Thoughts on the Altar Call

Zac HicksWorship Theology & Thought2 Comments

The altar call is a sensitive topic

In the almost four years of this blog’s life, I’ve yet to post on the use of the altar call in worship.  It’s important to me to remain respectful of other traditions outside my own (Presbyterian/Reformed) and to try to understand practices from the inside out as opposed to from the outside in.  The altar call is actually something I have a lot of (positive) experience with, having grown up in a wonderful, evangelical Southern Baptist church in Hawaii that faithfully preached the Word and weekly called us to repentance and faith.  Pragmatically, the altar call in that context was much more broad than just a summons for non-Christians to be able to publicly profess their faith.  As is the case in many places, my church used that time as an open opportunity for people to pray with the pastor or elders/deacons about personal needs.  I publicly professed my faith at the age of seven in response to an altar call, and not nine years later, as a teenager, I went before my church in that context to commit my life to pastoral ministry.  So, there’s a soft spot in my heart for the altar call, even as I try, in the next few moments, to challenge some of its assumptions.  

Here are some of my thoughts, for those who care to listen.  The difficulty with a post like this is that it’s emotionally charged for some because of how many good (even life-changing) and bad experiences people have had with the altar call.  Most people I talk to about the altar call do not have a neutral perspective.  It’s a polarizing topic, mostly because of its mixed history of victory and vandalism.  I know that the evolution of the altar call has allowed it to broaden to a general time open for personal prayer and ministry.  I love that such practices are brought in as a part of corporate worship, but here I want to speak specifically to the “traditional” concept of altar call–a place in the service where non-Christians are given an oportunity to, on the spot, make a decision to enter into faith in Christ.

Certainly, God has used the altar call to bring many to faith in Him. 

It is undeniable.  From stadium-packed Billy Graham crusades to 30-person country churches, I personally know hundreds of folks who came to genuine faith in such contexts. And, when sinners like you and me step into faith, the first thing I want to do is rejoice with the heavenly host (Luke 15:10) over one more lost soul redeemed by the blood of the Lamb.  Praise God.

The altar call is built on at least one good biblical assumption.

I stand with the Reformers in believing that a robust, unbridled preaching of Christ as He is displayed in the Scriptures is, in the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “the outward and ordinary means” God uses to birth initial faith in the non-Christian and ongoing, sanctifying faith in the believer.  So, altar calls, most often following the sermon, wonderfully assume that the preached Word will do what God says it will do: birth faith. And that is stunning, in and of itself, that Christians who practice it have that kind of confidence in the preached Word, such that they, right on the spot, issue a call to repentance and faith.  I praise God for that.  Would to God that those of us who don’t practice the altar call have that kind of confidence in the raw power of the preached Word.  “Faith comes by hearing” (Romans 10).

We mustn’t caricature the altar call based on bad models of its practice. 

The folks I know who have negative experiences of altar calls have probably been victimized by perversions and manipulations of a perhaps well-intended practice.  Sometimes, altar calls have been used to emotionally and psychologically pin people to the ground in submission.  They’ve been drug out endlessly, just waiting for that “one lost soul hanging in the balance” to tip over the edge into salvation.  They’ve been used to boost conversion stats, church growth numbers, and preachers’ egos.  They’ve manipulated people into manufacturing false conversion experiences born out of human effort rather than waiting on the new birth that only comes by the Spirit (John 3:1-8). With any practice, we humans know how to take something good and make it completely atrocious.  Some people have been deeply scarred by such manipulative, self-serving atrocities.  But, as with any analysis, we need to process the altar call for what it truly is, in its best form, with its best intensions in mind.  (Some will probably think that I have not done so in what follows, but here we go.)

However, I find little biblical support for the altar call in worship.  

The last two words are crucial.  Do I find biblical support for people, by the power of the Spirit, calling other people to repentance and faith in public settings?  Absolutely.  It’s all over the OT prophets.  Our Lord repeatedly did this in His ministry, as recorded in the Gospels.  And the apostles in Acts also did this.  I question, though, whether this should be a routine practice in worship.  All these recorded actions did not take place in the context of corporate worship, but out in the public square.  I am with Keller as he speaks of “evangelistic worship,” in that the worship of the community of faith should be intelligible and attractive to non-Christians, even as it is other-worldly.  In fact, it’s its other-worldly-ness that makes it attractive.  I hope that each week “the unbeliever…is convicted by all…[and] the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you” (1 Cor 14:24-25, ESV).  The gospel in the liturgy, culminating in the gospel preached and then displayed and imbibed in the Lord’s Table, should do the work God says it does.  It should engender new and greater faith in all Christians and some non-Christians.   

Nor do I find a lot of historical support for the altar call in worship.  

