The Psycholgy of Altar Calls

One of the first difficult discussions I had with the Board of Ordained Ministry was over invitations to Christian Discipleship (ie. "altar calls"). It is customary in the sermons we submit to include an invitation to accept Christ into your life via an altar call.  I did not include one and they asked me why. Instead, I invited the recipients of the sermon to action, be it offering hospitality or seeking justice or truth-telling.  It was my understanding that Christ invites us continually, not just once, and we respond continually as we seek sanctifying grace. Thus began a 4-year conversation with the Board over my weak embrace of an altar call praxis.

While as a pastor I have of course led people to Christ, as a layperson I can recall only one: a youth at a summer camp. It was a camp that was heavy on emotional 2-hour worship with a rockin' band and sweating preachers.  This youth and I had a good relationship, and on the last night of camp when other youth were coming to the altar, without my prodding he accepted an altar call, asked me to walk with him, and credited me with inspiring him to discipleship.

I have thought of that youth for a decade now, and while I praise God that he chose the path he did, I wonder about the reasons why.

Was it the band?
Was it the preacher?
Was it seeing others walk down the aisle?
Was it feeling like an outsider all week and wanting to be included?
Or was it the Spirit and I should stop analyzing it?

I'm certain it was a combination of the above, with the Spirit affecting the large majority of it. But I cannot help but wonder to what extent did the psychological role of emotive worship and the social-psychological effect of altar calls affect the situation? Are those means justified by the ends of saving people to Christ?

The seersucker seminarian pointed me to a post by Oklahoma pastor Wade Burleson. He recounts an article  that speaks well of my reservations with altar calls and my lingering concern that "the ends justify the means" mentality is intrinsic and inseparable from altar calls.

The article by 1970s preacher Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones is reprinted here in its entirety (source here, bolded sections are my bolds).
Question: During recent years, especially in England, among evangelicals of the Reformed faith, there has been a rising criticism of the invitation system as used by Billy Graham and others. Does Scripture justify the use of such public invitations or not?

Answer: Well, it is difficult to answer this in a brief compass without being misunderstood. Let me answer it like this:

The history of this invitation system is one with which you people ought to be more familiar than anyone else, because it began in America. It began in the 1820s; the real originator of it was Charles G. Finney. It led to a great controversy. Asahel Nettleton, a great Calvinist and successful evangelist, never issued an “altar call” nor asked people to come to the “anxious seat.” These new methods in the 182Os and were condemned for many reasons by all who took the Reformed position.

One reason is that there is no evidence that this 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. I personally agree with what has been said in the question.

I have never called people forward at the end for this reason; there is a grave danger of people coming forward before they are ready to come forward. We do believe in the work of the Spirit, that He convicts and converts, and He will do His work. There is a danger in bringing people to a “birth,” as it were, before they are ready for it.The Puritans in particular were afraid of what they would call “a temporary faith” or “a false profession.”

There was a great Puritan, Thomas Shepard, who published a famous series of sermons on The Ten Virgins. The great point of that book was to deal with this problem of a false profession. The foolish virgins thought they were all right. This is a very great danger. 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.

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones




Brian June 21, 2010 at 1:45 PM  

I really appreciate your practiced for altar calls. I think they are strong, not weak! What does the Lord require of us, and all that stuff.

Didn't the modern altar call arise as a way to enroll folks in the abolitionist and women's suffrage movements? It's my understanding that this whole "accept Jesus into your heart" altar call thing is a more recent development.

Jeff Lutz June 21, 2010 at 9:34 PM  

Hey Jeremy!

It's interesting that you bring this up, because while I was in the UMC most of my life, I can't even remember an altar call done by any UMC pastor.

I am now in a non-denominational charismatic church (it was for family reasons, and not any disagreement I had with the church) and they do them frequently. I often wrestle with the psychology of the altar call. I think our pastor does as well, because we will go through months when there isn't an altar call, and then they start again.

I love to say that we live in a tension. In this case, the altar call may be a good thing from time to time, but sometimes it feels forced. There must be a way for someone to declare their acceptance of Christ, without the forced feeling and going up before they're ready.


Kate,  June 21, 2010 at 10:00 PM  

Isn't there a Stuff Christians Like post or comment thread about this? I sort of recall reading something like, "In high school I was saved at LEAST once per year at summer camp, and often two or three times during the rest of the year." I *think* it was on SCL, but I could be wrong.

@ Brian,
Finney was an abolitionist and preached against slavery often, so it's totally reasonable that you could both be right. (No idea on women's suffrage, though).

(Sorry to be a random drive-by commentor)(commentrix?).

Anonymous,  June 22, 2010 at 11:23 AM  

I understand the worry about psychological pressure, although there is a such a thing as spiritual pressure, which God does use.

My father still speaks powerfully about his altar call experience, and I had one myself at - of all places - a UMC annual conference. The going forward is a powerful act. Is this enthusiasm? Perhaps.

I think bad altar calls are bad, but I'm not at all prepared to write them off - which I don't read you as suggesting.

Tracy June 25, 2010 at 10:12 PM  

I guess I could say that I feel strongly both ways - ha!

I can totally see what D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones is saying in this re-post and have absolutely no concerns for church services where there is not an alter call present. I especially agree in that I've known people who've gone forward before they really were fully ready and then later felt like they'd "tried Christianity and it didn't work".

