A number of posts ago, I indicated that I would, at some point in the future, post some thoughts on altar calls in specific, on contemporary evangelical methodology in general. Now is a good time as any to begin.
I find it interesting how relatively late in church history that it became, for the most part, the de facto contemporary evangelical methodology. Here, a little knowledge of church history illuminates. As far as I have been able to determine, and I am not a scholar, seminarian, or student of church history, the altar call methodology was not widely instituted until the early and mid eighteen-hundreds. Charles Finney, with his ‘new measures’ is most directly responsible for contemporary evangelical methodology. It is somehow ironic that his legacy and influence reverberates ever so strongly and much of the laity has never heard of him.
I think an abbreviated history of Finney and his new measures is perhaps in order. Finney, a lawyer who came to faith on October 10th in the 1821 after years of unbelief, became a Presbyterian minister. Part of the process of becoming ordained involved professing adherence to the Westminster Confession of Faith. He later admitted that he was almost totally ignorant of what the document taught. [Charles Finney, The Memoirs of Charles Finney: The Complete Restored Text (Grand Rapids: Academie, 1989), 53-54]
Finney also rejects Calvinism, perhaps as a response to what may be called an errant strain of Calvinism called hyper-Calvinism that he had been exposed to and perhaps by which, ironically, he was led to a profession of faith in Christ. It, too, must be understood that the great revivals, the Great Awakening, had been through preachers and theologians such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, staunchly Calvinists in their understanding of grace. Finney also entertained ideas errant and dangerous. Essentially, from what I gather, he denied the scope of the Fall and taught what seems to be a justification by works. He appears to constantly downplay God’s sovereign role in salvation. His theology turns the eyes of the heart from God to a focus on a seemingly ‘not-so-fallen’ humanity. Finney essentially denied the atoning work of Christ on the cross. Therein we find egregious harm and error, the seeds of which seem to be in full bloom in this age and time. While evangelicals would reject Finney’s errant theology if they were aware of it, they heartily embrace his evangelical methodology.
What Finney popularized in his aforementioned ‘new measures’ was the precursor and close cousin to the altar call, the ‘anxious bench’ and ‘mourner’s bench’. What Finney taught was that revival could be ‘worked up’ through psychological and emotional inducements. Revival did not need to be altogether prayed down as much as worked up.
Going back to altar calls, which are just one expression of an overarching methodology of psychological and emotional manipulation, those who have been in conservative evangelical churches, be they mega or small, be they Baptist or charismatic, be they traditional or contemporary, have often been exposed to calls to come forward to the altar. Many have responded to altar calls, sometimes more than once. Some have come to a redeeming faith in Christ through altar calls. Often, those who give altar calls present the Gospel message completely and without compromise.
What many altar calls and variants thereof do, however, is often introduce non-biblical language, non-biblical conditions, and non-biblical calls to salvation. What some altar calls do, also, is offer an easy grace, a salvation seemingly without cost, without an inferred need for repentance. What altar calls may sometimes do is give those who respond a false sense of security because they were actually never presented with the Gospel and therefor never actually came into a redeeming relationship with Christ. Also, many studies and statistics have shown that only a very small percentage, mostly in the single digits, of those who respond to altar calls during crusades and revivals actually remain actively involved in the faith for more than a year. They simply seem to drop out of sight and fall back into their ‘pre-decision’ lifestyles. We must remember that the biblical call to evangelize, the Great Commission, is to make disciples, not just converts, real or otherwise.
Following are a few examples of misleading evangelical methods. Many calls to the altar proclaim that Jesus has a wonderful plan for your life if one would just respond to the call, raise your hand, or say a prayer. Well, Jesus may not have a wonderful plan for your life as many would count wonderful. Such is never promised in the canon of Scripture. His plan for you may be quite difficult and not without cost. The Messiah’s calls to discipleship were not easy calls. What would the martyr Steven say about Christ offering you ‘your best life now?’ Would such an inducement work in the Sudan? Would such and inducement work in China? We are not called to press an ‘easy button’ for redemption. Sadly, I have actually seen, on more than one occasion and at more than one location Jesus being referred to as the ‘easy button’ to salvation.
I have heard other calls to salvation go thusly: “If you cannot remember the moment you were saved, now is the time to ‘nail it down.’” Such is not a biblical call to salvation. The only times that I recall the New Testament calling one’s salvation into question is the lack of observable growth, of spiritual fruit, over the long term in ones life. What is introduced in the context of the call to ‘nail it down’ is a false, unbiblical condition for salvation. To emotionally manipulate someone into making a decision based on doubts about the veracity of or inability to recall an earlier decision bought about by emotional manipulation is both ironic and unbiblical. If you have repented of sin and trust in the grace and redeeming work of Christ alone for salvation, you have it ‘nailed down’ and will persist in His grip whether or not you remember the point in time you first came to trust in Christ.
I have heard other calls to salvation infer that if one does not respond to this particular call, you may never get another chance to ‘decide’ for Christ, that this particular ‘move of God’ must be acted upon now for you may never get another opportunity. What is inferred in this manipulative scheme is that there is a time stamp on the grace of God. If you do not come forward now or raise your hand or say a prayer, you may never be wooed by the Holy Spirit again. At best, this is unbiblical. The call to grace and redemption through Christ only expires when one departs this tent of flesh.
