The question, as phrased on Sunday was this:
Why do many churches not offer an altar call—an invitation to come pray, leave burdens, respond if the Holy Spirit has prompted and allow the lost to come when convicted to further learn or step into salvation?
There are a number of reasons churches do what they do. First of all, let me explain what an altar call is for those who might not know.
Many church traditions have for centuries ended their Sunday morning time of worship with a call for people to come forward to the front of the sanctuary for some kind of commitment. It’s called an “altar call” because Catholic churches have a table at the front of the room that they call the “altar.” Catholic churches have people come forward for communion. Many non-Catholic churches continue the practice but make it about salvation, baptism, membership or prayer. Regardless, the idea of an altar call is to get people to make a visible commitment in front of other people. That is both the strength and weakness of an altar call.
Catholics do the altar call because their doctrine requires only priests to hand out communion. Therefore, to receive communion, a person must go to where the priest is.
Protestants who do altar calls do them because they get people to take immediate, visible action in response to the teaching or the worship experience. They work too. That is, churches that regularly issue altar calls get more people to make decisions for Christ than churches that don’t. There’s something psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually powerful about making the decision to follow Jesus, getting out of your chair, walking to the front of the room, encountering all that potential embarrassment, and then to be received with cheers and pride from other people. Anyone who has come to faith that way describes it as a powerful moment. Anyone who has gone forward for an altar call describes it as a powerful moment. It’s no wonder that altar calls really became popular during the various moments of revival in the United States. Protestant churches that do altar calls today are living in the legacy of those revivalist preachers, and are hoping for future revival to come as well.
However, there are four reasons I don’t do them. (Now, for most of the history of Lafayette Community Church, we have had people available for prayer at the end of our worship gatherings, and I have invited people to come forward for prayer if they wished to, but I don’t consider that an altar call because we never made it obvious, and we focused on it being for prayer mostly.) The major reason some churches don’t do altar calls is that they don’t accomplish the larger goal of making disciples. Talk to any pastor of any church that does an altar call, and you will hear of all the numbers of people who have come forward to receive Christ or be baptized or become members, and you will also learn of all the people who after that moment of coming forward disappeared from the church completely. They made a decision to follow Christ, came forward, prayed the prayer, and then never came back. The momentary passionate decisions are sometimes incredibly formative for some people, but the majority of the time, those decisions are fleeting.
Refer to my earlier answer about evangelism, and you’ll understand that some churches don’t care about the endurance of a person or the follow-up with that person as much as they care about the momentary decision made by that person. From that perspective, the altar call got them saved, the church did it’s job, and then after they are saved, what they become is between them and God. However, Scripture doesn’t support that framework. The New Testament writers consistently talk about faithful living and endurance in the faith far more than any kind of momentary salvation decision. The reason I don’t do evangelistic altar calls is that I don’t think they produce disciples, and I’m afraid of giving a person the false reassurance that because they went forward that one Sunday and prayed that prayer, then they are “saved” and are guaranteed Heaven when they die. I don’t want to be responsible for a person having a false sense of salvation.
The second reason I don’t do them is similar to the first. Altar calls don’t just empower someone to develop a false sense of salvation, but they can also empower hypocrisy. Because they are public, a person can go forward at the altar call just to look spiritual in front of others. On the flip side, a person can live a life of guilt and shame and disobedience all week long and then go forward on Sunday to turn their lives over to Christ all over again with no real intention of changing.
The third reason I don’t do them builds on the second. Since altar calls are visible, and since the people who go forward at an altar call can be perceived by others to be the truly spiritual people, an altar call can actually discourage a person from coming to faith in Christ. A person can be in that place where they are aware of their sin, they are ready to make a change, the work of God is starting to happen in their heart, but then they learn they need to do the embarrassing thing of walking forward, and then they see other people going forward, and they just don’t feel spiritual enough or brave enough to take that step. Yes Jesus said he wanted his followers to acknowledge him before people, but Paul also says we shouldn’t put any stumbling block in anyone’s way.
The fourth reason is simply that altar calls aren’t found in the Bible. There is no moment in any passage of any part of the New Testament where a person says, “Come forward to receive Christ.” The closest we get to it is on the day of Pentecost when the people begged Peter what they should do to be saved, and he told them to repent and be baptized. But then what? There was no “altar” up front. There was no baptism tank. Peter wasn’t even in a sanctuary. Scripture gives us no indication how the people were baptized or where they went. Furthermore, there are no accounts in the rest of the New Testament where a church gathering took place and people were invited to stand up and come to the front. How did evangelism and discipleship happen in the New Testament? Relationships.
I’m convinced that altar calls have great potential to give a person that tangible moment of decision when they need it, but those tangible moments of decision are not needed and might actually be counter-productive. Emotional, spontaneous, momentary decisions often don’t lead to faithful endurance but they can give a false sense of security to the unfaithful person.