Pentecostals and Altar Calls: An Evaluation

3202332989_cecd07621dI have just returned home from speaking at another church camp. Since altar calls are a highlight of Pentecostal camps, during the week I reflected a number of times on their value.

While I appreciate the fact that some sermons don’t lend themselves to having an altar call, it seems to me (and others that I talk to) that altar calls are becoming less common in Pentecostal churches today (at least in North America). This is probably in large part because fewer churches have evening services these days (where altar calls were more common) and in morning services people seem to be more concerned with getting out of church in good time. At first less frequent altar calls might seem to be a problem, but is it?

Some concerns I have with an overemphasis on the place of altar calls include:

  • Having regular altar calls might unintentionally make people think that all that they need to do to respond to the preaching they have heard is to go to the front and pray and, hence, such responses to altar calls might hinder people from integrating biblical teaching into their everyday lives.
  • God is not limited to the front of the church. He can transform people who are sitting in their pew (or elsewhere) just as easily. If the altar is a sacred place of encountering God, then a person can (metaphorically speaking) set up an altar in their pew just as easily as at the front of a sanctuary—the whole church can serve as our “altar.”
  • Whether or not people come forward in response to an altar call can give pastors (and their congregations!) an inaccurate means of judging the effectiveness of their sermons. I would think that the lasting impact would be a better way of judging this.
  • There were no altar calls in the Bible (they seem to have started around 1800—see here). There were literal altars in the Old Testament, but this is not the same as our metaphorical use of the term “altar” today.

The above points can seem devastating to the idea of having an altar call. I joked with one of my students this past week that we need to be careful not to communicate some of the above points or people will stop responding to altar calls (in case you missed it, I said I was joking!).

This is certainly not to say that I think altar calls should be dispensed with. In fact, on the contrary, I actually wish more churches had altar calls more frequently. I can attest in my own life that I have had many powerful encounters with God while praying at an altar.

Some of the value I see in altar calls include:

  • Altar calls remind people that the preaching of the Scripture demands a response.
  • As people physically move forward to the front of the sanctuary they are symbolically saying to God that they want to “draw near to God” so that “God will draw near” to them (James 4:8).
  • Here we take extra time to respond to God in prayer and hear God speak to us.
  • Altar calls encourage people to also slow down and wait on God in their own personal time when they are not in a church service. In other words, the altar call is one way that churches can encourage personal intimacy with God.
  • Altar calls give an opportunity for people to be prayed for or for pastoral counsel. The pastor and others might not know you want prayer and might not be able to reach you if you stay in your pew. Similarly, some churches invite people to meet for prayer in an adjacent room after a service.
  • There might be some biblical support in the Old Testament for meeting God at an altar. See this article, which offers a typical Pentecostal defense of altar calls (personally I find the biblical arguments weak since in just about every instance mentioned the person literally builds an altar and often only after they have an encounter with God).

I probably have more reasons to be skeptical of the value of altar calls than I do for thinking altar calls are valuable. Therefore, I wonder if I’m being inconsistent in wishing we had more of them. Perhaps I’m just a traditional Pentecostal in this sense.

Regardless, I think I am primarily concerned because I wonder if less frequent altar calls in Pentecostal churches indicates that people are less intimate in their relationship with God both during church services but also (and most importantly) during the time when they are not in church.

What do you think?

For a more thorough and optimistic discussion of altar calls see also Daniel Tomberlin, “Encountering God at the Altar,” chapter 1 in his book Pentecostal Sacraments (Cleveland, TN: Center for Pentecostal Leadership and Care, 2010), pages 1-30.

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12 thoughts on “Pentecostals and Altar Calls: An Evaluation

  1. Hey Andrew – interesting thoughts. I actually was thinking about this from a different perspective recently. While, like you, I am not trying to discount the importance of responding or having altar time, one of the things that struck me lately about the growth of altar calls in recent history is what it replaced … the communion table.

    There appears to be some evidence (I am not a historical expert on this) that before altar call people were invited to respond by coming to a common table to actively participate in the death and resurrection of Christ. This was a communal event that was not simply “remembering” Jesus’ actions on our behalf, but a belief that this was a shared experience where we take the bread and wine and make it a part of us (plural).

    With our culture’s fast descent into individualism, this communal response was replaced with an individual response at an altar where we encounter God as individuals. Our “evangelical” (or whatever the proper term is) over-correction to perceived errors regarding sacraments removed not just the rigidness and “dead” formalities without any real presence of God, but also removed his very body (both as the VERY communal church and as the sacraments) from having central stage in our meeting together.

    So … is there a place for altar calls? Definitely, I believe so. Is it as important as some claim? I would say “no”, but I could be wrong. Are there other modes of response that should be reclaimed? I would say a wholehearted “yes”.

    Just some thoughts …

    • I have have thought of the altar call as replacing baptism more so than replacing communion, particularly since the altar call was originally not made as a response to just any sermon, but rather a call for people to come forward a sign of their conversion to Christ. In that sense, the physical demonstration of conversion became the altar call rather than baptism. If I were from a church that practiced infant baptism more than believers baptism, then I suppose I would think more like you have suggested.

  2. I agree that there are downfalls and benefits of the altar call. The biggest downfall, which you mentioned, is the idea that the work is finished. A trap that is often sprung. From the neglect of discipleship because the work in the new believer is finished…to people waiting to show the depth of their charismatic abilities, all while they paid no attention during the message.

    However, I believe there is a difference between the altar and the rest of the sanctuary. Of course it has nothing to do with God’s ability to move anywhere or that I believe that there is still a ‘Holy of Holies’. NO, it is the break in the individual when they make a decision to go ahead…no matter what anyone else thinks. Of course, this is all negated by the pastor that calls the entire body forward. A guess it depends on the call that’s made. Is it a challenge? Is it specific? Or a general mass call? The method can also effect the weight and/or importance of what we call an ‘altar’ call.

