Some Thoughts on Altar Calls

In recent years, the subject of altar calls has been sometimes hotly debated among Southern Baptists. If you don’t know the term, altar calls are a form of public invitation wherein attendees are urged to walk to the front of a worship center or other gathering place to discuss spiritual matters, normally near the conclusion of a worship service. Evangelists such as Billy Graham give altar calls at the conclusion of their evangelistic meetings. In many churches, pastors invite attendees to the front to seek counsel related to conversion, to express a desire to be baptized and/or join the church, and to discuss any number of other spiritual matters. Many churches also invite folks to pray at the front of the worship center, even if they do not discuss these prayers with a pastor or other spiritual counselor.

Altar calls have been common among American evangelicals for about two hundred years. During the Second Great Awakening, frontier Methodists first used this practice in their camp meetings. Some Baptists in the South also adopted the practice, which they almost certainly learned from the Methodists, since these two groups frequently cooperated in camp meetings in the Carolinas and Georgia through the 1810s. In the 1820s and 1830s, Charles Finney popularized the view among Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists in the urban Northeast. Though he was accused of introducing “Methodist” practices among these more Calvinistic churches, altar calls (along with his other “new measures”) became popular among many evangelicals.

Though it is impossible to determine with certainty when altar calls became a part of the weekly liturgy of most Southern Baptist churches, the practice was common after the Civil War and nearly uniform by the early twentieth century. This more or less coincides with the same period that Southern Baptists almost universally embraced “protracted meetings” (revival meetings) as a means to evangelize their communities. Though I can’t prove it, I suspect the two trends are related, since both reflect practices that emerged during the Second Great Awakening.

Back to the present. In my opinion, the debate about altar calls is “much ado about nothing.” I put altar calls in the category of what Augustine calls adiaphora: the “indifferent matters” that various Christians might disagree about without breaking fellowship. Simply put, altar calls are a particular strategy, born out of a particular context, that may or may not work in other contexts. Though open to various abuses (what strategy isn’t?), I don’t believe altar calls are inherently anti-biblical or manipulative. Though helpful in some contexts, altar calls aren’t biblically mandated means of encouraging spiritual decisions. As a mostly itinerant preacher, when I preach, I adapt my practice to the tradition of the church or other context in which I’m preaching. I would estimate that I extend an altar call about 75% of the time.

In taking this approach, I’m deliberately pushing back against two tendencies that I think are extremes and that frequently shoot at each other in this particular debate. On the one hand, I reject the argument that altar calls are (almost) always inappropriate. Some folks who make this argument are Calvinists who believe the practice is out-of-bounds because of its roots in the more Arminian wing of the Second Great Awakening. Other Calvinists reject altar calls because of their particular understanding of the regulative principle of worship; since altar calls aren’t in the Bible, we shouldn’t employ them today. Still others, from a variety of soteriological perspectives, reject altar calls for methodological reasons. Altar calls are seen to be relics of a bygone era of revivalism and cultural Christianity that simply do not work in a more postmodern, urban, post-Christian world.

On the other hand, I reject the view that altar calls are (almost) always necessary for one to be an evangelistic preacher or church. Some folks who make this argument are vocal non-Calvinists who are reacting negatively to the theological critiques that some Calvinists have advanced concerning altar calls. Others are simply pastors and other leaders who have found that altar calls useful in their contexts and seem to have a hard time understanding that the strategy might not work in other contexts. I suspect that still others defend altar calls for experiential reasons; they have expressed their own significant spiritual decisions in part by responding to altar calls.

I suspect that much of the debate isn’t about altar calls per se, but rather is about concerns each extreme has about the other extreme. Therefore, I want to offer some constructive advice to those who are strongly for or strongly against altar calls.

If you are strongly in favor of altar calls, be sure that you don’t require altar calls for individuals to seek spiritual counsel. To say it a different way, make sure that altar calls are but one avenue through which an individual can seek counsel, make spiritual decisions known, etc. Second, when it comes to conversion in particular, make sure that the altar call doesn’t replace baptism as the public profession of faith. This elevates the altar call, which is simply a human strategy, and downplays baptism, which is an ordinance commanded by our Lord. Finally, don’t turn altar calls into a sacrament by implying that one is saved through walking an aisle. I know that no pastor really teaches this, but I also know that many folks seem to hear this. (I did throughout my teenage years.) Pastors need to be extra careful to be as clear as possible that an altar call doesn’t convey any sort of grace, but is simply a way to encourage folks to share what the Lord has already done in their lives or to seek spiritual counsel from pastors or other leaders.

If you are strongly against altar calls, be sure that you are being intentionally evangelistic in your corporate worship gatherings. Press the claims of Christ upon sinners and plead with them to repent and believe—in that very moment. Provide them with avenues to make spiritual decisions known or to seek spiritual counsel. In my church, where we don’t regularly extend altar calls, we always remind folks that elders are standing at each door and are eager to talk and pray with anyone who desires to do so. Much of what happens in other churches during an altar call happens in our church after the service as individuals talk to a pastor about spiritual matters. Second, don’t assume that just because altar calls were popularized by folks with theological convictions that Southern Baptists reject (Methodists; Finney) means that altar calls are, by definition, theologically suspect. There are good and bad forms of altar calls; give your brothers the benefit of the doubt on this unless you have clear evidence that someone is being manipulative.

There is much in the Southern Baptist Convention that is worthy of debate and discussion, provided we are Christ-like and extend brotherly love towards one another. But I don’t think this issue is worthy of too much debate (discussion, perhaps). Let’s extend each other Christian charity in methodological strategies that don’t conflict with biblical teachings, since churches are free to adopt these strategies or dispense with them. This includes the altar call. For readers who want to consider appropriate ways to extend an altar call, check out Danny Akin’s chapter “Giving an Invitation: Soul Winning from the Pulpit” in Engaging Exposition (B&H Academic, 2011).