All my reading suggests that the altar call originated (or at least became a more established practice) with the evangelization of the American frontier, particularly in the revivals of the Second Great Awakening, championed by leaders like Charles Finney.  Camp meeting-style revivals were all the rage, largely catering to non-Christian audiences where emotions were tugged on with stirring music and where a rousing evangelistic message was preached.  There even existed what was known as the “anxious bench,” in which “prospective Christians could be set apart from the congregation and ‘preached into conversion'”* and where they would wrestle in fear and anxiety over the fate of their souls and the opportunity to repent.  I have no doubt that God worked in and through those means.  I also have no doubt that it was quite a spectacle.  The trouble came when folks like Finney took the camp meeting model, mixed it with win-the-lost-at-any-cost pragmatism, and decided that this model should be imported into the church’s Sunday morning corporate worship gathering.  

Any even remotely long view of the historic worship practices of the Christian church shows no trace of anything like an anxious bench or an altar call.  If anything, worship has always been (to state the obvious) a very Christian practice, intended for Christians, albeit with onlooking non-Christians (1 Cor 14, again).  

The title “altar call” itself is problematic to me.

I remember waking up to this thought one day when I was researching the history of medieval Christian worship and the Reformers’ response: “Why do we call that place up front an ‘altar’?” Luther had me ask.  Christ was sacrificed once for all and no other sacrifice is ever needed (Hebrews 10:10).  I get that some traditions call the Lord’s Table a memorial to the altar of Christ’s sacrifice some two thousand years ago, and many of us know that Roman Catholic theology holds that a sacrifice is being made there when it is celebrated.  But this isn’t what we believe in the Protestant tradition.  Why do we call it an altar?  My only thought is that we’re doing so in order to call people to a place where they can “come and die” as “living sacrifices” (Romans 12).  That’s alright to me (it feels a little sticky, though, like we’re emphasizing too much of ourselves), but for the sake of crystal clarity about the “finished-ness” of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice, I think abandoning the term is altogether better.

The altar call seems to fit a more Arminian theological structure, to which I don’t subscribe.  

Notice that the practice of the altar call places strong emphasis on personal will and decision-making, and sometimes, even providing a context for a “crisis point” of faith.  The altar call is predicated chiefly on the human will and providing an opportunity for that will to freely make a choice for God and Christ.  Are our wills at play in our salvation?  Definitely.  Good Arminians and Calvinists agree here.  Where we differ is (a) how to describe/understand “free will” and (b) where human will functions in the hierarchy of God’s work in faith and salvation.  I can’t go into it here, but for further research, pull out good authors on the subject of “libertarian” (which many Arminians subscribe to) versus “compatibilistic” (which many Calvinists subscribe to) free will, and then mix in a little reflection on the biblical idea articulated by Luther of “the bondage of the will.”  (I have found John Frame’s works, particularly The Doctrine of God, comprehensive and compelling here.)  That will get you nice and dirty.  Suffice it to say that Arminian theology, in my opinion, places heavy emphasis on the human being’s (libertarian) free will, which would therefore support a practice like the altar call, which is directed at calling human beings to a point of free choice.  In other words, the emphasis that the altar call places on the free will is consistent with the emphasis Arminians give it in their soteriological structure.  And I simply don’t share those convictions and emphases.  I want to be clear that I’m not saying the altar call is an inherently Arminian practice. However, it emerged historically out of Arminian convictions, and the way it’s often done tends to be loaded (consciously or sub-consciously) with Arminian language.

We also need to look at the early champions of the altar call and ask what their underpinning theology was.  Finney was a forthright Arminian, to put it lightly.  An altar call, bent on addressing and summoning a person’s will into action, is very in line with Finney’s theology.  And it is in line with the theology of many churches and pastors who still practice the altar call.  It’s “internally consistent,” one could say.  But again, this is where I differ with some of my dear brothers and sisters.  Such a practice, especially with many of its basic assumptions, simply doesn’t jibe with what I believe about salvation and grace and God’s working in both.  This is not to say that there exist folks in the Reformed tradition who practice the altar call.  I know many Reformed Baptists and even Presbyterians who do so.  All I’m saying is that the altar call fits much better in an Arminian structure because of the shared assumptions and ordering of those ideas.

I have sometimes found that those eager to employ the altar call in worship have a very narrow view of when and how God saves.  

When I’ve encountered folks who bemoan that the altar call is not employed in our worship, they often give the impression (I may be wrong) that we’re missing a big opportunity when we don’t call people forward.  They might say, “It’s like you’ve allowed God to work in people’s hearts and then given them no opportunity to respond to that work, and so people aren’t saved.”  I punt upward to the previous point.  Ultimately this is a more “Arminian” type of thing to say, and I’m not an Arminian.  It’s based on believing that God’s salvation of souls hangs on whether or not we do or don’t do something.  This might be your soteriology.  It’s not mine.  