    And I believe the altar experience can act very much as an Old Testament type of Altar as well. Many people remember not only the Church, but the spot at the altar where they made important choices and decisions. That is the purpose of the altar…to remind us of where we met with God and our lives were changed.

    I believe that the importance of ‘real’ altars could be a much more significant practice though. I moved the TV in our home to the basement and replaced it with a Bible. It not only reminded me of the importance of the TV in my life. It made a statement of what is important to my family.

    Awesome thought provoking article.

  3. I began telling people a few years ago that there is nothing magical about coming to the altar, however, it is an opportunity to exercise faith by doing something that shows the intent of your heart and mind towards God. It also gives the person coming forward an opportunity to meet with someone who will pray in agreement with them for their need. I began the practice in the early 1980s of not waiting until the end of the sermon to call people forward. I tried to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit during the singing and call people forward for prayer in the middle and sometimes at the beginning of the service if the Spirit so led me.

  4. Hi Andrew,

    Great critique. Balanced. And I agree with all of your above comments. For me as a regular preacher, early on in my ministry I placed too much pressure on myself to have people respond to the sermon by way of altar call. My idea was that if many people came forward, I “hit the ball out of the park”, and with lots of people praying and seeking the Lord, it was an “awesome service”.

    Recently I was to special meeting where an evangelist was speaking and following the preaching there was an altar call with much response. In fact, I was among those at the altar. And I must say, I did have an experience with God that time. Others were praising, shouting, speaking in tongues, etc and the atmosphere was great. In fact, this kind of activity continued through the rest of the nightly services and even spilled over into the weekend after the evangelist left. I do cherish these times.

    However, what I fear with an overemphasis is that that we tend to measure the spiritual depth of the church by how many come forward, how many are dancing, shouting, etc; rather than meeting God daily, engaging in personal evangelism, and living with moral integrity. And yes, discipleship is a component that is lacking in Pentecostal churches. We tend to have a view of sanctification as a crisis event, formally believe in progressive sanctification, but place little effort into “making disciples” by way of teaching, mentoring, and multiplying through “life-on-life relationships”. We need balance.

  5. Andrew,

    Interestingly enough, I was in prayer the very morning I read this blog, asking God how I could restore some form of corporate ‘altar’ response back into my church. The challenge for me would be that several people (families, really) have started attending whom have (to my knowledge) never experienced a true blue, “come to the front” altar call. There are others whom have likely experienced some ‘whacky’ altar responses in a ‘previous life’. Added to that, I have found – frankly speaking – that an ‘unsuccessful’ (can we even judge that!?!) altar appeal does more damage than good.

    Am I alone in this? I don’t believe so…

    As I prayed, I was seeking the proper biblical response. I mean, how do I teach, from the Bible, all about altar calls? What biblical mandate do I have to draw from? Is this all just so much Pentecostal tradition?

    I believe your blog illustrates nicely this practitioner’s predicament!

    Thanks for the thoughts.

  6. Hi Andrew:

    As long as people do understand there is no “magic” in responding to altar calls, as Randy mentions above, at least there is no harm. It’s a visible, active, and (hopefully) voluntary response to a spiritual message. Unlike communion, whether it’s taken at the seat or up front, altar calls tend to be “optional”.

    We’ve been attending an Anglican church where we have to go to the altar to receive communion. If one remains at the pew, it’s kind of awkward, quite similar to letting the cup and the bread pass when the plate and the tray are passed down the pew in some evangelical churches.

    I think the benefits of altar calls outweigh the cons as long as one doesn’t respond out of peer pressure.

    Eddie

    • In reasponce to Eddie, although. I do think that the word “magic” is the wrong word. There is a supernatural or heightened spritual event that takes place. NOT because God is anymore there or in the pew, but because of the break in a person’s will or the step of faith that they take. They’ve put their heart in the write place to receive by reasponding to the challenge or even going to that “sacred” place to meet God.

      Anyone can say that “Jesus is Lord” with meer words. But the bible says that no man can say it , but by the Spirit. Thus it is if a person says it from the heart and truely believes that He is Lord. Anyone can walk to an altar, anyone can eat bread and drink from the cup, anyone can try to cast out demons in the name of Christ(acts 19).

      It’s a heart thing, and challenging someone to make a stand in front of others makes it a special place where the real”magic” can begin.

      • I think the spiritual realm is “magic” (CS Lewis, anyone?). In that sense, there is magic in our spiritual interactions. I’m saying that altar call as a spiritual interaction with the Spirit is no more magical than one quietly praying in the closet. Otherwise, extroverts will be more “magical” than introverts :).

        I know there are people who will not be caught responding to an altar call in any circumstances and it’s not a statement whether their interactions with the Spirit is any more or less magical than those who respond.

      • I suppose, however, I was just making the case for altar calls. That an altar call can be the break someone needs.

        If a believer is so introverted that they can’t respond to an altar (if prompted by the Spirit), how could they evangelize the world?

        Nonetheless, I think you missed the point of what I was trying to say. It’s a heart thing. A hyper-extrovert who responds to every hint of an altar call is probably going to the altar for the wrong reasons. The point of this conversation is to discuss the relevancy and/or necessity of the altar call.

        An altar call that is genuinely given to genuine hearts for a genuine Godly purpose…is always relevant. And if someone is genuinely moved, I don’t think their personality disorders will be an issue.

        abbra kadabbra

      • I agree with what you said, except for one thing: I think extroverts and introverts relate more to temperaments than personality disorders, and temperaments relate more to the Bell Curve than an on/off switch. I assume you’re not saying that hyper-extroverts are mentally healthy and hyper-introverts are suffering from any personality disorder.