Editors' Note: Send your theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions to [email protected] along with your full name, city, and state. We'll pass them along to The Gospel Coalition's Council members and other friends for an answer we can share.
Dustin B. from Fort Worth, Texas, asks:
Coming from a tradition revivalistic background, I am often weary of the extended altar calls and manipulating invitations I have so often witnessed. However, my desire is not to leave the churches steeped in this tradition but rather to continue to minister with a stronger theology of conversion.
As a seminary student, I have opportunities to preach in churches where it is customary to give an invitation at the conclusion of the message. I am often unsure and uneasy about how to conclude a message, not wanting to commit the errors common to revivalism and without giving unnecessary offense at the same time.
Could TGC offer any principles for retaining a strong theology of conversion when concluding services in churches accustomed to public invitations?
We asked for a response from Jonathan Leeman, editorial director at 9Marks and a PhD candidate researching ecclesiology.
Before I had arrived, the previous pastors had always given altar calls. I was now one month into an interim pastorate, and people were beginning to ask whether I would ever give them. I remember a long, meandering car ride with one sweet brother—a good friend to this day—devoted to the question.
I told this brother and the rest of the elders that I wouldn't do an altar call. Why not?
Because I think altar calls are wrong? No, I think a pastor is free to give one. It's not a sin.
Because I don't believe that people must make a decision for Christ? No, I think people must decide to repent and believe in order to be saved.
Because I don't think Jesus calls us to make a public profession? No, people must publicly profess their faith, which is why Jesus instituted baptism.
Because I think inviting sinners to repent is inherently manipulative? No, I believe preachers should invite non-Christians to repent and believe throughout their sermons. I did this during the interim pastorate, and I did it just last Sunday when guest preaching at another church. I very clearly invited non-Christians to repent and believe in the middle of my sermon, and then told them to speak with me afterwards, or the pastor, or the Christian friend who brought them.
So why wouldn't I give an altar call? In short, I believe that this particular man-made practice, this 19th-century innovation, has produced more bad than good for Christian churches in the West. The altar call relies on the powers of emotion, rhetorical persuasion, and social pressure to induce people to make a hasty and premature decision. And producing professions is not the same thing as making disciples. Surely a number of factors are responsible for the many nominal Christians that typify Christianity in the West, but I believe that the altar call is one of them.
How many people in the last century walked an aisle, and spent the rest of their days convinced that they were a Christian, never considering how they lived!
The alternative to giving altar calls is sticking with the practices we see modeled in Scripture:
- Invite people throughout your sermon to “repent and be baptized” like Peter did in Jerusalem (Acts 2:38). But when you do, don't just stand there waiting with emotionally charged music playing, staring them down until they relent. Rather, make several suggestions about how and where to discuss the matter further.
- Ask people what they believe when they present themselves for baptism, just like Jesus made sure the disciples knew who he was (Matt. 16:13-17; also, 1 John 4:1-3).
- Make sure they understand what following Jesus entails (Matt. 16:24f; John 6:53-60).
- Explain that the fruit of their lives and persevering to the end will indicate whether or not they really believe (Matt. 7:24f; 10:22).
- You might even explain that Jesus has commanded your church to remove them from its fellowship if their life moving forward does not match their profession (Matt. 18:15-17).
Yes, let's pray hard for conversions. But then let's do everything that Scripture requires of us in the long work of making disciples—a work that generally requires lots of teaching, lots of time, lots of invitations, lots of meals together, and finally the commitment of an entire church body.