It is a feature of historic evangelicalism. The preacher has finished his message. The organist begins playing “Just As I Am” softly in the background. The preacher invites the sinner to come forward to the front of the church, where someone is there to pray for them, to make a decision for Christ.
This is a typical example of an “altar call.” It is a well-known tradition practiced in thousands of churches. So, why are some pastors hesitant to make an altar call?
Is the altar call … even Scriptural?
Before anyone can answer those questions fully, it helps to relay a story from church history. Every church has their traditions. But it does not mean that every Christian knows where those traditions come from…
From the Anxious Bench to the Altar Call
Most American evangelical Christians have heard of something called the “Second Great Awakening.” In the early decades of the 19th century, traveling evangelists criss-crossed the country, leading a revival that impacted thousands and thousands of people. The two most influential evangelists during that period, the “Billy Graham’s” of their day, were Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875) and Asahel Nettleton (1783-1844).
Nearly everyone knows who Charles Finney was. Finney’s name will be forever linked with the “altar call.” But Asahel Nettleton? He remains largely unknown and forgotten. The story of Finney and Nettleton goes a long way in explaining why the use of an altar call today can sometimes be controversial.
Asahel Nettleton was the younger of the two, coming to faith in New England while in his teens. He began his preaching career in the early 1800s, up and down the east coast, though mostly staying near his home state of Connecticut. Ironically, though known to be a rather quiet man, Nettleton sought to follow largely in the footsteps of George Whitefield, the fiery evangelist of the 1730s and 1740s. Like most evangelists before him, Nettleton believed that his listeners should ponder what they heard, and then go talk privately with their local pastors, after evangelistic meetings, to discuss the state of their souls. “Walking down the aisle” to receive Jesus, was unknown to Asahel Nettleton.
It is difficult to say for sure, but some historians suggest that over 30,000 people converted to Christ, through Nettleton’s ministry, before he died of typhoid fever, in his early sixties. Considering the relatively small population of the United States in those days, that number was huge, for the ministry of a single man! It is possible that upwards of 80% of those who were converted stayed grounded and grew in their faith, over the years. This truly was a miracle of God, a testimony to the power of the Holy Spirt to bring about revival.
Charles Grandison Finney came to faith in his late twenties in upstate New York, beginning a long career of evangelistic ministry, until his death in his eighties. With piercing eyes, many believed Finney was looking directly into the souls of his listeners, as he preached across upstate New York, and surrounding areas. Many were truly converted under Finney’s ministry, but Finney was more innovative than Nettleton. Finney was known for his very emotive style of preaching, critics sometimes accusing him of using high-pressure tactics to press people to “make a decision” for Christ. He would even call out the names of people from the pulpit, of well-known sinners in the community. He instituted the practice of leaving an open bench, at the front of the meeting, just below where he preached. Finney would invite people, who were moved by his preaching to sit on this so-called “anxious bench,” in front of the whole assembly, where they could evaluate their own souls. Unlike Nettleton’s more quiet revival meetings, people could be heard crying and wailing as Finney thundered his message, over those sitting on the “anxious bench.”
Within a few years, Asahel Nettleton became alarmed by these “New Measures” used by Charles Finney. A meeting was held in 1827, in New Lebanon, New York, to see if some common understanding could be reached, as to what was appropriate versus inappropriate in a revival meeting. The convention gained the attention of the whole eastern seaboard, wondering what the outcome might be.
Sadly, the two men, and their respective parties could not agree on much. Finney believed that God had enabled his revival meetings to be designed and engineered in such a way, as to produce the most maximum results in conversions. Such human efforts could break up the “fallow ground,” as he would call it, in the harvest for men’s souls. Nettleton answered back by calling out these “New Measures” as being manipulative, warning that Finney’s tactics would lead supposedly “converted” people into a worse spiritual state, than they were before they heard Finney preach! The different parties left the New Lebanon convention without a resolution, and they went their separate ways.
In time, Finney’s ministry eclipsed that of Nettleton’s (at least, initially). Some historians estimate that as many as an astounding 500,000 responded as conversions under Finney’s long career of preaching. Despite Nettleton’s criticisms, Finney got results.
