Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Alter Call and Why We Don't Do It at TJC

The church I pastor (The Journey Church) is 8 years old. Over those years we have witnessed God save hundreds of people and we have had the privilege of baptizing hundreds more. However, during the course of these years we have not offered what is traditionally known as an "alter call" or "invitation." I do not go stand down front and wait for people to walk up to me for prayer or salvation why the band plays "Just As I Am" for the one millionth time. I think this is more for the ego of pastors and/or the assurance that things are "happening" for the congregation.

"But don't you guys want people saved?" We absolutely do! And we have seen people saved, many people! Every week we preach the Bible, we offer Christ to sinners, and invite people to turn from their self-absorbed lives to a life submitted to Christ through faith and repentance. We just happen to believe  this can happen in the seats as they hear the gospel, at home in their bedroom, in their car driving, or any number of other places. An alter call and invitation at the end of service, where 3 minutes is designated for salvation, is unrealistic. Some people have questions, need to work through issues, need to sit down and see things from the Bible, need counsel through difficult situations, and many other things. "Just As I Am" does not offer enough time to do this, nor is the time necessarily the most optimal or ideal.

In the Bible-belt, where we are located, many cannot conceive of any other way of salvation happening, apart from the alter call. But what I found in my time pastoring in the South is many stake their assurance of salvation on "walking the aisle" or "praying the prayer" or "raising my hand" or "praying with the pastor." None of these things mean anything apart from the work of the Holy Spirit to regenerate the heart of a dead sinner. Walking aisles and repeating prayers don't change hearts, in fact, they may actually deceive hearts. Talking to a pastor doesn't save you. There is only one Mediator between God and man, it is the Lord Jesus Christ, not your pastor. We are to flee to Jesus, not Pastor X.

"But aren't people supposed to make a public declaration of faith?" Yes. That is what baptism is. Trusting and surrendering to Christ can be a private thing, in fact, it must be personal and individual. However, baptism is our public declaration and profession of our commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. An alter call is not necessary for people to make public professions of faith. 

Pastor Ryan Kelly of Desert Springs Church shares a good summary of my thinking on this subject with 10 points against the alter call:
1. The altar call is simply and completely absent from the pages of the New Testament.
2. The altar call is historically absent until the 19th century, and its use at that time (via Charles Finney) was directly based upon bad theology and a man-centered, manipulative methodology (more about that here).
3. The altar call very easily confuses the physical act of “coming forward” with the spiritual act of “coming to Christ.” These two can happen simultaneously, but too often people believe that coming to Christ is going forward (and vice-versa).
4. The altar call can easily deceive people about the reality of their spiritual state and the biblical basis for assurance. The Bible never offers us assurance on the ground that we “went forward.”
5. The altar call partially replaces baptism as the means of public profession of faith.
6. The altar call can mislead us to think that salvation (or any official response to God’s Word) happens primarily on Sundays, only at the end of the service, and only “up front.”
7. The altar call can confuse people regarding “sacred” things and “sacred” places, as the name “altar call” suggests.
8. The altar call is not sensitive to our cautious and relational age where most people come to faith over a period of time and often with the interaction of a good friend.
9. The altar call is often seen as “the most important part of the service”, and this de-emphasizes the truly more important parts of corporate worship which God has prescribed (preaching, prayer, fellowship, singing).
10. God is glorified to powerfully bless the things He has prescribed (preaching, prayer, fellowship, singing), not the things we have invented. We should always be leery of adding to God’s prescriptions for His corporate worship.
Can God save somebody who "walks the aisle" or "prays the prayer?" Yes. Does God need these things to do so? No. The church for the first 1800+ years of its history never knew such a phenomena.

At The Journey Church, we invite people weekly to trust Christ. And something amazing has happened over the last 8+ years - they have. What does it look like? It looks like conversations after our worship gatherings conclude. It looks like emails or Facebook messages to meet up and discuss what God is doing in their hearts. It looks like conversations in Gospel Communities or a Membership Meeting. There are many conversations about the gospel and responding to it taking place throughout the week at The Journey Church. We happen to believe the 3 minutes segment of time often known as the "invitation" is unnecessary, and perhaps unhelpful, in leading people know and understand how to follow Jesus. 

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  1. Though I struggle with this being from that era of " Just as I am " invitations, I have learned as I looked back at my by gone times and then look at the past 8 years that a new perspective was and is needed. The learning curve is hard with traditions glaring one in the eyes.

    One more thing to realize about "coming down to the altar" and that is the congregation gets draw into a false "lifestyle of witnessing" where they do not see God's calling on their lives to lead others to Christ and minister the grace of repentance and confession in their everyday lives.

    1. James, you are absolutely correct. The "alter call" makes the minister the gatekeeper of salvation, leaving the congregation as observers. It leads people to forget that The Lord works outside the church building and can work through them to witness to others.