Andy, we are Baptists. We will have an invitation at a Pizza Party, just in case…” My mom spoke these words to me while I was growing up in a Southern Baptist youth group.
Growing up, the invitation, or altar call, was the time during a service when people got saved. Every once in a while a Christian, who had a special feeling, would go down and rededicate his life to Christ, or ask for prayer for a really bad sin that the preacher had hit hard that day in the sermon. For most though, it was the time to gather your coats, Bibles and discard any evidence of notes/drawings drawn rebelliously on the back of offering envelopes.
As a Southern Baptist minister, I know that the heart of the invitation/altar call is to give an opportunity for people to respond to the call of salvation, to walk the aisle as a physical sign of receiving the gift of Salvation and as an organizational tool to identify those who need follow-up.
About a year ago, I had the privilege to be a North American Mission Board church planter, and shape how we gather together as a church to worship and how we send God’s people out on mission. Is the altar call, the only biblical way to do this?
The answer is no, because the altar call is a relatively new element in our corporate worship services. It is a practice that was popularized in Methodist summer camps and by Charles G. Finney, a prominent evangelist of the American revivals. The practice served as a coercive technique used to influence the neutral will of man (as Finney believed) to decisively respond to the Gospel.
Many of our Baptist preachers have whole-heartily rejected the practice for a number of reasons. Charles Spurgeon warned of not needing a priest other than Christ, and that we must be careful not to add anything to salvation that may confuse the act of God’s grace.
The altar call can also produce a false assurance of faith because “someone walked an aisle,” and that act can become a false stone of remembrance. It can also make the front of the church a false sacred place, where people are called to ‘do business’ with God. God works and moves throughout the whole of creation, because He is the sovereign King of All.
I am also concerned that the practice of the altar call can misrepresent the work of the Holy Spirit in the work of the Gospel to all. Our services are not focused on non-believers’ repentance, but on the transforming message of Christ to all. As preachers, we are called to faithfully present the Gospel every time we gather. All who hear the Gospel will respond either in repentance of their own self-righteousness holding only to the cross, or in rejection of Jesus as Lord and Savior.
At our corporate worship services, I desire to call all to repentance and dependence on Christ alone. This is presented in the service by having “A call to Response.” This may be a time of reflection and silence, of prayer, ministry and counsel and often as coming to the Lord’s Table to do this “in remembrance of Christ.”
The Bible gives us two ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The altar call is not a biblically ordered method. Some have come to faith, but this does not canonize the method. Doing so erroneously adds to the pronouncement told by Scripture alone, that we are saved by grace alone, justified through faith alone by the work of Christ alone to the glory of God alone. It creates a works based faith. May we never use emotional manipulation to generate a conversion experience, but may we plan our services by faith in the work of the grace of God alone and the Holy Spirits transformational power at work in all who hear.
Andy McDonald is pastor of Redeemer Church