Where Did All the Altar Calls Go?
MY ALTAR CALL EXPERIENCE
I answered an altar call as a 12 year old, they were common place at my church. I made a confession of faith and was baptized at some point soon after. By church standards, I had done all that I had been told to do in order to receive Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.
A week after, I prayed for God to give me a day off school and I woke up the next morning to be told my father had died. I always heard in church that God answers prayers in unexpected ways and that He gives us more than we could ask or think. I asked for one day off school and God gave me more than a week.
If that was how God was going to answer my prayers, I didn’t want that God in my life.
I lived many years making my own choices and mostly forgot about Jesus — who I had already declared in front of a church was my Lord and Savior. I lived a worldly life, fell into addiction and depression. One desperate night, I asked God to, “Help me discover a future and a hope for my life because I don’t have one.” What followed transformed my life forever.
MY GIVING AN ALTAR CALL EXPERIENCE
Soon after giving my life to Christ, God called me to start a ministry called Testimony House that shared the gospel with others by sharing personal testimonies of God moving in the lives of His people. After I started that ministry, God expanded it to include revival efforts in the city of St. Louis after the 2014 events in Ferguson, MO.
Testimony House held its first revival in 2015, God prompted me to do an impromptu altar call to repent and ask for salvation at that event where 12 people answered and even more than that made a rededication to their relationship with Christ. It was incredible to have a first row seat for God moving in someone’s life in a way where they wanted to confess it publicly.
As time passed, I found myself thinking about the altar call often, and I found myself wondering why I thought it was important. I reflected back to my own altar call, which produced no fruit in my life. In fact, it is my belief that if I had died before I gave my life to Christ in 2012 I would’ve gone to Hell for my unbelief.
THE RESULTS OF MY ALTAR CALLS
The Bible tells us that faith in Christ as Lord produces transformation in the life of that person. The change should always be positive and could simply be a change in behavior, a deep desire to read God’s Word, a change in attitude, a new calling on a life or in my case a deliverance from a major addiction. Following my altar call, I had not transformed my life to bear any of the fruit of the Holy Spirit that is evidence of someone being saved (Gal. 5:22-23). In other words, I had no visible signs of transformation.
So what was the point of our revival altar call, or altar calls in general, if they are unreliable indicators if someone has given their life to Christ?
THE CHURCH OF UNNECESSARY ALTAR CALLS
After I was born again at 29, God had me go back to the church where I answered the altar call when I was 12. Upon my return to that church, I realized things had changed there. One major observation I saw, was that their attendance had lowered from roughly 300 on Sunday Service when I left the church to 80 in Sunday Service when I returned. Another thing that changed was that the altar call had been eliminated from their order of service.
At some point, I asked the pastor why there was no altar call and I was given several reasons including, “people don’t get saved that way, it’s not biblical, and because they wanted to make sure someone was saved before allowing someone to come up and make a profession of faith.”
Through the course of my ministry work, I have had the honor of visiting many churches. Either as an invited guest, a member, or as an attender. At each of these churches, I take care to notice their altar call procedures. More than not, churches acted like my original church did and did not give an altar call.
When possible, I asked members or ministers of the churches why they did not do any type of altar call. I was surprised to hear many of the same responses I heard from the pastor I first asked. There are other reasons, but it is unnecessary to go into each and every reason why they don’t.
Surmise it to say, the overall consensus held by the churches that did not do altar calls was that since altar calls cannot prove someone has made a true conversion to Christianity, then it should be disregarded as a practice as a whole.
THE CHURCH OF ALL TYPES OF ALTAR CALLS
Of the churches I have personally attended, churches that commonly practiced some sort of altar call, whether it was a call forward or a hand raise for salvation, a call for prayer or a call for holy spirit baptism mostly had a large number of congregates. At those larger churches, I didn’t always have an audience with the ministers to get their take on why the altar call is a part of their order of service. So, I looked to find out who did altar calls and why they still practiced them, when so many churches around them had stopped.
Camp meetings around the turn of the 19th century started using altar calls as a method to reach frontiersmen’s with the gospel and call them to repentance. I have previously written about the Marvin Camp Meetings held in my home town around that same time.
However, by most accounts, a Presbyterian minister named Charles Finney became the face of the altar call movement. Finley believed the altar call was an essential part of revival efforts and stated that when a person is put into an “anxious seat,” it allows that person to be prayed for more effectively and also gives them an opportunity to repent.
The altar call method went on to be adopted into practice by many other churches and evangelists with messages of repentance and revival including Billy Graham who urged those within ear shot to answer the call to repentance because they may not live to hear the next one.
The theme among American Evangelical churches and ministries that still practice the altar call today, seems to be that God wants us to confess our sins and confess Christ as Lord, and the altar call gives a person that opportunity.
WHERE I STAND NOW
When I started reading about how altar calls have been used in mighty moves of revival throughout the years, It didn’t take me long to figure out where I stand on this issue. I am absolutely for altar calls because I want a mighty move of God and revival to happen in St. Louis.
