This past Saturday, I found myself pondering the relative merits of the altar call. Just in case you aren’t sure what I’m talking about, the altar call consists of publicly inviting penitent sinners (and sometimes others) to the front of the room at the conclusion of a corporate worship service. It is a very common practice among Southern Baptist churches, though anecdotal evidence seems to indicate a decline in the practice in recent years. More on that below.
Altar calls were on my mind for a couple of reasons. First, I was reading a forum on the topic at BaptistLife.com, a message board I sometimes peruse. Second, I started following an interesting exchange on altar calls via Twitter between fellow Southern Baptists (and former Midwestern Seminary colleagues) Malcolm Yarnell and Jim Elliff. The discussion was prompted by a recent article Jim wrote titled “Closing with Christ,” which criticizes altar calls.
Altar calls have been popular among some Southern Baptists since our inception. Some Separate Baptist churches in the South like the Grassy Creek Church were calling folks down front at the turn of the 19th century, if not before. Altar calls became very popular among Southern Baptists and many other revivalistic evangelicals after the Second Great Awakening, along with practices like public testimonies in corporate worship and protracted (“revival”) meetings. Many Southern Baptist churches still embrace all three of these practices, as well as the gospel music that was popularized in the two generations after the Second Great Awakening.
Though Southern Baptist churches almost universally extended altar calls by the early 20th century, in recent years the practice has been called into question on at least three fronts. Some moderate churches, especially in urban settings, have downplayed or rejected the practice, perhaps because of its identification with a revivalism with which many (though not all) moderates are uncomfortable. Some seeker-driven churches have rejected altar calls as an outdated strategy that is less effective in a culture where many non-Christians lack the Judeo-Christian worldview categories of earlier generations of Americans. Some Calvinist churches have downplayed or rejected altar calls because of perceived revivalism, concerns that the practice is incompatible with the regulative principle, or both.
I think it is evident that some Southern Baptists are very disturbed by what other Southern Baptists practice concerning altar calls. While I’ve met few Southern Baptists who would say altar calls are biblically mandated, I’ve met plenty who imply that a refusal to extend altar calls is evidence that a pastor and/or church is not committed to evangelism. On the other side, I’ve met few Southern Baptists who would argue altar calls are inherently sinful, but I’ve met plenty who imply that giving an altar call is a sure sign that a pastor and/or church is watering down the gospel in favor of “decisionism” or “decisional regeneration.”
I’m regularly asked what I think about altar calls, primarily by students but also occasionally at conferences where I’m speaking. I’m a centrist on this question. I see altar calls as neither necessary nor nefarious. On the one hand, I disagree with those who argue that the altar call can be found in Scripture. But on the other hand, I disagree with those who assume that the absence of a biblical altar call would mean that the practice itself is wrong. I see altar calls as a particular strategy, based upon biblical principles, which is one possible way to encourage sinners (and others) to respond to what the Holy Spirit is doing in their lives. Altar calls should be neither sacralized nor demonized.
It would be fair to say that I’m concerned about some types of altar calls—those that are manipulative, shallow, or seem to be based on a wrongheaded understanding of conversion. But I’m also concerned that some churches that do not practice altar calls have overreacted to less-healthy versions of altar calls by showing a lack of urgency in calling upon sinners to turn to Christ. Whether a church embraces altar calls or not is adiaphora—what matters is that we earnestly plead with sinners to repent and believe, and that we articulate the gospel clearly as we do so.
As a mostly itinerant preacher, I adapt my own practices to the tradition of the church to whom I’m preaching. When I’m preaching to a church that practices altar calls, I extend an altar call. When I’m preaching to a church that doesn’t practice altar calls, then I don’t extend an altar call. Whether I extend an altar call or not (I do about 75% of the time), I always attempt to make the gospel clear and urge all people, without discrimination, to turn from their sins and cast themselves upon the mercies of Christ.