In Defense of Refusing to Heed an Altar Call

By Sandy Fiedler

Another altar call, not for salvation, but for a "touch from God." Sunday after Sunday, implied compulsory attendance at the altar for everyone in our charismatic church.

I know the preacher means well, but today I do not feel drawn by the Holy Spirit to walk to the front of the church, nor do I have a burning need of any kind that requires prayer.

From the pulpit I hear compelling statements aimed everyone present. "If you don’t want to come forward, that is a hallmark of being back-slidden."

And, "You can’t live off yesterday’s manna. Come to the front and get a fresh touch from God today."

Or the simple, "Everyone come forward today so that I can lay hands on you and pray for your deepest needs."

I am not cold or uncaring, but I have done my homework at home — I have prayed without ceasing at home until the questions were settled, not merely the question of "Will God hear and come through for me?" but the question of "Will I trust God in the matter?"

Why does the preacher try so hard to get us to the front? It would be just as easy to get that touch from God in the pew, wouldn’t it? Anyway, where is the scriptural example or requirement for altar calls? There is none.

These questions led me to look into history to uncover the origins of the altar call.

To do that, I had to start with the Great Awakening of the 1740s. At that time, revival, which was often preceded by a time when God would "set His people praying," meant a spontaneous, sovereign move of God, which converted many souls and refreshed the church. All of this took place basically within the framework of the normal church services.

The Second Great Awakening, in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, saw a change in the meaning of the term revival, according to Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858 by Iain H. Murray. It came to mean a special series of evangelistic meetings held outside the normal church services. Camp meetings originated during this period. For the first time, man actually set dates and advertised "revival" meetings. Results were guaranteed through "new measures," which incorporated the altar call.

Preachers had discovered that at the end of the sermon, they could ask people who desired to pray further to come forward to the "anxious seat" or "mourner’s bench" to repent of their sins. Out of this practice came the altar call.

The term "altar" was used by the Church of England to refer to the area in front of the communion table. The altar call originally was used to identify people who wanted prayer or to talk with the minister so that they could more easily be helped especially in a large congregation. The rest of the congregation was free to leave but often would stay out of curiosity. Responding to the altar call eventually became synonymous with conversion.

The "new measures" caught on. Apparent success breeds success. It makes church news. Ministers compared numbers. The altar call took on a life of its own and became a new tradition in some denominations.

Presbyterian minister Charles G. Finney (1792-1875) popularized the new measures and claimed that by using them, evangelists would convert the entire United States in three years. The Church would bring in the millennium.

Not acknowledging that throughout church history the gospel had spread and revivals had occurred without altar calls, Finney criticized ministers who did not use the new measures, claiming they were anti-revival and not evangelical.

Tremendous controversy arose between proponents of the old ways and those of the new. However, the writings of those who warned of dangers have been largely forgotten while Finney’s Memoirs, written without aid of notes or diaries forty years after the revivals, has never been out of print.

In 1827 Asahel Nettleton (1783-1943) wrote a letter to the young zealous Finney warning against the irregularities and confusion in the revivals especially on the Kentucky frontier. Nettleton and other men familiar with thirty years of revival said there would be undesirable results from such practices as requiring an outward response, too much counting of heads, broadcasting names of unconverted people in public prayer, and condemning those who did not concur with new methods. Heightened emotion, he warned, could produce "false" conversions and confusion between the outward act of walking the aisle with a genuine spiritual change. Nettleton further noted that the results would be the same or greater if the new measures were not used.

In the old meaning of revival, man’s job was to preach the Bible while the Holy Spirit’s job was to convict a person of his sin. Conviction created "anxiety" because the person knew he was not right with God. When the person left the church, God would still be working in him and the process of conversion (repenting, prayer, finding the peace and assurance of God) was expected to take hours at the least, and often took days or weeks. It was not uncommon for a person to wait six months before making a public profession of faith. Converts were not counted; they were recognized, however, by their changed lives, observable over a period of time.

The emphasis in the church had been placed on the preaching of the Word because the Calvinistic ministers had confidence that the Word would do its work. They preached with prayer and intelligence — expository, systematic, exegetical, doctrinal, structural, applicatory, practical, evangelistic, persuasive sermons — not a rambling about financial prosperity and end times like we sometimes hear today, neither of which deals with the centrality of Christianity. They drove home to the congregations that the power and riches of the Word of God could not be exhausted in a thousand lifetimes.

The new measures went hand in hand with a shift in theology — from Calvinism to Arminianism that took the process of conversion from the sovereign hand of God and put it into the hands of the preachers and respondents. In the old way, it was left to God to move and look upon the hidden heart and for Him to judge. In the new way, for the first time in church history, winning souls was seen as man’s work and he needed an outward sign to judge the results.