In addition to my deep desire for the revival of St. Louis, some of the major arguments against why the church shouldn’t practice this method of ministry didn't seem to hold up to me. The first argument being, altar calls aren't a Biblical method of salvation, and I would answer with “what method we use today is?” There are many practices in the churches today like new members classes or pastoral meetings that churches do to “make sure someone is saved," that aren’t mentioned in the Bible but are carried on across denominational lines.
Another argument is that altar calls give false positives. Meaning that someone who confesses to be saved today, may not actually be saved tomorrow. And, "If we can’t tell the difference, we shouldn’t do them." Last I checked, it wasn’t up to the church to “determine” who was saved and who wasn’t. Only God knows the heart of man. The altar call is simply a method to share the gospel message of Christ to someone who may not have heard it before or may be hearing it clearly for the first time, and allowing them the opportunity to respond.
My thoughts are that smaller churches believe they know their people, and don't feel a need to do an altar call when they know everyone is saved. Another thought is that the pride of the pastors of a church takes a hit when no one responds to their message week after week. This leads churches to make drastic decisions like removing an altar call, but not for the reasons they share with others. I would like to point out that I have no research to back up this point, it is simply a thought.
I want my friends, my neighbors, my enemies, and strangers I’ve never met to be saved. I don’t want to assume they know they need to confess with their mouth and believe in their heart that Jesus is Lord in order to be saved. But, when churches decides they don’t need to share that message with their church any longer, are new people coming through the door leaving church without hearing a path to salvation?
WILL THE ALTAR CALL PASS AWAY?
Richard Marshall, who managed more than 50 Crusades with Billy Graham, in 1996 said, “evangelism will evolve, if people still have faith the God can change lives.” Marshall went on to predict the decline of the altar call, “the altar call will pass away only when church leaders become too timid to challenge people to repent.”
The altar call has started to die. I am in agreement that the church has grown timid in calling sinners to repentance. It’s not a bad thing to find out you’re a sinner, it’s a wonderful thing. Only when a person realizes their need to repent will they be in a position to confess Jesus as Lord. Do we want to be a body of Christ that stops presenting that message, which is paramount to gospel sharing?
Marshall eloquently said, “You end up with churches built on murmurs of the past, murmurs of the faith of your grandparents. You take out the altar call. You take out the confession of sin. Soon you are left with a kind of religious show. It looks good. It feels good. But does it have any power to inspire people to make decisions that can change their lives?”
That’s what the altar call is all about. Seeing lives changed by Christ.
The church I went back to once had a congregation of thousands, but attendance has fallen year after year. I have heard those murmurs of what their church used to be first hand. Would they be better served going back to an altar call approach, I don’t know. But it is something I have seen firsthand, that corresponds with the message of longtime crusade evangelist Richard Marshall.
An altar call doesn’t prove someone is saved, but it proves they have an interest in Christ. That is enough for me and for many, the altar call is the beginning of that transformation into a new life in Christ.
THE ALTAR CALL EXPERIENCE OF OTHERS
As part of my ministry, I ask others to share their testimony with me. I have heard so many awesome stories of salvation, blessings, and miracles. I was surprised to hear, more than any other salvation testimony, that so many people I know personally found Christ through the Billy Graham Crusades. I have heard dozens of firsthand accounts of people who answered an altar call in person, over the radio, and during the TV broadcasts during the Graham Crusades.
I know without a doubt that the altar call has led to the positive change and transformation of a person’s life through Christ. No one can ever tell me altar calls aren’t effective ministries. Even if it's only for some, why would we stop doing an effective ministry? The reasons vary, but they are of little importance. Calling people to ask Jesus to be their Lord and Savior is our call as Christians. I don’t care the method the church uses to do that, but disregarding proven methods based on differing theologies or denominations is limiting the work of God.
The first church I chose to go to after being born again, and the church I was baptized in as an adult, did give altar calls. They were completely different in all styles to the other church I attended, from music to attendance and everything in between. It was not that one church was better than the other, but they definitely had a different way of doing things.
I did not answer an altar call at that church, but I did bring a man (who I met while out on a walk one day) to that church who did answer an altar call. After the call, He was taken into a side room, where he was given a Bible, instructions for how to get plugged into the church and also led in a prayer to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
I drove him home that night and listened to him talk about how excited he was to receive that bible and how interesting it was for him to be a room full of people praying together like that. In the weeks that followed, this man came to my house several times for bible study and fellowship. It was clear his life had been transformed because He made Jesus Christ his Lord and Savior.
What if the church hadn’t giving him a call to the altar? A moment for him was so important to his walk with the Lord. What if the church had taken it away from him because they wanted to “make sure he was saved” first? Would he have found a church to get plugged into or felt like he was loved?
You may not believe altar calls are important, but there are so many who found salvation in that way. And if the church decides to stop making that method available, are they making salvation unavailable as well?