One of the common practices in the bible belt is having an "altar call" at the end of the sermon. A few times I have been asked why our church doesn’t practice altar calls. First of all let me say that I do not think that altar calls are always bad things. I, for one, have seen altar calls done well: ex. the life, death and resurrection of Jesus were clear; repentance, faith and belief in the Gospel were clear. I have also heard people reinforce that “the prayer” or “coming down front” doesn’t save you. On the flip side, and tragically more common, I have seen altar calls done poorly. In fact, earlier in my ministry career, I was guilty of mishandling altar calls myself. Another fun fact, ironically, when I came to faith in Christ I responded to an altar call.
So then the question must be asked, why don’t we practice altar calls? When asked that question we have to consider one thought: just because a practice has worked before, does it mean that it is the best practice? In other words, just because God has chosen to use a method to draw someone to repentance and belief in the Gospel, does that mean that we should make that a best practice or tradition? In Numbers 22 God chose to speak to Balaam through a donkey. But that doesn’t mean that we should look to hear from God through donkeys! Rather, it simply means that God uses whatever He wills to draw sinners to himself. So, the attention should not be “what a great method” but rather, “what a great Savior"!
Therefore, we have to ask better questions in regards to “altar calls”. Questions like “is this the best practice to invite people to respond?” Or questions like “does this create confusion”?
Pastor Ryan Kelly of Desert Springs Church has listed several reasons why alter calls may not be the best practice: read them here. These points further argue our view that altar calls may be confusing and create an unclear view of salvation and repentance.
1. How do we know who will respond?
In our experience most of the true conversions happen through our people living on mission. Biblically, we believe that our goal as a church is to equip the saints to share the Gospel. And we believe that Scripture calls the body of Christ to be trained in sharing the good news. Most of our best responses have come from our people sharing the Gospel with those they are doing life with.
We have seen individuals come to faith in Christ on Sunday mornings but often times those aren’t the ones that really “stick”. Our Sunday morning responses are often like the ones who Jesus describes in Matthew 13 who “hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself… he falls away”. Sometimes God is drawing a person to Himself and they have a scene of conviction so they are excited because they know something is different. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have responded to the Gospel. So, the last thing we want to do is confuse “drawing” with repentance and belief. We try to do our best not to give false hope and give a chance for healthy dialogue around Gospel clarity and what a biblical response to the Gospel looks like.
2. When do we get a chance to celebrate how God is working?
One of the things that we try hard to do is to have a culture of celebration because of what the Lord continues to do in our church. First of all, every person at Integrity who gets baptized has to write out and share their testimony through video. Hearing those testimonies is one of the most impactful things we do as a church because it is a chance to hear how the Gospel changes lives. Baptism IS God’s primary means where believers get to celebrate new life in Christ.
Additionally, throughout the year we try to highlight stories of peoples lives and how they are impacted by the Gospel. Some of the ways we do this is through live interviews, blogs, videos and photography. In other words, we work hard to get to know our people so that we can celebrate, with some authenticity, around what God is doing in their lives.
It is virtually impossible to celebrate without true authenticity. For this reason we strive to be clear and concise about what the Lord is doing in the lives of our people so that we know exactly what it is we are celebrating. Therefore, “altar calls” may not be the most authentic way to display that God is working.