Church Detox Installment 8: Clarify the ‘Altar Call’

Many times, at the conclusion of a sermon, a pastor will offer the invitation to those who are seeking spiritual help for a problem to come forward and pray in the front of the church. Many times people do sincerely come forward to repent of their sins and to put their faith in Christ. Many times also someone else who has been a believer comes forward to make a more thorough commitment of his or her life to Christ, or to seek God’s forgiveness and overcoming power for a sin which weighs greatly on his or her conscience.

Sometimes, though, there are those who come forward, with often with a very emotionally demonstrative show of tears, who do not seem to show any changes in their lives. I have talked with those in my ministry who seemed to show little evidence of conversion, who were living lives in direct contradiction to the commands of Christ, and who had a very unBiblical understanding of the gospel, who nevertheless believed that they were going to heaven because they had gone forward and repeated a prayer. I have also seen those throughout my Christian experience who seem to go forward often enough, and do not show that they have changed their ways afterward.

After long thought and prayer, I came to the conclusion that, for some, the act of going forward is itself treated as the way of conversion or the answer in itself to a spiritual problem. Even more, I saw that there were times that it could be abused by some people as a way to take the heat off themselves as a show of remorse before someone whose disapproval they were seeking to escape. The result is that many people are living in a false assurance of salvation or that others are failing to find true relief in Christ for their sins and weaknesses.

The answer to this comes back the pastors who offer the invitation to people to come forward. Do you make it clear what the Bible really calls for?

Suggestions to Improve the Situation

  • Avoid calling anyone forward without a clear and scriptural explanation of repentance and faith in Christ, how to receive his forgiveness and overcoming power and the cost of discipleship. These are all the scriptural responses, and the altar call means anything only when it means genuine repentance and faith in Christ and commitment to him as Lord.

  • Regularly remind everyone that the act of coming forward itself is not the basis of assurance of salvation. The key question for anyone is not whether he or she has gone forward in a church service and repeated a prayer but whether he or she has repented of his or her sins and put his or her faith in Christ.

  • Regularly remind everyone that the front of the church is not a special place in itself in the eyes of God. A person can come to Christ or find his forgiveness and overcoming power sitting in a pew in back of the church, or anywhere else in the world, just as well as at the front of the church.

  • Remind everyone regularly that the act of coming forward itself should never be done for a show of remorse or change before anyone, and that these acts of show before man are in fact offensive before God. Anyone who comes forward who does not intend to end any thoughts, acts, intentions or habits of sin is acting the part of the hypocrite.

  • Regularly remind everyone that the reality of receiving from Christ comes from the reality of the grace of God and the reality of one’s faith in Christ, not how emotionally demonstrative a person is. Some of the most genuine conversions I know of came through calm and unemotional but deep and serious expressions of faith in Christ.

  • Have some sort of more thorough followup for people who are coming forward to seek overcoming of a sinful habit. An invitation to a session where they could go through Neil Anderson’s Steps to Freedom in Christ is a good possibility. Another possibility is to emphasize that the proper followup to this step would be Christian counseling, a Christian Twelve Steps group, or some other discipleship or accountability group or partner.

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