The preacher is still talking as the piano starts its melodic dirge (slow, sad music). His voice slows, and quiets, as he nurses the drama of the moment. When the scene is set the words are spoken, “with every head bowed and eye closed,” the moment of decision has arrived. Those trusting Jesus for salvation raise their hand, stand up, and are called to the fore. In an effort to enter the kingdom of God they make their way towards the altar.
For those, like me, who were raised in the revivalist tradition this experience was the norm. We saw the ritual of the altar call performed on a weekly basis, and if it was absent an explanation was demanded. A service without ‘the call’ was a lost opportunity. A preacher reluctant to make ‘the call’ was suspect. If we are serious about evangelism, we must give seekers the opportunity to choose Jesus.
(to the last bit only)
The mistake made by many is that the altar call is the only sanctioned way to invite people to Christ. I heartily agree that we must give seekers the opportunity to choose Jesus, but I question the effectiveness of the altar call. Some may take immediate issue with this, pointing to their own salvation experience as proof to the contrary. But, while I concede the ritual has accomplished much good, I fear it has done equal harm.
Too many lost souls are wandering about the Bible belt confident in their salvation but devoid of grace. They have a strong remembrance of a moment when, deeply moved, they arose form their seat and went to grip the preacher’s hand. They prayed a quick prayer and were assured of salvation. But this momentary enthusiasm quickly dissipates and they return to their set patterns. There is no change, there is no fruit, there is no new life. Worse still, there is now no conviction. They are convinced that their participation on that fateful night has secured them for eternity. They see the altar call as a sacrament of grace and having received it, they live confidently in a counterfeit assurance.
In all fairness, this was never the intent of the early revivalists. They would be horrified to think of their initiative as becoming a sacrament. But, then again, I find the original motivation equally disturbing. Made famous by Charles Finney, the altar call was used to create an environment that would ensure the desired response. Finney wrote, “A revival is not a miracle, it is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means.” In other words, preachers might generate the desired response if they effectively manipulated the environment.
Not every revivalist was so pragmatic, but I fear the results didn’t appreciate the distinction. People are vulnerable when they are in an emotionally choreographed environment and are easily manipulated. But when the moment has passed and the passions have cooled, the soul of the sinner is still as before. More than anything else, the altar call has proved the difference between conviction and conversion.
We must give seekers the opportunity to choose Jesus. Those without hope must be offered the promise of new life. It must happen in our homes, in our work place, and in our churches. The gospel must be spoken often and with enthusiasm, but we need to realize that there is no power in calculated programming. Conversion, like revival, is a miracle. Accomplished by the Spirit through the plain speaking of the truth seekers are saved. It is a marvelous work of God—not the accomplishment of a persuasive man.