By Joel Sams, Contributing Writer
In Monday’s chapel, Sammy Tippet invited Asbury students to respond to his message by standing with their heads bowed and their eyes closed, by raising their hands and by coming down to the altar to pray. It was the classic altar call — one of those quaint evangelical customs we take for granted, like our use of “fathergod” as a filler word in prayers, or our contrived avoidance of the word “wine” in our celebration of communion. It’s just part of the landscape. The altar call is such a common experience in evangelical circles that it’s almost invisible. Invisible and totally benign, right?
Wrong. Our familiarity with the altar call only masks its problems. I’m not willing to say that it’s wrong to use the altar call, or that there is no situation in which it can be used well. However, a lack of historical precedent, combined with practical concerns, should demand a healthy criticism of the role altar calls play in our worship.
The altar call is a common practice in many denominations. In his book, “The Altar Call: Its Origins and Present Use,” scholar David Bennett cites research which found that in 1979, 27 of 53 responding church denominations used the altar call as their “regular practice.” Only 11 denominations responded that their churches never used the altar call. According to Bennett, these were “mainly Lutheran and Reformed churches.” Bennett also examines more recent data from Franklin Graham’s Festival ’96, which reported 2,789 total respondents to Graham’s invitations.
But despite its entrenched popularity, the altar call is a fairly recent development. Bennett says the altar call has no demonstrable precedent before the eighteenth century. He further argues that the altar call was not used by Wesley, Whitfield or Edwards, the great evangelists of their century, and that it did not gain significant traction until the mid-seventeenth century camp meetings. Even the terminology of the altar call is recent — the word “altar” only acquired its meaning as a space of public invitation in the early nineteenth century. While the novelty of the altar call isn’t a conclusive argument against its use, it should certainly give us permission to question and criticize the practice.
An obvious criticism of the altar call is its reliance on heightened emotion to elicit a response that may or may or may not involve meaningful decisions. For the uncertain occupier of the pew (or the chapel seat) an altar call can become a spiritualized form of peer pressure. Anyone who has endured an awkwardly long altar call knows that there is a tipping point. If half of a row responds, chances are much greater that the remainder will respond as well. That’s not evangelism. That’s bullying.
Another problem with the altar call is that the speakers who use it call can easily fall into the trap of presenting salvation (or sanctification) as a matter of outward action, to the exclusion of inward change. What do responders accomplish at the altar that they can’t accomplish in the pew or the chapel seat? The answer, of course, is a public, outward declaration of their purported decision. And public, outward declaration is not necessarily a good thing. I know, I know — “whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” I get it. But responding to an altar call doesn’t necessarily proclaim anything about Jesus, and staying in one’s seat does not necessarily deny Jesus. Public, outward declaration is just as likely to be motivated by pride or fear as it is by a desire to proclaim Christ.
So, while I don’t condemn the use of the altar call in every case, I struggle to imagine scenarios in which it could be more helpful than a combination of public preaching and private discipleship. Does it matter if other people see you going forward to pray at the altar? If so, why? If not, why bother?