I could go on with more examples of unbiblical and emotionally manipulative methods that I have personally witnessed, but my point is clear. Too, I am absolutely not inferring any ill will is intended by those who use such methods. I am not intending to cast doubt on their love and commitment to Christ. The use of such methods is more born out of perhaps ignorance and perhaps out of a denominational tradition. Without regard to intent, what is happening, though, is that the Gospel is all too often presented in an often unbiblical way, much like the hard pitch of a used car salesman. Do people sometimes come to redemption, to a saving knowledge of Christ through such methods? Sometimes, perhaps more than one would expect, this methodology produces fruit. God can and does sometimes use the one drop of truth in an ocean of error. Sometimes one may run around holding a metal rod during a thunder storm and not get struck by lightening. Does this mean that doing such is a good idea?
More recently, perhaps in the last couple of decades, we have seen the nature of the church being inverted and redefined in some quarters of western Christendom. Rather than going out into the world to make disciples, Christ’s call to the Great Commission and the nature and constituency of the church had been turned upside down. Now, congregates are now often being instructed to bring the world into a recalibrated church so that a charismatic (not using the word in the theological and Pentecostal sense, but referring to a commanding personality) pastor can present what is hopefully a faithful call to the Gospel. Bring in your ‘unchurched’ friends and family and we’ll get them saved is the inferred contract. (Note with absolute confidence that I am definitely not saying that is wrong to invite the unsaved to church.) Inducements are introduced to the church to make it more attractive to the ‘unchurched.’ Topical and often entertaining sermons that cater to one’s felt needs replaces sound expository preaching. Give away everything from IPods to motorcycles during the service to draw people through the doors. There is actually a church that gave away an Orange County Choppers custom motorcycle to induce people to come to church. The question is this: Is the clarion call of the word of God, faithfully proclaimed, not enough? Did the apostle Paul deem it necessary to give away camels and tents to bait people to the Gospel? The apostles fished with nets.
Why is it that many advisers to church planters (and sometimes the pastors, themselves) appear, as evidenced by their websites, to be more instructors on marketing and product placement than proclaimers of the Gospel? What has happened with the best of intentions is that more and more churches, modeled more on secular business and leadership practices than on biblical mandates are becoming more and more consumer driven. If a service conflicts with the Super Bowl, then the church will reschedule so that attendance does not decline. Increasing numbers of churches are opening up coffee shops in the church to draw in the crowds. Churches put up fountains that dispense chocolate and give massages to moms on Mothers Day to draw people into church. What ends up being engaged, again with the best of intentions, is a ‘bait and switch’ evangelical methodology that plays to our self-indulgence. Can such a church survive without creative and witty video introductions to topical sermons that constantly draw on popular culture references? Can it survive with a less than professional band? Can it present a message of hope and reconciliation with God through Christ without framing everything between a pastor’s personal and often humorous anecdotes? Does such a church depend too much on human creativity and effort and perhaps not enough on the power of His word? When all that is peripheral is stripped away, what is such a church left with? I remember running across this quote from another blog: “What you draw people with is what you draw them to.” How do I reconcile Christ’s call to die to self in the face of chocolate fountains and easy buttons in church?
Perhaps I am way off base, but much of contemporary evangelical and ecclesiastical methodology, in all its applaudable zeal, seems at times, unintentionally, to treat Jesus as a means to an end rather than an altogether and absolutely wonderful end in and of Himself. It as if Jesus is a prescription being dispensed a sick world. It is as if I have a fatal, systemic infection and am given a wonder drug, an antibiotic, and I am being told that all I have to do is take this drug and I will be healed. I may not develop an all encompassing love for this drug; I may love not being sick more than I love the drug. I may become more enamored with and focused on the one who gave me this drug than the drug itself.
I have stated, perhaps ad nausea, what I believe to be wrong with much of American evangelical methodology. What then do I propose is correct? I believe it is this: In the times the Gospel is preached in the New Testament where we have details of what is said, there is not one single example where anyone is told that the circumstances of their life will necessarily improve when they become disciples of Christ. What is recorded, though, is an absolute focus on and exaltation of Christ. We see the apostles going out into the world proving Christ from scripture. We see the condemnation of sin, the call to repentance, and proclamation of the absolute falleness of humanity. Solely proclaimed is faith in the atoning work of grace through Christ to restore rebellious humanity to the Savior. Such leads to a selfless life focused on Christ.
Again, as stated in a previous post, we must remember that Christ, incomprehensibly loved by the Father and Holy Spirit and sharing an incomprehensible unity within their Trinitarian relationship, condescended to take on human flesh and then looked down both barrels of Father God’s holy and incomprehensible and righteous fury over our sin; He faced Father God’s white-hot anger that should have been directed at His redeemed ones. He, the all mighty Creator of all, was beaten and scourged by the created. He was nailed to that horrific Roman torture and death machine, the cross, naked and shamed. He then gloriously defeated death by physically rising from the tomb. Why did He do this? He did it that we, His flock, may be, through His grace alone, clothed in His righteousness, that He may be glorified forever.