The Altar call is a fairly recent development in Christianity. The Altar call was made popular by a man you may have heard of, who led the second so-called great awakening, Charles Finney.
What is interesting about Charles Finney is that he based his methods on its outward results, which led him to introduce and popularize some new concepts to Christianity. According to Albert Dod, who was a contemporary critic of Finney:
“one will search in vain for a single example of this practice [i.e. the invitation system] before the 1820’s”i
Now, just because something is new doesn’t make it wrong, but I wanted to make it clear that this practice came onto the scene in the midst of attempts at revival, where people are trying to convert as many as possible.
The Altar Call Marketing Strategy
It would be easy to imagine a scenario in which someone might develop a strategy to “convert” the most people, in the same way a business looks to market their products so that a lot of people will buy them.
In the 21st century, where we can only nod our heads when the atheist critiques popular megachurches for caring too much about money, absurd salaries for pastors, a lack of care for the poor, which is something Jesus commanded us to do, (Matthew 5:42) you can see how the analogy of the church as a business may fit.
Theological Problems with the Altar Call
There are several theological problems with the altar call that makes it functionally inconsistent with the intended Christian goal. We would like to assume that when someone does an altar call, they want people to truly convert to Christianity. Well, if that is the case then
1.) Why are Altar Calls so vague?
Many altar calls are so vague and limiting that the minimal facts argument couldn’t find them in a microscope. I’m not saying you need to hand them a doctoral dissertation on Christianity to get them into the kingdom, but perhaps not be shorter than the Apostle’s own summary in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4?
2.) Altar Calls, If done, need to be followed up on.
Another problem is follow-up. Either the person who prayed there at the altar never comes back or the church doesn’t seek to follow-up, ask them how they’re doing, ask if they have any questions about the faith, etc. Even if the person is saved via the altar call, they’re still likely to experience doubt and confusion in the beginning, Christianity is an entirely different worldview in many ways from the average everyday person. How will that person ever be prepared to handle the struggle, doubt, and social ostracization when you sit in the pews with them but never offer any help?
3.) Altar Calls Are Used as Bragging Rights
Look at me and how high my numbers are! That means God must be blessing our efforts! Indeed, the second great awakening boasted high numbers but for all intents and purposes, it was a failure from a biblical perspective. This is because sound theology declined at this time.
Ray Comfort, In his book “God has a wonderful plan for your life” cites several statistics such as:
In the March/April 1993 issue of American Horizon, a major U.S. denomination disclosed that in 1991, 11,500 churches had obtained 294,784 decisions for Christ. Unfortunately, they could find only 14,337 in fellowship. This means that, despite the usual intense follow-up, they could not account for approximately 280,000 (95 percent) of their “converts.”Between 1995 and 2005, Assemblies of God churches reported an amazing 5,339,144 decisions for Christ. Their net gain in attendance was 221,790. That means that 5,117,354 (over five million) decisions could not be accounted for.
Pastor Dennis Grenell from Auckland, New Zealand, who has traveled to India every year since 1980, reported that he saw 80,000 decision cards stacked in a hut in the city of Rajamundry, the “results” of past evangelistic crusades. But he maintained that one would be fortunate to find even eighty Christians in the entire city.ii
Altar Calls seem to be more about numbers than actual converts. As we can see from these numbers, it has an enormous fail rate.
Why The Altar Call Is Psychological Manipulation
You may have been present at an altar call or saw one on TV, what do you remember about it? Nice music, the preacher tugging on your heartstrings in the hopes that you make a public profession of faith in Jesus, that sounds okay doesn’t it? The intention is in the right place, but the method is psychologically damaging.
You do not want to manipulate people into accepting Jesus because that is building a foundation on quicksand. Just as we don’t want to convince anyone of anything in a dishonest way, we shouldn’t try to be emotionally dishonest with people either. Strandberg and Walin, in their introduction to Brown’s Music and Manipulation state:
“ One of the most important features shared between these various forms of communication is their efficacy in influencing the behavior of individuals and even whole groups.iii
In context, they’re making the point that music can manipulate behavior. You watch a Youtube video that is sad and they add sad music in order to make you feel like you should be sad, you watch a scary video or movie and they add scary music to enhance your feeling to be scared. In the same way, altar calls use certain types of music to compel you to make a decision for Christ, to make him your Lord and Savior.
There is a fine line between guilting someone to believe in God and accurately portraying the biblical doctrines regarding human nature.
Altar calls are ineffective emotionally manipulative shows that don’t produce consistent converts to Christ.
i Albert Dod (in his review of Finney’s Lectures on Revival), quoted by Massimo Lorenzini, “The Modern Invitation System Examined”, available online here; quote taken from this blog post by Tim Irvin.
ii Comfort, God has a wonderful plan for your life, end of chapter 1.
iiiStrandberg, Ö, & Wallin, B. (2006). Foreword: Manipulating Music—a Perspective of Practicing Composers. In Brown S. & Volgsten U. (Eds.), Music and Manipulation: On the Social Uses and Social Control of Music (pp. X-Xi). Berghahn Books. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qcs39.4