A High Failure Rate for the Time-Honored Altar Call?

“The proclamation of grace has its limits. Grace may not be proclaimed to anyone who does recognize or distinguish or desire it…The world upon whom grace is thrust as a bargain will grow tired of it, and will not only trample upon the Holy, but also will tear apart those who force it on them.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

altarcall_grumpy

If you’ve been raised in the American church any length of time, you’ve heard of or experienced the traditional and time-honored “Altar Call”. This is a call that is administered typically at the close of a church service after the sermon and before the offering. This call is a petition – a beckoning if you would – of the lost souls in the church to come down the aisle and to stand at the altar to do business with God.

In the church settings in which I was raised, one would seldom do just one altar call in their life. If you were like me, my cousins, and my  sisters when we were young, we went to the altar to get saved just about every few weeks. Guess it was like a bad perm – it didn’t take the first time. But yet in spite of the fact that it may not be sufficient to save you once and for all, altar calls are very popular and expedient. But are they EFFECTIVE? Do the people who respond to altar calls “STAY saved”?

Usually it is people of Pentecostal, Charismatic churches who have repeat offenders respond to the altar call. But what do we know about the origins of it? Who executed the first altar call? Believe it or not, It wasn’t done in the New Testament; it was first done by a man by the name of a Methodist evangelist named Charles G. Finney in the early 1800’s. He was the first to ask people to come forward to the pulpit – as well as the first to refer to his services as “revivals”. He also popularized the after meetings and the spontaneity style of preaching in young pastors.

Many will admit that gospel presentations have become more diluted and brief over the years. The appeal may be just as urgent, but the message is not as detailed. In other words, instead of telling people who would come to the altar the extent to which their lives much change if they so choose to follow Christ, evangelists sometimes give a brief one-minute review to save time. But is this time-saving technique the reason for so many false converts?

Billy Graham is well-known for his altar calls of old. He would ask people to come to Christ at his huge evangelistic meetings, and over the time of his ministry doubtless thousands have come to saving faith in Jesus Christ.

Right?

While doing a research paper and reading the book, “The American Church Experience” by Thomas A. Askew and Richard V. Pierard, I stumbled upon an interesting paragraph. Referring to another evangelist – not Billy Graham – it said, “In a series of meetings held in Boston in 1906, he is said to have won 2,550 “decisions” for Christ. By then it was customary to judge a revivalist’s success by the number of “decision cards” turned in during a campaign.” Wow. That’s pretty interesting. So it was common for evangelists/revivalists/soulwinners to tally up the decisions for Christ? So, could it be that if it was seen as a competition for some, that perhaps some might do anything for a response just to get their tallies up?

I believe it is important to see how the altar call MIGHT have been created from a biblical idea. Perhaps verses such as “behold, I stand at the door and knock” gives one to think that we must knock on the door of someone’s heart by giving an appeal to trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior. Perhaps the verse “The day you hear His voice, harden not your heart” gives one to think that it is the job of the evangelist to make sure sinners hear God’s voice and to encourage them to respond to an altar call. But what has history shown about the effectiveness of altar calls? Do they “work”? Is the proof in the pudding? Let’s look to none other than the founder himself. What had he to say about the effectiveness of the altar calls he made during his ministry?

Charles Finney, at the end of his life, rejected the fruits of his altar calls. He said, “I was often instrumental in bringing Christians under great conviction and into a state of temporary repentance and faith. But falling short of urging them up to a point where they would become so acquainted with Christ as to abide in him they would of course soon relax to their former state.”

Wow! Really? Did the founder of altar calls turn his back on his own “invention”? And could we have we worked out the kinks yet from the first model?

(Side Note: Now I do understand that this could taken at the risk of making the logical fallacy known as genetic fallacy. This fallacy is a line of reasoning that concludes that if there is a defect in the origin of a thing or claim, then that should be used to discredit the claim or thing. In other words, someone might argue, “Just because the founder of altar calls realized that HIS altar calls were ineffective, that does not have to mean that all altar calls done by any person after him are also ineffective.” This is similar to the ad hominem fallacy that would reason that if Charles was ineffective then anything he did was effective.)

