Thabiti Anyabwile on the altar call.

The following article, What About Altar Calls?, is from Thabiti Anyabwile:

I’m sometimes asked by people why we don’t do “altar calls” at our services. Like the people who ask the question, the churches in my personal background pretty much all practiced “altar calls” at the conclusion of a sermon or service. I’ve seen them done in very poor fashion, and I’ve seen some pastors be really clear about the gospel, repentance, faith, and the fact that “coming forward” does not save. I date my own conversion to the preaching of Exodus 32, which concluded with an altar call.

So, why don’t we practice “altar calls”? I don’t think the pastor who practices an “invitation” at the end of a sermon is in sin, but he may not be acting wisely either. This list of reasons, compiled by Pastor Ryan Kelly of Desert Springs Church, is a pretty good summation of some of my thinking (HT: Z).

1. The altar call is simply and completely absent from the pages of the N.T.

2. The altar call is historically absent until the 19th century, and its use at that time (via Charles Finney) was directly based upon bad theology and a man-centered, manipulative methodology.

3. The altar call very easily confuses the physical act of “coming forward” with the spiritual act of “coming to Christ.” These two can happen simultaneously, but too often people believe that coming to Christ is going forward (and vice-versa).

4. The altar call can easily deceive people about the reality of their spiritual state and the biblical basis for assurance. The Bible never offers us assurance on the ground that we “went forward.”

5. The altar call partially replaces baptism as the means of public profession of faith.

6. The altar call can mislead us to think that salvation (or any official response to God’s Word) happens primarily on Sundays, only at the end of the service, and only “up front.”

7. The altar call can confuse people regarding “sacred” things and “sacred” places, as the name “altar call” suggests.

8. The altar call is not sensitive to our cautious and relational age where most people come to faith over a period of time and often with the interaction of a good friend.

9. The altar call is often seen as “the most important part of the service”, and this de-emphasizes the truly more important parts of corporate worship which God has prescribed (preaching, prayer, fellowship, singing).

10. God is glorified to powerfully bless the things He has prescribed (preaching, prayer, fellowship, singing), not the things we have invented. We should always be leery of adding to God’s prescriptions for His corporate worship.

Numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 10 of Ryan’s list are the most compelling reasons in my opinion. These would seem very serious objections for anyone who takes seriously the idea that our Christian lives and gatherings should conform to what the NT commands, models, and prohibits. Perhaps I would add an 11th: The “altar call” teaches the congregation to evaluate the “success” or “effectiveness” of the ministry on outward, visible actions and results.

Further, the need to be pastorally careful and sensitive with the souls of men needing to repent and believe couldn’t be more urgent. So, anything that obscures the reality of God the Holy Spirit’s work in conversion and the necessity of repentance and faith must be regarded–at best–a practice with potential to undermine the very work we’re giving our lives to.

Do people “respond” to the word of God at our services? They do. And we give them a number of ways they may follow up on what they’ve heard, from talking to an elder or Christian friend after the service, to scheduling an appointment during the week, to letting us know they would like us to visit with them, and so on. One thing I appreciate about our approach is that it allows us to meet, listen, question, encourage, teach and pray in a much more thorough way. By God’s grace we’re seeing people converted and profess their faith in baptism as the Spirit opens their hearts. We’re not perfect by any means. But I do hope we’re being faithful to the scripture’s commands, examples, and restrictions.

What do you think about Kelly’s list? Are you “for” or “against” and why? Would you add anything to or challenge anything on the list?

12 thoughts on “Thabiti Anyabwile on the altar call.

  1. michael says:

    The Gospel of John, chapter 5 and these words have been speaking to the deep places within me and reading this post reminds me again about the destructive realities an altar call can cause to come about in a person’s life whether young or old:

    Joh 5:17 But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”

    In all of the Gospel narratives it was Jesus calling people out and then because of what He was also doing people were coming to “get” something from Him.

    Later on in that chapter, verses 24-28 you see the Lord playing on the words “death” and “dead”.

    Daniel chapter 12 speaks to this phenomenon and as does the Apostle Paul and chapter 2 of Ephesians.

    I don’t know if this post was spurred on by a recent message posted up on SermonAudio.com (Dr. Ian R.K. Paisley’s message Fundamentalism vs. Apostasy)? If not, it seems timely the two??