On the other hand, I've seen people make real commitments and the concreteness of having a specific time and place was useful for their life. I've also been part of situations where we did extensive alter call follow up with people; going through a few weeks of 1:1 or very small group Bible studies. The Bible studies were to ensure that the participants in the alter call understood what they did, to ground them in the very basics of the faith, and to establish relationship. That situation always seemed effective.

In general, I find it difficult to totally dissect the soul from the spirit, so I don't know that psychological approaches are always bad.

Anonymous,  June 29, 2010 at 11:41 AM  

In college I attended a church that had weekly altar calls for people who felt led to "give their lives to Christ" or who had a particular prayer they wanted to lift up. I felt tremendous pressure to participate, especially if the people with whom I was sitting knew about some prayer concern I'd raised or something. It was as if, if at least one half of the "Elmira College" section (we took up the front three pews, house right) didn't go up to the altar, we had failed. So people would literally nudge one another-- you should go pray about that thing you mentioned. You should go up and pray with so and so. At the time, it was very powerful and I went forward many times, including at a couple of points when I had decided to commit/recommit myself to Jesus in a particular way. But there were also many times where I felt used or manipulated or phoney.

What I try to stress (and do a poor job of it) is that each presentation of the Word of God in a given week (through sermon, reading, music, prayer, testimony, etc-- not just through sermon because God speaks through way more people than me, and thank God for that!) should include an invitation to response. That's the formula: proclamation and response. That response may be a corporate prayer, a time of silence, a discussion with one's pew-neighbors, an invitation to sign up for a mission trip or project, etc. Once in my nearly six years of ministry, I invited people who were dealing with something specific to come forward or to stand where they were and receive prayer. It was a very special case following a very deep wound in our community and several other prayers of an almost confessional nature raised. It was an incredibly emotional service, and I felt in the moment that there was a need for a few people (turned out to be about 3) to stand or kneel or come forward, and those did, and a bunch of others placed hands on them. It felt to me as the worship leader to be an authentic expression of the vulnerability and solidarity that had been expressed in that case, and something far too sacred or fragile to try to create artificially. I think if we try to force or create that experience, we kill it, but we need to open many ways for it to happen that may or may not involve singling people out, relocating them from their pews, and so on. There are times when that's how the spirit moves, and I was blessed-- and incredibly surprised-- to be present to such a moment. But how else do we invite people to kneel at the altars of their hearts and in their worlds to respond to the Word proclaimed and alive among us?

Shane Raynor July 1, 2010 at 9:21 AM  

I have mixed feelings about altar calls. I like giving people opportunities to come to Christ, but I don't like giving the impression that this is the only way to come to him. I've given altar calls and had youth tell me later that they decided to follow Christ after they got home and had time to think about it. It is a method, plain and simple, and if used properly (and sparingly) I think it can be quite effective. But if we make it routine, I think it becomes old hat.

Nick Kiger July 1, 2010 at 9:00 PM  

I wrote a paper in seminary about ecstatic experience and how elements of a well planned worship service can induce such an experience. I compared this to the work of the shaman in Native American and some African religions. In many instances, it is the shaman's job to induce ecstatic experience, with in most cases, some type of substance. But, the substance can't act alone. One can eat peyote and have a much less profound experience than if he or she were guided by a shaman. I compare this to some forms of Christian worship. One has a much different (not better, not worse) experience in worship when a pastor with a powerful rhythm, backed by an organ, with perfect timing calls them to the altar than when perhaps a stoic pastor with a robbed choir sitting quietly behind him/her asks them to respond by taking action. The question is, is one reaction more "authentic" than the other? We may never know. Great blog though Jeremy, I'm glad I found it. Feel free to check mine out any time.


Carolyn July 16, 2010 at 7:33 PM  

I was raised in a Christian primary school that taught, "once saved, always saved." My Assemblies of God church had weekly altar calls, but due to the Calvinist teaching I was experiencing Monday-Friday, on Sunday I felt I should not go forward. I was already saved, right? Most of what I felt during those calls was left out. A whole chunk of service, including a set of slow praise songs and intense intercessory prayer by congregation members, was devoted to those who went forward. I found myself always thinking, "What about me?"

Sure, I was being "discipled" through the STARS program, which taught me a lot of stuff and required me to read the whole Bible and volunteer. But who noticed or cared when my friend was diagnosed with cancer at age 11? Telling me I should bring her to visit so they could pray over her was not a comfort to me, nor did it help me make sense of a loving God and a suffering friend.

I am increasingly convinced that the miracles of faith happen in everyday life. Watershed moments take place in contemplation, at the breakfast table, and on the way to some meeting. Creating an atmosphere of "once and for all" does little to nothing, since these things take time.

Furthermore, we all need to be reminded to do the Gospel. Even those of us who have been Christians for more than 20 years still need prodding. In the New Testament, "Good News" is both a noun and a verb (euangelion, euangelizomai). We do not ONLY receive Good News. We do it too! All Christians are called to "go out into the surrounding area Good Newsing" (par.)

Clint,  July 24, 2010 at 1:32 PM  

Is the Eucharist too insignificant to bring up here? You know, that thing that has been the hallmark of Christian worship for 2000 years? That is the ultimate altar call, and more free grace there than any "pastor" can channel with all his talkin' talkin'.

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