
I began thinking about the ‘altar call’ as I read Iain Murray’s book ‘Revival and Revivalism’. Andy Naselli also stirred my interest with his blog post on the subject. Then last week we discussed the topic of ‘invitations’ in a Bible Exposition lecture. So I decided to work through the history and thought behind altar calls, and here is what I found…
A Brief History of the Altar Call
If one were to study ecclesiological history it would be noticed that the ‘altar call/invitation’ is somewhat of a new fixture in church practice. This procedure grew out of the camp meeting strategy of the early 1800’s. For many denominations the camp meeting strategy (organizing mass meetings for the purpose of evangelism) was seen as a very effective part of spreading the Gospel message. But one of the understandable, yet questionable concerns of the churchmen in this movement was ‘obtaining knowledge of the number of conversions in these large crowds’. Iain Murray observes that these men saw response methods like altar calls valuable because “if the response to gospel preaching could be made instantly visible, there would be a far readier way of assessing success.” The altar call grew out of these desires. It all began in the Methodist church, “the innovation of inviting ‘mourners’ to come to the front, metaphorically, ‘to the altar ’” to repent and believe. Church historian Iain Murray writes that;
“The initial justification for the new practice was that by bringing individuals to identify themselves publicly it was possible for them to be prayed with and to be given instruction.” Nobody, at first, claimed to regard it was a means of conversion. But very soon, and inevitably, answering the call to the altar came to be confused with being converted. People heard preachers plead for them to come forward with the same urgency with which they pleaded for them to repent and believe.”
There was an encouragement for physical response because “the numbers who made a public response were held up as unanswerable proof” of the work that God was doing. For many of these evangelists the call to ‘come forward’ was sealed with a virtual promise of God’s peace if the people responded. While the altar call was little known before the 1820’s William McLouhlin writes, “after 1835 it was an indispensable fixture of modern revivals.” It is now a permanent fixture in many American churches.
The Theological Foundations that Led to the Practice of Altar Calls
For those of the Arminian theology “results could be multiplied, even guaranteed” with the use of altar calls…and “the use of techniques” lead to an overall confusion about the real meaning of conversion.” For many in the Second Great Awakening the doctrines of grace were seen as a hindrance to effective evangelistic efforts. It was the Methodist’s in particular who held that the “idea that men cannot repent and believe unless they have the ability to do so seemed logical and reasonable.” In fact one Calvinistic preacher, William M’Gready recalled his encounters with Methodists in 1809 as follows, “as I lodged with some of them I found that their preachers had told them that the Calvinistic doctrines just taught that men were like passive machines bound in unalterable fate by the absolute decrees of God.” The logic followed that ‘if the doctrine of mans sinful nature, thus his inability to respond, is removed from the evangelistic method, then faith and regeneration would be seen as simple and an immediate response would be made more likely.
Charles Finney, often heralded as the ‘father of altar calls’, was “convinced that ministers could produce revival by using the right methods.” For Finney the altar call was “necessary to bring sinners out from among the mass of ungodly to a public renunciation of their sinful ways.” Finney went as far to proclaim that “Christians were to blame if there was no revival, for God had placed the Spirit at your disposal.” In other words, altar calls were seen as a means to secure a response, a visual proof that something could be done at once. Clearly, ones theology and ones beliefs about conversion have direct and implicit impact on how one views altar calls. Murray observed;
“If conversion is nothing more than the moment the sinner, employing that [the Holy Spirit’s] aid, yields to the truth and makes his decision, and if there are measures such as the altar call to induce it, then certainly, the church is to be blamed if she does not achieve conversions and revivals.”
But, it is important to point out the underlying theological assumption behind such beliefs in ‘what’ the altar call was purposed for. For Finney, the essential component of conversion was ‘moving the will’ of men and women to respond. This was the central problem of man for Finney, his will, not that he had been born in a sinful state. Murray quotes Gardiner Spring;
“Men were instructed that all that is necessary in order to become Christians is to resolve to become Christians…It was the teaching that the renovation of the heart, instead of being the work of the Holy Spirit, is the creatures work.”