  2. This cartoon starts out almost verbetim (ad nauseum) every week at the end of service at my church.

    Really, more like this after a very minimal Gospel presentation: “With every head bowed and every eye closed…no one is looking around. Jesus is standing at the door of your heart this morning and knocking to come in (Stomps foot on stage). All you have to do is open your heart and let him come in and take up residence. If do this you will become a child of God and will spend eternity with Him in Heaven. Just open your heart up and let Christ come in….do it now before it’s too late – ”

    Grrrrrr

  3. Mickey Merrie says:

    Folks, it’s more then just that:

    Consider these words that are truly spoken in love to spur one another on in Christ Jesus…

    Study scriptures and the reality of our world today. From the link below, you
    will see better the globalist agenda, and when viewed through scripture you
    should see that none of our options, none of our choices were for godly men! The
    least awake folks on the face of this planet over the past 40 years have been
    those who prefer to be identified as American christians. Somehow
    going to church services and chasing their flesh dreams should be approved by
    God!?!?

    We do not get a crown without first our cross! Hello?

    Can any evangelical American christian even explain the cross, let alone their cross,
    and honestly say, “I have lived my christian walk as the early disciples and
    Apostles, as I have daily laid down my own life for His life through me.
    Forsaking my desires daily for doing His Will daily!”
    That is the normal christian life, and so when we compare our goals and
    endeavors to His explicit command to be doers of His Will rather then hearers
    only, do you really think He is pleased with American churchianity? Really!?!?

    Here is what those annointed christian leaders in politics have been up to:

    http://www.crossroad.to/text/articles/Bush4-99.htm

    Now considering that ministers of the gospel…elders of the gospel were and are
    charged with making us disciples of Jesus Christ, and that WE not preachers are
    charged with the Great Commission, that is, for us to go into all the world
    preaching the Good News to the lost and dying, making converts through sharing
    the Word as God Himself gives the increase through the conviction of the Holy
    Spirit. And the elders have, in fact not made disciples, but weaklings who are
    then told to bring lost folks to church buildings to hear how to become members
    of the corporation and pay tithes/dues. Thus these preachers are the very ones
    bringing in tares in great numbers to overwhelm the few remaining true
    believers… And you really think that God is doing a “new thing,” against the
    clear order once given to the Apostles? And this “new thing” is that spiritually
    dead men can make a decision for a jesus who is then bound to honor their
    decision? Tell me please, who is in control when you make a decision? Did God
    get it wrong? Are these decisional men not dead, but just spiritually sick?
    Scripture says dead! How many things can a dead man do? The church is the
    congregation of the called out by God SAINTS, for the purpose of discipling to
    spread the Good News outside the congregation to the lost and dying! Thus by
    definition, what is happening in the corporate church buildings is 180 degrees
    opposite as “Preachers” not undershepherds of God’s Saints, Jesus’ saints, the
    Shepherd’s saints, are not being discipled to give up their earthly life, and
    pick up their crosses, dying to self daily, and allowing every breath to be done
    as not I but Christ’s will through me, as we pour out our lives OUTSIDE the
    congregation sharing the Truth of the gospel with the lost. Rather they are told
    to invite in the spiritually dead as the preachers preach an earthly
    psychological better life for you through a jesus who is handcuffed and waiting
    for the lost to make a decision for him to enhance their earthly lives!!!
    REALLY!!!

  4. I agree that # 1-5 and 10 of Ryan’s list are the most compelling reasons not to have an alter call. I disagree however with #8 as God chooses how the Spirit works in regeneration and to generalize this is somewhat presumptuous.

  5. brian says:

    a study done at the last church i attended showed that one hundred decisions were made in one year and less than three years later only one person of the hundred that responded to the alter call that year still attended that fellowship. NOT GOOD

  6. Andy says:

    What Is an Altar

    by Desiring God Staff | July 25, 2008
    Subscribe to…

    This is a guest post from a friend of ours who is a missionary doctor working with Muslims. It is a part of his guest series, “Day-to-day Observations from Asia.”

    * * *

    I was studying Psalm 43 with a friend in Urdu the other day. We came to where it says in English, “I will go to the altar of God.”