One of his contemporaries (a man who worked alongside him in ministry) said, “During 10 years, hundreds and perhaps thousands were annually reported to be converted on all hands. But now it is admitted that Finney’s real converts are comparatively few. It is declared even by himself that the great body of them are a disgrace to religion. As a consequence of these defections, Practical evils, great terrible and innumerable are in various quarters rushing in on the church.”

Wow! Another quote that speaks disparagingly of altar calls due to their dastard results of false converts. His contemporary seems to imply that in spite of the joy of reporting the number of decisions for Christ, evidence is apparent that only a few of those great many were actually converted. And of the false converts, they have remained in the church wreaking havoc as lost souls would be expected to do.

A letter was written to Finney by another co-labourer in 1834 stating – “Let us now look over the fields where you, and others, and myself have labored as rival ministers. And what is now their moral state? What was their state within 3 months after we left them? I have visited and revisited many of these fields and have groaned in spirit to see the sad, frigid, carnal, contentious state into which the churches have fallen – and fallen very soon after our first departure from among them.”

Yet another quote of dismay about the altar calls’ effectiveness. Seems as if after weeks or even a few months of someone walking down the altar to “get saved”, they become as dogs returning to their own vomit and pigs returning to the mire. The Bible says it is better to have never known Christ than to know Him and then to turn one’s back on Him. Is this what altar calls have been doing? Leaving people in a worse state than they were in when they first came? This man is not just hypothesizing; he actually went to visit the converts. And they were not any better and were probably left worse. Let’s look at one more quote:

B. B. Warfield said of Asia Mayhem long-time friend of Charles Finney: “That everyone who was concerned in these revivals suffered a sad, subsequent lapse. The people were left like a dead coal which could not be reignited. The pastors were shorn of all their spiritual power And the evangelists among them all and I was nearly personally acquainted I cannot recall a single man who did not after a few years lose his unction and become equally disqualified for the office of evangelist and that of pastor. Thus the great western revival ran out into disaster over and over again. When he proposed to revisit one of the churches delegations were sent him or other means used to prevent what was thought of as affliction. Even after a generation had passed by (Warfield notes) these burnt children had no liking for the fire.”

I heard of an interesting metaphor that reminds me so much of this quote. It was by one of my favorite preachers, the late Dr. Adrian Rodgers. He said that when someone first hears the gospel, they are on fire like dry wood. They blaze bright! If you have heard the gospel the second time, you’ll still catch fire, but you won’t be as bright because some of the wood is already been burnt. On the third try, they’ll flicker like and ember, but no flame. But after a few more times, their heart will be hardened like a charred piece of wood or coal. It will no longer light or even flicker. And that is what this man says of the great revivals of that period. They left it impossible for someone to be relit. Here’s one more quote:

“…involving a high rate of apostatizing (90+% according to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association). So that means that out of the thousands of people who came to the altar at a Billy Graham crusade, only a few were saved or stayed saved?

Seems to me that the turnover rate was very high. I would even call it a recidivism rate. Many of these sinners spent a little time in reform only to return back to a life of sin. It turns out that even in the very beginning of the altar call practice, the altar call was not very effective. I wonder why. I think there are a few reasons the altar call has not been effective:

  1. It is not biblical. Evangelists did not ask people to come forward in a synagogue to repeat a sinner’s prayer. And because God did not sanction altar calls, He is not obligated to move during them or to cement what is done during them.
  2. It is not detailed enough. These evangelists only give a very brief summary of Jesus and salvation. If it was more detailed, 99% of the people coming up would have stayed seated or sat back down instead of repeating the prayer and becoming false converts. The way is narrow and hard, and most people are not interested in living as God commands.
  3. There is not enough being done to disciple these “converts”. Many of them will leave that church after saying the sinner’s prayer and will not return for follow-up. After birthing a new believer, he must then be raised up by discipleship. A baby left to his own defenses will be a casualty in no time.
  4. Salvation comes by the faith in the saving work of Jesus – not in walking down an aisle and reciting a 12-second prayer. If you really believe the gospel in its entirety, you do not have to repeat a prayer that was made up less than 200 hundreds years ago. The people in the early church did not have to recite a prayer before all. They just knew in their hearts that the gospel message they heard was true. And there are people reciting the sinners’ prayer who do not believe the entire gospel so they will not be saved regardless of what they recite.
  5. Many altar calls as used for bragging rights to show off how many people responded to one’s impressive preaching style or fire and brimstone, fear techniques. This means that the main concern is not the work or move of God, but the work of man. As Finney said himself:

“Salvation is the work of man.”

