by Darlene Elliott, 1968 Alumna
I am writing in response to the editorial “The Problems with Altar Calls” by Joel Sams. I was quite upset with the content of this piece and perhaps sharing my own family’s story will help you understand why.
When I was very young, my mother was a nominal Catholic who went to mass only occasionally, and my father had no experience with church at all except for a short time as a child when a neighbor took him to Sunday school. Before they married, they promised one another that they would never talk to each other about religion. The Methodist church in town was having a revival service that had been going on for six weeks. You see, the pastor of the church felt that God was telling him that he needed to continue with the services, until God told him to stop. My dad’s friend invited him to go to the services. That night the preacher gave a sermon on the need for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and then gave an altar call. My father went forward in that service and gave his heart and life to the Lord. He went home that night and told my mother what had happened but did not ask her to go with him.
My mother could see such a change in my dad that the next night she asked my dad if she could go to church with him. When the altar call came that night, my mother asked my dad if he would go to the altar with her. That night my mother accepted Christ into her heart. Two nights later, the pastor felt God was telling him to end the services. If it hadn’t been for a pastor willing to listen to God’s instruction to him and for those two altar calls, I likely would not have grown up in a Christian family, would not have gone to evangelical churches and camp meetings where altar calls were given and very likely would not have given my heart to the Lord at age 12 at a camp meeting altar call, and received the gift of the Holy Spirit at age 16 at an altar call at my church.
Sams argues that because the great evangelists Wesley, Whitfield and Edwards did not use altar calls and altar calls never “gained traction” until the mid-seventeenth century camp meetings [sic], they should not be used (I thought camp meetings did not get started until the early 19th century.) Does that mean that any practice that wasn’t used in the first century is not worthy of use in drawing people to Christ? Does he really believe that God cannot use even 21st century evangelism techniques to bring people to him?
Another argument used by Sams is that a public, outward action is not necessary and that people can make the same decision in the pew. I agree that God can meet us anywhere when we open our hearts to Him, confess our sins and ask Him to forgive us. But Sams also argues that some people go forward motivated by pride. To that statement, I would say that many people need to “put pride aside” and go forward and make a public declaration of their intent to follow Christ. I know that I did.
Finally, I would state that I have been in evangelical services in churches, camp meetings and yes, Asbury University for six decades where altar calls have been given, and where scores of people have given not only their heart to God but their very lives to Him. The old cliché, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” comes to mind here. Because the altar call is something with which Sams or anyone else feels uncomfortable, does that mean God cannot use it for His kingdom? I think not!