However, over the years, Finney became frustrated as to how well such converted people actually retained their faith, in the long run. In an article in the New York Evangelist, nearly ten years after the New Lebanon convention, Finney regretted that of all the converts from the revivals of the preceding ten years “the great body of them are a disgrace to religion. Of what use would it be to have a thousand members added to the Church to be just such as are now in it.”
As some theologians and historians have looked back on his ministry, out of the nearly 500,000 reported conversions, only perhaps 40,000 to 50,000 of those professed Christians continued on in their faith. That is a less than 10% retention rate. The great Princeton theologian of the early 20th century, B.B. Warfield, in his Studies in Perfectionism, went so far as accusing Charles Finney of advocating a man-centered, as opposed to a God-centered, form of faith: “It is quite clear that what Finney gives us is less a theology than a system of morals. God might be eliminated from it entirely without essentially changing its character.”
Nevertheless, generations after Charles Finney remember him, but rarely do they acknowledge even the existence of Asahel Nettleton. Finney’s “anxious bench” was taken up in the revivalist tradition by Dwight L. Moody (late 19th century) and Billy Sunday (early 20th century), where eventually the terminology of “altar call” was given to those methods, originally derived from Finney.
But by the time we get to Billy Graham, in the latter half of the 20th and early 21st centuries, the excesses of Finney’s revivalistic methodologies were modified and refined. There was a greater emphasis on follow-up and discipleship, of those who come forward down the aisle to receive Christ, at such gatherings. Graham insisted that signing a “decision” card was not enough. Local churches should make contact with such people, in the weeks following the meetings, in order that they might be encouraged to continue in their newfound faith. Contemporary defenders of the altar call tradition say that giving an explicit invitation can be done in such a way that does not lead to the type of manipulation, that so greatly troubled Asahel Nettleton.
Nevertheless, contemporary critics of the altar call tradition give several reasons for why altar calls should be avoided completely, or at the very least, toned down in their tendency towards emotionalism. Here are a few of the most notable criticisms:
- People can easily confuse “coming to Christ” with the physical act of “coming forward to the front of the sanctuary,” at the end of the church service.
- People can wrongly confuse the assurance of personal salvation, with walking down the aisle, with their families and friends looking on. Are people really being drawn by the Holy Spirit, or are they being prodded by emotionalized, social expectations, of those around them?
- The altar call partly replaces the Scriptural doctrine of baptism as the public act of profession of faith.
As an alternative, some suggest that altars call should be only performed on an irregular basis, as opposed to having them at the end of every church service. Others suggest a lower-key mode in giving an explicit invitation, such as having “every head bowed and every eye closed,” and asking those in the congregation to quietly raise their hand, when giving a positive response.
My own story mirrors these type of cautions. As a teenager who knew nothing about evangelical faith as a kid, I went to my first “revival” meeting at a local church at age 17. I had already made a commitment to Christ prior to this meeting, but I had recently heard of “altar calls,” so I wanted to check things out for myself, and see what the whole hub-a-bub was all about.
Sure enough, the guest preacher finally got to that moment of the service, inviting all of us quirky teenagers to come forward, in order to accept Christ in their life. Within a couple of minutes, from the back of the room, one of my old girlfriends made her way to the front, and fell upon her knees.
I was in shock. I muttered softly, “Could this be true? Had my old girlfriend from way back in middle school become a Christian?”
Another girl sitting behind me, heard me whisper. She leaned forward and said, “Hey, Clarke. I would not get too excited about this. I have been keeping count for the past two years, and this is the eighteenth time she has come forward to received Jesus.”
Eighteen times?? Talk about a double-shock. I left that meeting more confused than ever as to what an “altar call” was even about.
The Altar Call as a Man-Made Tradition, or a Tool Used by God… or Both?
Many people have instinctively grown up with thinking that an altar call is simply what everyone does to get people to become Christians. It is a tradition, and for some people, you can not have a real evangelical church service with it!