So how did the early church of the New Testament lead people to Christ? Was it a quick introduction to Jesus Christ? Was it done at a pulpit with emotional music? Let’s look at one of my favorite examples in the book of Acts which gives great insight about how to bring souls in to the Kingdom and the church. There are MANY other examples, but for the sake of time and length, I’ll just post one passage. But I am working on another post with the other examples.

Acts 2:37 NOW when they HEARD THIS they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what SHALL WE DO?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized EVERY ONE OF YOU in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our GOD CALLS to himself.” 40 And WITH MANY OTHER WORDS he bore witness and CONTINUED TO EXHORT them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41 So those who RECEIVED HIS WORD were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.42 And they DEVOTED themselves to the apostles’ TEACHING and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the PRAYERS.

In Acts 2, we hear that only when people HEAR the Word of God, only then will they be convicted enough to ask what they must do in response to God’s Word. We also hear that it is necessary that God FIRST call them to Himself. You don’t come to Him on your own. You don’t initiate; you only respond. And this is what I like most about this passage that I think many preachers leave out in their evangelistic appeals. Verse 40 says, WITH MANY OTHER WORDS they witnessed about Jesus. They didn’t do a one-time, hitter-quitter altar call. They spoke plenty about Jesus’ identity and work and also CONTINUED to exhort them about saving themselves from the lost. We see that ONLY after receiving the word of the preacher did they become baptized and added to the heavenly roster. And those who did believe, repent, and get baptized didn’t just get bored and walk away after a few weekends. They DEVOTED themselves to the teaching and fellowship and prayers! It wasn’t a quick decision that as we say, “Will only take a minute.” Not only will it not just take a minute, IT’LL TAKE YOUR WHOLE LIFE! Your whole eternity even! We try to rush through the altar call as if we’re impinging upon the rest of the sinner’s Sunday plans. But the truth of the matter is this: If they don’t want God impinging upon their Sunday dinner plans, they’ll not be pleased with the fact that He’s about to hijack their whole life! If they’re too busy to spend a couple of hours discussing the One who they approached the altar to give their souls to, then they obviously do not have the desire to spend the rest of their life serving them. And you cannot have a full relationship with someone in five minutes. Let those in a hurry forget about it; you’re wasting their time, and they’re wasting yours. And like any other healthy relationship, you have to be DEVOTED,  have FELLOWSHIP, and COMMUNICATE with the person you are in relationship with. Nowadays, we seem to just tell people that they just have to recite some words and their relationship can never be broken. FALSE. Relationships MUST be maintained. You can’t have a relationship like that.

In closing, I am not against altar calls per se. I am a “product” of several of them. But I believe something must be made clear. 1. If you believe the gospel and fully intend to respond as God requires to it, then you are already saved without repeating the sinner’s prayer.

2. You must know that it does not stop here; it’ll take a lifetime of obedience and self-sacrifice and faith in Christ.

3. Do not think that the reciting of a few sentences made you born again. The most it can do is testify to the fact that you already are.

4. Because time does not permit the evangelist painting the picture of the entire gospel story, please make sure to get an understanding of the entire picture because you might not even want to become a Christian once you hear all that it entails. (Remember the story of the rich man who was unwilling to sell all he had to follow Jesus?)

This is a YouTube video link to the quotes I used:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U49RyyHVmXQ

“A truly evangelical sermon must be like offering a child a fine, red apple or offering a thirsty man a cool glass of water and then staying: ‘Do you want it?’ We must be able to speak about our faith so that hands will be stretched out toward us faster than we can fill them.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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