Last summer I moved my family back to our hometown. This is the place both my wife and I grew up, came to Christ, and graduated high school. It has been a real joy serving this community, rekindling old friendships, making new ones, and seeing the Lord work. I am humbled even as I write this!
Over 10 years ago I had served in this area as a Youth Pastor. I was much younger in the faith obviously and one of the mistakes I made during that time was believing that I could bring people to Christ through means of an altar call and sinner's prayer. I reaped some of this fruit last fall when I met with a young man who had been in my youth group over a decade ago and invited him to the church I pastor. His response was something along the line of "I know I'm ok with the Lord. I remember when you saved me when I was in your youth group." Talk about a punch in the gut.
By God's grace, over the last 6 months or so we have seen 5 conversions. Thankfully, one of those was the young man to which I referred to above. But his testimony is not unique. Out of the 5 conversions we've seen, all 5 have been in a place at one point or another where they thought they had been converted because of some sort of altar call, whether at a church service, or a youth retreat, or one even at a VBS.
By 'altar call' I mean a call issued by a pastor or evangelist for people to 'come up front' to receive Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. Something along the lines of "If you want to be saved come up and pray this prayer" or "If you'd like to be saved repeat this prayer after me" issued to the congregation at large.
From my observation, this practice has been a major hindrance to Missions and Evangelism in our churches. It seems like for the last 20 years or more the Southern Baptist Convention (my denomination) has been fighting over this. And every year I hear a sermon or two from leaders in our denomination about how doing away with altar calls will stifle our evangelistic impact. But I think quite the opposite! And I think the Bible, history, and the current fruit of the altar call system backs me up. Therefore, I contend we must alter the call. We must return to the true public invitations that we see in Scripture. We must publicly invite sinners to repent and believe this gospel! We see this type of preaching by Jesus and His Apostles throughout the New Testament. Furthermore, we see this carried out by faithful men throughout the history of the church.
But what we do not see in the Bible or in the history of the church until the 19th century are invitations to have people come up and repeat a prayer.
Why is the practice of having people come forward to recite a prayer such a hindrance to evangelism and missions?
1. It confuses repentance -
At a church I served in 2011 there were some people who equated 'repentance' with voicing sorrow for sin. Now, surely repentance entails sorrow for sin! But that is most certainly not all repentance is. When we think repentance is merely 'going forward' or 'saying sorry' then this causes a misunderstanding of the essential call of the gospel: To repent and believe (Mark 1:15).
Isn't this at least one reason we see so many 'rededications' at evangelistic events? People feel compelled to 'rededicate' their lives because their initial 'act' of repentance didn't stick.
2. It conveys false assurance -
My friend who recently came to Christ, and the other 4 we've seen do so recently, all lived in a state whereby they thought they were right with God. If they had died in such a state they would have stood before King Jesus who would have said "Depart from me, I never knew you" (Mt. 7:21-23). It is tragic how many are deceived because they have walked an aisle and prayed a prayer! Some of those people are off living for the world and in heinous sin. Others though are right there in the pew every Sunday, and when they hear a call to repent and believe the gospel they think "I've done did that. I'm ok," not knowing that if nothing changes, they will spend an eternity in Hell.
I do not mean to suggest that if you did this that you are 'lost'. That might be true, but it's not necessarily true! But I do say this: If you came forward and prayed a prayer, that's not what saved you, It was your repentance and faith initiated by the grace of God through the work of the Holy Spirit.
3. It ruins church membership -
Many churches in the SBC have wildly inflammatory membership rolls. Say something like 500 on the rolls with 150 present on a Sunday morning. This ratio fluctuates depending on the size of the church but in my estimation, it is generally 3:1 of roll to attendance. This is something that we need to labor to change. I hope for an SBC president one day to lead in this. But that's not something we can wait around on. Pastors must get this conviction and seek to be faithful to the Church's Head in having a regenerate church membership that actually attends.
There is nothing more stifling to evangelism and missions than unhealthy churches. And when we don't practice regenerate church membership rightly, we see unhealthy churches. I mean, surely we can see the negative practical ramifications of lost people serving in our churches?
4. It stifles personal evangelism -
The idea is to 'get someone saved' I just need to bring them to church and get them to walk the aisle. Hey, I'll even walk down the aisle with you if you'll go! I'm sure many Pastors would not support such an idea but it is certainly at least implicitly communicated by the crescendo of the altar call at the end of the service.
There is more that could be said but suffice it to say that the result of an Altar Call atmosphere has created a culture that has actually hindered missions and evangelism. When churches struggle because of unconverted members, or we have unconverted teachers, pastors, or missionaries on the field, or we are proclaiming a confused or truncated gospel, then surely we can see that these things not only aren't advancing the cause of Christ, but actually being a hindrance to it. When everyone in the Bible Belt is 'already saved' because of the Altar Call, but there is little true love for Christ, little holiness, paltry concern for God's glory, no hatred of sin, then we must face the grim reality that the numbers of people who 'came forward' so boasted about at the evangelism rally (or youth camp, or VBS, etc) 50 years ago, and then again 30 years ago, and then again 10 years ago, and then again last year, didn't actually hold true.