Therefore, the resolution to be converted became signified as a public action like ‘coming forward’ or ‘kneeling at the altar’. But for many who responded in such a way, there was an essential confusion, or should I say fusion between the external act and the inward change. These practices grew out of the robust Armenian theology that dominated the Second Great Awakening. In contrast, the First Great Awakening could be caricatured with evangelists of the Calvinistic persuasion. For these men, “conversion was much more a process by which the sovereign God brought salvation to the depraved and helpless sinner.” Mark Dever is exactly right when he observes that “the way we understand the Gospel will inform the way we do evangelism.”
Some of the Arguments against ‘Altar Calls’
First, some would argue that the ‘call for a public response’ inevitably leads to confusion between the external act and the inward spiritual change. The rational behind this argument calls to attention that encouragement to ‘come forward’ and ‘become a Christian’ were so closely related that they were “virtually identical. The hearer was given the impression that answering the public appeal was crucial because salvation depended on that decision.”
Secondly, there was an inevitable concern for those who ‘come forward’ and experience no saving grace and continue in life with false assurance. In the most critical cases, this type of practice has the potential to produce “rapid multiplication of superficial, ignorant, untrained professors of religion.” It is supposed that ‘spiritual unction’ leads people to ‘come forward.’ This may not always be the case, a physical response can be secured for different reasons altogether, such as emotionalism or even pride.
Thirdly, “altar call evangelism not only confused regeneration and faith but it also confused the biblical doctrine of assurance. When people were told that all that was needed to be save was an act of the will…willingness was ‘proved’ by a public response, assurance of salvation tended to be seen as an automatic consequence.” The strength of such practices was tied to the response itself, and it was the response to ‘come forward’ that gave a point of proof for assurance.
Some would completely dismiss the use of altar calls as nothing more than an ‘organized response to religious excitement.’ The caution is heeded, “these methods…became linked inseparably to the weekly liturgy of Protestant worship. No service was concluded without an appeal to public decision. So important was this new symbol, that evangelical conversion itself is often described in the language of…’walking the isle’ or ‘coming forward’.”
It could also be argued that the establishment of ‘altar calls’ arose from the best of motives even though they were the result of a theology that diametrically opposed human responsibility against God’s sovereignty in the work of salvation. “Certainly, they” (Those in the Second Great Awakening) rightly “taught the immediate responsibility of every soul to repent and believe in the Gospel,” but their methods reflected an unbalanced view of God’s work in salvation and human response.
I would agree with Mark Dever here, “every time we present the Gospel, whether in a public church gathering on Sunday or in a private conversation during the week, we need to invite people to repent and believe in the Gospel, if our presentation of the Good News is to be complete. What good is the Good News if I’m never told how I should respond to it or what I need to do about it?”
But I would add, in reference to altar calls, we need to be absolutely clear on what the ‘altar call’ is, and what it is not! “If we allow ambiguity on this point we are actually helping deceive people about their own spiritual state by encouraging them to be assured of their own salvation when they may not have genuinely repented and believed at all.” The invitation is not a “gimmick to catch souls, a magical charm to ensure results, or a ritual to confirm orthodoxy.” We are not to ‘coax or threat’ people into making a decision, we are to preach the gospel faithfully, “trying to persuade but knowing that we cannot convert. ” The Gospel, by its very nature calls for a response. Therefore we should invite people to respond, but understand that it is God who ultimately saves.
Resources Used and Quoted
- Iain Murray, Revival & Revivalism.
- Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church.
- ed. Paul W. Chilcote and Laceye C. Warner, The Study of Evangelism: Exploring a Missional Practice of the Church.
- Greg Heisler, Lecture from PRS6100: Bible Exposition. Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
- Douglas Sweeney and Mark Rodgers, Walk the Isle.