This morning in my email I received one of those ‘professional’ articles we pastors get all the time. I usually just dump them quickly from my iPhone while I’m working out. But today I lingered on the article and thought about it because it was about something I myself had wrestled with. The article was titled “4 Reasons Not To Give An Altar Call” and it was pretty good.
For back story on this, allow me to explain that I grew up in a church environment which saw the obligatory “Invitation” as the most important part of the worship service. For people who might not be familiar, that is the time when, following the sermon, the church sings a song (I Have Decided to Follow Jesus, Softly and Tenderly, Just as I Am) expectantly waiting for something to happen. The somethings to happen are people to become Christ-followers, rededicate their lives, confess sin, join the church, or just slip down to the altar and kneel to pray. It is a type of church action which is a throwback to the revivalistic tendencies of the 1800’s and was made universal by the great crusades of Billy Graham.
My personal problem is that I like what we used to call a “warm altar,” because it allows for immediate response to the word of God. However, much of that is cultural context. I decided that my desire for the warm altar was overridden by two other factors.
Factor One: Altar calls can be manipulative. Today whenever I am in a church service that features an altar call my Gen Xer DNA shines through and I am certain that I am being manipulated. For over ten years I used a weekly altar call, and whenever there was no action I always assumed that I’d done something wrong. I was preconditioned to believe that preaching was only effective if people came forward. That kind of belief is not only unscriptural it is a recipe for manipulation.
Factor Two: Altar calls are not effective. If people are seeking specific prayer or if they are trying to talk about salvation or confession of sin; it is hard to do that when loud instruments are playing and people are singing. The effectiveness is also strained by the very public nature of such pressure to decide. People who are not prone to public emotion or are unfamiliar with the practice simply will not participate in an altar call, thus making the practice that much more ineffective.
I came to these conclusions about 6 or 7 years ago, but did not make the change in my church until about two years ago. When I did, we went cold turkey. There was no slow weaning off of the endorphin high of an invitation; we just stopped having them. Some people had a question or two about it, but no one really complained about it and I was surprised at how folks just accepted it. Now we use these nice little cards (which I swiped from a Nelson Searcy Book) which are printed up each week, sermon specific, with boxes for people to check. Then, I and other staff can follow up through email, phone calls, or face-to-face conversations on what the spiritual need is and how we can be/become followers of Jesus in an environment that is decidedly less pressurized and much more conducive to dialogue. The by-product has been that we have seen an increase in all the things we used to count on the invitation to do; because the system we use makes more sense to people to whom they are targeted, namely, people who are not familiar with churchy culture.