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Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence, Part 12: Church Discipline: One Essential of a Healthy Church, Part C

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence is a series of articles by faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary that seeks to offer some definitions of what constitutes a GCR, why we believe the SBC is in need of such a movement, and what such a movement might look like in SBC life. The series will address biblical, theological, historical and practical issues related to a GCR with the hope that God will use our finite and flawed efforts for His glory and the good of the people called Southern Baptist.

Church Discipline: One Essential of a Healthy Church, Part C

Good, godly leadership is absolutely a must if a Church is to carry out the ministry of loving confrontation. Such leadership must be in place and evident to the congregation. This leadership will be visible both among the elders as well as the laity. Church Discipline is no place for a Lone Ranger. Going solo in this arena is suicidal. It is also unbiblical. Following the leader means there is a leader. It means establishing credibility and earning trust. When you have that you can act, act decisively, and act courageously.

Now, there needs to be a pastoral word at this point. Church Discipline should not be the primary focal point of the Church’s ministry. It should not require the neglect of other vital activities because of its necessity and practice. In fact I believe Paul envisioned it as a natural component of the very fabric of what the church is and does, a painful but essential aspect of Christian discipleship.

Paul could instruct Titus (Titus 3:12ff) on the principles of Church Discipline while at the same time giving attention to other ministries needing to be carried out. In all of this he needed the help of others, and others gladly lent their aid to their trusted leader. In all of this we see Church Discipline as a natural dimension of the multifaceted ministries of Church life. It is not preeminent. Neither is it an anomaly! Tony Evans is on target when he notes, “A Church that does not practice church discipline of its members is not functioning properly as a church, just as a family that does not discipline is not a fully functioning family” (Tony Evans, God’s Glorious Church, 222).

Church Discipline should be viewed as a good work, and this good work will meet the need and bear the fruit of 1) the glory of God; 2) love for the sinner; 3) restoration of the wayward; 4) the purity of the Church; 5) the protection of the fellowship, and 6) witness to the world. It is a good work of duty. It is a good work of necessity. Avoiding the ever present sins of legalism and judgmentalism, we testify to God, one another and the world that holiness and purity matter. We proclaim through Biblical Discipline that love cares and confronts. It can be tender but it can also be tough. What it cannot do is stand by and do nothing when one of the family is snared by sin. We do not discipline the world and have no intention of doing so. To them we proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is to ourselves we practice the ministry of loving confrontation. As the revivalist Charles Finney wrote, “If you see your neighbor sin, and you pass by and neglect to reprove him, it is as cruel as if you should see his house on fire, and pass by and not warn him” (Charles Finney, Lectures to Professing Christians, 45).

Now let me share a word of warning. Bitterness is an ever present enemy to those in the ministry. This is especially the case when we are called to the ministry of confrontation and discipline. Only God’s grace will give us balance, self control, wisdom and endurance. By God’s grace and for God’s glory we will be equipped and enabled to stand and serve, even when the odds are against us and the battle seems all for nothing. It isn’t, it never is, as long as the battle we fight is the Lord’s! His grace, His amazing grace, is what we need when the fire is hot or the water is deep. Such is often our lot in the ministry of confrontation. At such times only His grace will sustain us. Amazingly, we shall discover it is all we need.

Let me move to address and answer 2 questions. 1) Why do we practice Church Discipline? My friend Mark Dever provides 5 reasons: 1) For the Good of the Person Disciplined; 2) For the Good of the Other Christians, as They See the Danger of Sin; 3) For the Health of the Church as a Whole; 4) For the Corporate Witness of the Church; 5) For the Glory of God, as We Reflect His Holiness (Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, 166).

2) How do we begin to implement Church Discipline? Let me once more be pastoral and practical in my response. First, we must teach the people in our church what the Bible says about Church Discipline. Second, we must begin to implement Church Discipline lovingly, wisely, gently and slowly. A cram-course and premature action is a certain formula for disaster. Third, we must apply Church Discipline to areas like absentee membership as well as the specifics we find in the various lists of Scripture. We will do this not to cause hurt, but to bring about healing within the body of Christ.

Bryan Chapell is correct when he writes,

“there is a difference between needing to divide and loving to divide. A divisive person loves to fight. The differences are usually observable. A person who loves the peace and purity of the church may be forced into division, but it is not his character. He enters arguments regrettably and infrequently. When forced to argue, he remains fair, truthful, and loving in his responses. He grieves to have to disagree with a brother. Those who are divisive by nature lust for the fray, incite its onset, and delight in being able to conquer another person. For them victory means everything. So in an argument they twist words, call names, threaten, manipulate procedures, and attempt to extend the debate as long as possible and along as many fronts as possible. Divisive person frequent the debates of the church. As a result the same voices and personalities tend to appear over and over again, even though the issues change” (R. Kent Hughes and Bryan Chapell, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, 364).

In the final analysis, Church Discipline is a painful but necessary extension of Christian discipleship. We do it not because it is pleasant, but because we must. Why? I conclude with 4 concise observations: 1) Because overlooking sin is not gracious but dangerous; 2) Because confronting sin is not optional but essential; 3) Because dealing with sin is not judgmental but remedial; 4) Because correcting sin is not carnal but spiritual. Thomas Oden says, “Only those who take sin seriously take forgiveness seriously” (Thomas Oden, Corrective Love: The Power of Communion Discipline, 47). Our Lord did both, and so must we as we lovingly and faithfully follow the divine directions for Church Discipline.