To his credit, it is worth remembering that even in the case of Charles Finney, God surely used him to bring thousands to genuine faith in Jesus. Even if altar calls completely disturb you, it is worth considering that God can use just about anything to bring people to Himself. Supporters of altars calls typically cite Matthew 10:32, as proof that God calls people to give a testimony publicly before others for their faith.
But does that necessarily mean that giving an “invitation” is the same thing as an “altar call?” Many critics of the altar call tradition say that a good preacher will give an invitation to repent and respond in faith in Jesus throughout the entire preached message, and not just tacked on at the end of the service. A good sermon does not need the altar call music being played on cue. Rather, if the Holy Spirit is really drawing people and speaking through the preacher’s message, convicting unbelievers of their sin, then people will come to Christ, with or without prayer counselors standing by.
Back to the question, from the title of this blog post: Is the “altar call” in the Bible? The great 20th century Bible teacher, Martyn-Lloyd Jones, perhaps one of British evangelicalism’s greatest statesmen, was once asked this question, and the Apostle Peter’s remarkable sermon in Acts 2 came to mind:
- There is no evidence that [the altar call] was done in New Testament times, because then they trusted to the power of the Spirit. Peter preaching on the Day of Pentecost under the power of the Spirit, for instance, had no need to call people forward in decision because, as you remember, the people were so moved and affected by the power of the Word and Spirit that they actually interrupted the preacher, crying out, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” That has been the traditional Reformed attitude towards this particular matter. The moment you begin to introduce this other element, you are bringing a psychological element. The invitation should be in the message. We believe the Spirit applies the message, so we trust in the power of the Spirit.
Dr. Jones’ greatest concern was that an altar call might bring about what the Apostle Paul called “worldly sorrow” instead of “godly sorrow.”
- Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death (2 Corinthians 7:10, NIV 2011)
“Godly sorrow” can be thought of as genuine sorrow for one’s sins, with a desire to turn around, away from sin, and enter the embrace of the Savior. “Worldly sorrow,” on the other hand, is more like that of feeling sorry for being caught in one’s sins. There is big difference between the two: the first leads to life, but the second is a counterfeit. Dr. Jones summarizes:
- I can sum it up by putting it like this: I feel that this pressure which is put upon people to come forward in decision ultimately is due to a lack of faith in the work and operation of the Holy Spirit. We are to preach the Word, and if we do it properly, there will be a call to a decision that comes in the message, and then we leave it to the Spirit to act upon people. And of course He does. Some may come immediately at the close of the service to see the minister. I think there should always be an indication that the minister will be glad to see anybody who wants to put questions to him or wants further help. But that is a very different thing from putting pressure upon people to come forward. I feel it is wrong to put pressure directly on the will. The order in Scripture seems to be this – the truth is presented to the mind, which moves the heart, and that in turn moves the will.
Like any other tradition, an altar call might indeed be a very good thing. But when any tradition takes on a life of its own, separate from the Word of God, it can lead to disaster. So, is it possible to present an “altar call,” without falling into the trap that Dr. Jones’ describes? Is having an altar call totally a “bad” thing? These are good questions that require thought, and careful study of God’s Word, before rushing off with a quick answer.
The bottom line: God has used altar calls, for great good, and we can rejoice in such things. But manipulation is always a danger. There is a place for caution. Having an “altar call” and “giving an invitation” are not necessarily the same thing.
Historian Thomas Kidd offers a brief history of the “altar call.” Some try to describe the “altar call” controversy as being a “Calvinism vs. Arminianism” thing, but this is a vast over-simplification. There are Calvinist groups that practice altar calls and Arminian groups that do not. Nevertheless, an in-depth study of the biblical basis (or non-basis) for the altar call requires some significant theological thought to work through. John Williamson Nevin was a 19th century supporter of Asahel Nettleton’s revival preaching. The cross+words blog has a seven-part blog post series looking at one of his most well-known tracts, “The Anxious Bench,” a highly critical examination of Charles Finney’s “New Methods.” From another perspective, the Wesleyan Arminian blog offers a defense of the altar call.