    As I read along in Urdu, I did not know the word for “altar,” so I asked my friend what it was. He didn’t know how to translate the word into English, but he gave the following English description: “It is God’s bloody place, where the throats of the animals are slit for sacrifice.”

    Of course. It’s an altar.

    Sometimes I think of an altar as the carpeted stairs and dais at the front of the church meetinghouse. But it’s not. It is a bloody place—a place of sacrifice and death.

    I need to remember that.
    this is how i think of an altar, a place of sacrifice and death

  7. Mickey Merrie says:

    But do we also think of the “church” as “a physical building” or “the gathering of the called out saints” for you see these are words whose meanings have been changed by the traditions of men such as to make God’s Word of no effect! Matthew 14 Mark 7 (that is not a box score but 2 scripture references! LOL)

  8. alan Davis says:

    Agree with 99% and it may be 100% except that those desiring to know more in some of the gospel preaching scenes from the NT were given a command to repent and believe/be baptized and people do need to know how to follow through with doing so. The ways the arthur lists are great but If it is made clear and not done on emotion I can not see why someone could not respond when God’s Spirit is dealing with them by coming to one of the elders at the close of the service. I fully understand the messed up humanistic altar calls the arthor is talking about and I am not talkng about those.

    The ways the arthor gave for their people to repond are great and I think for peolpe to repond for seeing one of the elders at the close of the worship is also great if a clear call of the gospel ahs been done without using man made schemes. Some of the avenues the arthor gives that they use I can not find exactly in the Bible either so we must be clear and careful not to assume just because something isn’t seen in scripture bthat it automaticly become3s wrong….cards, talking with elders, etc. . If we use that rule we wouldn’t ever use any other material than the Bible to teach, no specific church buildings, no Power point or sound systems etc. i am not being nit picky just pointing out we need to be careful just automaticly excluding because we can not find something specific in scriptures….Great article and I agree.

  9. silver price says:

    The article goes on to point out that the biblical method for an individual to respond to an invitation to follow Jesus Christ is through baptism. Roy Fish, renowned (and now retired) evangelism professor from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, maintained, “Some people would think lost people ought to be given an opportunity to openly confess Christ. And they would say that’s why we give invitations ­­to openly confess Him. But the New Testament confession is baptism. If a person is baptized, they meet every New Testament requirement.” The article also points out that for several generations Baptists have actually required two professions of faith – the altar call and baptism.

  10. I’m sometimes asked by people why we don’t do “altar calls” at our services. Like the people who ask the question, the churches in my personal background pretty much all practiced “altar calls” at the conclusion of a sermon or service. I’ve seen them done in very poor fashion, and I’ve seen some pastors be really clear about the gospel, repentance, faith, and the fact that “coming forward” does not save. I date my own conversion to the preaching of Exodus 32, which concluded with an altar call.

  11. Dan - the bass man says:

    If the baptism is the one and only way to “meet” the new testament’s requirement, then forget the altar call and just open the baptism tubs everywhere! We should start saying things like… “Let all those who have repented, or those who know they are saved make a public confession of thier faith, and therefore be baptized today!”

    Why not? John (the baptist) did it every day. Why can’t we do it (at the very least) every Sunday after every service? Oh! I know why! We don’t want to get wet!

    The fact of the matter is we dont want or can’t (or even shouldn’t) commit to creating yet a another tradition in churches everywhere because the bible has it written in the New Testiment. John (the baptist) baptized with water. After him “would come one that will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Okay folks, don’t start burning down churches, now. Simply stated: what is easier? An altar call or baptizing after every sermon? In churches now a days, if you have five baptisms in a year, some would consider that a lot. An altar call opens the heart to the “possibility” of someday being baptized in water. That’s all folks!

    And what if, we didn’t make that altar call and that day was the last day? Again, if baptism was the “only” requirement to confess one’s belief, ….well I’d hate to say it…

  12. abidingthroughgrace says:

    Dan, are you suggesting in your comment here that baptism is a requirement for faith? Or a requirement for salvation? You are making parallels for baptism to a faulty concept of alter calls and decisionism, which would then point to the idea being you can just get baptized and be saved from judgement? Is this what you are saying? Or can you clarify.

    In the love of Christ,
    -atg

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