So where do we go from here? My suggestion is the alter call. Instead of calling sinners to come forward and say a prayer, let us call them to repent and close with Christ. But, actually when we think of it in terms of Scriptural evidence and historical precedent, the reality is that the 'Altar Call' is the alter call! The call of repentance and faith has always been the true call of response after gospel proclamation. I'm not the one advocating anything new, but going back to the Book.
What will this look like? Here are a few thoughts:
1. Be Clear on What Sinners Must Do -
I've heard the argument that the Altar Call is really just about helping people understand what they must do to be saved. I've heard pastors say that they invite people forward and to repeat a prayer so that they can know what they are doing. Why can this not be communicated in the sermon? Was Jesus not clear in Mark 1:15? Was Paul not clear in Acts 16:31?
Is prayer involved in our salvation? Of course! We must call on the Lord to be saved. But if we need someone to articulate for us what that means via a prayer to be repeated, have we really understood the gospel? The best illustration I've heard is this: Suppose a man wants to repent to his wife for sinning against her. His idea is to call the preacher and have him come over. The preacher says "Ok son, just repeat after me" "Dear honey" "Dear honey" "I'm really sorry" "I'm really sorry".... So, surely you can see how that definitely is NOT going to be seen as true repentance from the wife!
And in fact, I think the 'sinner's prayer' actually adds requirements. Remember the publican? He simply said 'be merciful to me a sinner.' The heart that is pricked by the Spirit will express itself well enough. In fact, it's God who knows the heart isn't it?
2. Make Counseling a Priority -
Great men of the past have set aside significant time to counsel with people about their salvation. Instead of trying to squeeze in a conversation about the gospel during a 5 minute time of invitation, invite people to talk with you at a later time. During counseling, we can see whether or not there is a clear head knowledge and heart knowledge of the gospel.
3. Trust the Lord's Work and Timing -
God saves sinners. There is nothing you or I can do to move them across the threshold so to speak. We can't move them from darkness to light. That's the work of the Holy Spirit. We live in a results based society. We want to see results now. But as Tom Nettles has said, "Conversion is certainly instantaneous, but not all instantaneous response is true conversion; sometimes the evidence of true conversion is slow (Luke 8:11-15)." Not every immediate responder to the gospel is converted. Instead of laboring for results, let us labor to make the gospel clear and to show clearly what it means to repent, trust Chist as Savior, and follow Him as Lord.
4. It's Ok to Sing a Hymn at the End of the Sermon -
We sing a hymn at the conclusion of our sermons. We even have an opportunity for people to pray with the pastor or publicly unite with the church (after previous counsel of course!). I'm not saying preach the sermon and walk out the doors. Singing a hymn can give people sufficient time to reflect on what's been said. They can praise God! They can pray to God! But don't make this the crescendo of your service whereby you play 17 verses of Just As I Am and plead with people to come forward. Let the pleading to close with Christ happen in the public proclamation of the Word. There doesn't need to be an 'after sermon' after the sermon. One is sufficient.
5. Remember that Sunday Mornings Aren't Primarily Evangelistic -
The church is made up of Believers. The primary exhortations during the sermon should be directed to the church. Yes, call unbelievers to repentance. But the whole sermon shouldn't be geared toward the lost, at least not in the vast majority of the 52 Sundays every year. The beautiful thing about preaching the gospel though is that Christians need it to. So, the exhortation to Believers to continue to trust the gospel, and repent of sin, and rest themselves in the finished work of Jesus is also a call to unbelievers that they need to do the same thing.
When we understand the truth that Sunday mornings are for the church, this will greatly aid us in a right view of what we should be doing and not doing in our services. We don't tailor services for the lost! Rather, we submit to Scripture's authority and trust its sufficiency for how we do Sundays. Evangelism is taking the gospel to the streets. We must equip our people to share the gospel in the home, at their work, with their neighbors. And their goal isn't just to get people in their life to 'come to church' but to repent of their sin and trust Jesus alone as their only suitable and all sufficient Savior.
6. Trust God's Grace for Past Failures -
As I said above, I failed in this before too. I shudder when I think about some of the people I led in a Sinner's Prayer who are not in church and by all evidences afforded to me, not true Beleivers. But there is grace for this too. I'm not saying it's not a serious error! I'm just saying the Savior's blood speaks a better word. So, if you've failed in this, trust God's grace, repent, and change.
7. Understand the Difficulty of Change -
I have had personal experience of trying to teach on this where it was rejected. So, commit this issue to prayer. Be willing to talk with people. Be humble. Be patient. But be serious in your conviction to please the Lord. Love the church and lost people enough that you are willing to adapt your methods to line up with Scripture. But also realize that change is difficult. Especially something that has been engrained in our culture for so long.
I've never shared this publicly before but while I was serving at a previous church, I actually had a denominational leader tell a pastor friend of mine that I had 'stopped doing invitations'. This was not true! But it was something a church member had communicated to this person and so this person communicated it to someone else and it got back to me. As an aside, I sure could have used the help instead of the gossip! The point is, you need to understand change in this area won't be easy. But it's ok. It's worth it!
This has been on my heart for a number of years now. But there is something about seeing the bad fruit of Altar Calls personally time and again over the last several months that has prompted me to write this post. I truly believe that if we want to see the work of God furthered and not hindered in our area and across the globe, we must eschew the foolhardy methods of Altar Calls and Repeat After Me Prayers for salvation.