The old way held the process of conversion in great awe and reverence. It meant more than getting a ticket to heaven. It involved a total moral transformation of man’s nature from death to life, holy living, purposing entirely to glorify God. The new way, on the other hand, taught that conversion was an act of man’s mind and will. It was instant and easy, rather like deciding to make a purchase. Many who made this "decision" left the church with the attitude that "there is nothing to it." And their lives were not changed.

One nineteenth-century observer claimed that as many as 45 to 50 percent of those saved under the new measures fell by the wayside and returned to their old ways, while most saved under the old way demonstrated true life long change. Finney himself admitted that many whom he brought to the point of conviction and beginnings of faith soon fell away. The Second Great Awakening eventually subsided without bringing in the millennium.

Later in the nineteenth century Charles Spurgeon reported that a woman complained that she had been to the revivalists and had been saved ten times, but that it had not done her any good whatsoever. She had obeyed the preacher, but something was missing. Was it the Holy Spirit?

As a young person in my Southern Baptist church I wondered, At what precise moment is a person saved? When he walks down the carpeted aisle? When he prays with the preacher? (And sometimes no one prays with him.) When he fills out the little card handed to him?

Do we today need to take notice of Nettleton’s warnings? Is the fruit of the altar call always sweet?

Alarmingly, a staff member of a large evangelistic ministry, which uses the altar call as an integral part of every crusade service, admitted that there is only a ten percent "sticking rate" among respondents.

A man recalls that when he was about 11 years old the preacher stepped up to him and said something to him during an altar call. The eager-to-please boy said yes to something the preacher said, but he didn’t really understand what the preacher had said. The next thing he knew the preacher had taken him by the hand and they were down at the altar where everyone was shaking his hand. Soon he was baptized. As a teenager, he taught Sunday School. In his twenties, he was made the youngest deacon ever in the large church. However, a few years later, he began to have nightmares that if Jesus returned he would not be ready. He realized that the Holy Spirit was reaching His heart for the first time in his life and convicting him of his sinful nature. On his knees at home he repented and prayed and was born again. His request for rebaptism created quite a stir.

In another case where the altar call failed in its purpose, young people, tired and hungry during a never-ending altar call, punched a certain girl that could help them. Gingerly, she walked forward to "rededicate her life" so the pastor would let everybody go home. Sunday after Sunday this script took place.

Proponents of the altar call for salvation often say it is necessary because Jesus always called people publicly. But when Jesus said, "Follow me," did He mean physical movement of the feet, or inward repentance and faith? Is walking toward a preacher and shaking his hand the same as Peter dropping his fishing nets and going with Jesus? If an outward sign is required, shouldn’t it be baptism?

Some charismatic preachers today use the altar call as the primary tool for reaching out to the flock, not home visits or developing relationships. The preacher giving the altar call has taken on the air of a priest administering a sacrament. But the New Testament speaks of the priesthood of all believers.

Altar calls are made for many reasons besides conversion: for the baptism in the Holy Spirit, to receive tongues, for exorcism, for physical healing, to be ministered to by God while being slain in the Spirit, to heal memories, for the anointing, for salvation of loved ones, for finances, "to step into the river of God," "to come under the banner of God," and to give God an opportunity to meet any need.

While many people, including myself, have been blessed at the altar, persuasive, even coercive techniques, psychological pressure, can cause the herd instinct to kick in. Emotions may be stirred but the spiritual results are zero if the Holy Spirit is not in charge. And something else may result: people may go along out of a desire to please the preacher only to leave the church feeling unfulfilled or used.

Furthermore, when pastors stress corporate experience over private Bible study and prayer, are they failing to prepare them for mature life without the church when for some reason like a job transfer or illness they are separated from corporate worship?

What is the future of the altar call? The May 6, l998 issue of the Texas Baptist Standard states that some Southern Baptist churches are using alternatives to altar calls, such as, offering the congregation the opportunity to talk with counselors in a side room after church service, speak with the pastor near the front after the congregation has been dismissed, meet with the pastor during the week, or fill out commitment cards.

Back in my local church at the altar call, I awkwardly stand my ground while every other person in the auditorium moves forward. I feel that the preacher and others judge me for standing still. I’m not doing what they want me to do. I look rebellious. But they do not know the spiritual place where I stand.

"The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart (I Samuel 16:7 NIV)."

Man is always trying to give God a helping hand, like a child who "helps" his father in the workshop but actually delays progress of the work. Perhaps what God really needs for us to do is to obey the great commission and "Go into all the world and preach [really preach] the good news to all creation (Mark 16:15 NIV)" and then to stand by while God performs His will in the depths of hearts.

On the day of Pentecost, when Peter preached, the Holy Spirit did His work, and the listeners "were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do? (Acts 2:37 NIV)’’’ At that point the apostles gladly instructed them further.

After all, it is "’Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty. (Zechariah 4:6b NIV)."


For a more in-depth study of this subject also see:

 "Decisional Regeneration"  

By James E. Adams


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