Personally, I’m grateful that I don’t have to bear the burden of souls hanging in the balance based on whether or not I’m on my game as a pastor or evangelist.  My understanding of the Bible tells me that God is on the hook for that, not me.  My call is to be faithful to preaching and proclaiming the Word, but the good news for me is that, even when I’m not, God’s plan for those whom He calls is not thwarted ONE LITTLE BIT.  Whew!  As a Calvinist (again, I know not everyone’s here), I have a big trust that God will save folks in His time and in His way.  I do not need to manufacture events or “make space” for God to do so in the worship service.  God is bigger than that.  Have I called folks to repent and trust in Jesus in the past?  You better believe it.  But I’ve seen it more often in the context “out in the world” and among the natural conversations and relationships I’ve had.  And, if someone’s responding for the first time in faith to the Word of God preached, an altar call simply won’t make or break their salvation.  That’s God’s business.  God alone saves, calls, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies.  Does this take the wind out of my evangelistic sails?  No.  Quite the opposite.  Because God alone saves, I’m free to do my part in the gospel-mission project with confidence and increased boldness.**  

Other aspects of historic Christian worship fulfill the best parts of what an altar call does.

Because good worship is dialogical (God speaks, we respond, God speaks, we respond, etc.), response to God’s love, saving acts, and gospel story are already built in.  In a sense, the whole worship service is one repeated and cyclical “call and response” to the gospel.  We could therefore say that good Christian worship is an enacted, embodied series of “altar calls.”  Even more specifically, though, the Lord’s Table, in its full-orbed biblical picture, is THE place where sinners act out our response to the call to repent and believe.  It is Christ’s invitation for people to come and feed on Him in faith.  It is Christ’s invitation to come to His wedding banquet, experienced in part now in order to give us a hunger and thirst for what is to come.  So, if folks are clamoring for a spot in the service for people to “make decisions,” I believe that when we understand the Eucharist in all its sweeping glory, we have all that we really need, and the altar call’s best parts are merely duplicating what God has graciously provided in the Supper.  I have heard testimonies from some who say that they first came to faith in Christ AT the Lord’s Table.  Praise God!

Ultimately, the altar call doesn’t really seem necessary

I feel so blessed to work in a local church context at Coral Ridge where the gospel is preached so nakedly and boldly that I can witness, left and right, lives changing all around me…without an altar call.  We don’t need a “time of decision” for decisions to be made.  We don’t need to have people officially come forward for them to be called to repentance and respond in faith.  We’re watching it happen as we’re trying, in our own broken way, to proclaim the gospel in Word, sacrament, and liturgy.  And the networks of relationships, alongside the conversations and connections made during the week, show me that sinners (like me) are responding in faith!  In this regard, it makes the altar call as an official element of regular, weekly worship seem rather superfluous.  From what I hear, it’s still VERY effective out in some parts of the world, especially on the frontiers of mission, but I, for all the above reasons, don’t see its value for corporate worship.  

Summary

Perhaps we can boil down this post to one penetrating question.  Should our missional practices, simply because they might be missionally effective, be regularly imported into corporate worship?   Once everything is parsed out, this is what we’re asking.  Some have no problem saying “yes.”  I have a serious problem with that, precisely because I think God has revealed some very specific things He wants His people to do and be about when they gather weekly for worship.  And I believe, ironically, that when we do those things well, the lost get found, and sinners like you and me find faith.

*John Witvliet, Worship Seeking Understanding (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 167.
**R. C. Sproul’s Chosen By God, and J. I. Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God are excellent here.

2 Comments on “Thoughts on the Altar Call”

  1. Zack,
    I really enjoyed your thoughtful article. It seems the "best decisions" are not made at the "altar", but in the pew.
    The effectiveness of what transpired in the pew (the quickening work of the Spirit of God), is measured by how we relate to each other around "the table". Historically, American "Evangelicals", have not done a good job of meeting around the "altar". It is, slowly changing through ethnic integration. Mature disciples of Jesus, whether they stand at the altar, or sit a the table, can see both locations. Then too, the sphere sovereignty of God is celebrated. Shalom

  2. (In actuality I'm between the two but I'm gonna go Armenian on this one)

    The Calvanistic territory is a dangerous one to enter from the aspect of making Jesus Lord of our lives. Although I agree with the principles of it, Jesus clearly wants us to always be proactive in the sharing of the Gospel and always following His way/will and not our own. (Matthew 7:21-23)

    To me, it seems like an excuse to being more worldly and to have an easier life in this world. I would rather have the pressures of this world on me now so that I seek refuge in Christ during those times, rather than depart from what God wants me to do and say "You got it, use someone else". Especially if I really believe I'll be in eternal bliss after this life. Also, I personally don't want to be punished by God like Jonah was when he didn't follow God's will.

    If I took up Calvanism fully, then I would have the perception that 'it's okay for me not to do do this because God's got it'. Which is not okay. I desire to used by God even more and to become even more dead to my fleshly desires. That's a lot more like entering in by the narrow gate. (Matthew 7:13-14)

    As long as the perception of 'God wants to use me and finds joy in that' is there, that's great, and we should fulfill what God wants to do: use us! The greatest joy we can find is in doing God's will. (Matthew 12:50)

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