2. When altar calls become a basis for dishonesty and manipulation
For example, a preacher exhorts his audience by stating, “We will sing two more verses of ‘Just as I Am’ (or another invitational hymn).” In reality, though, five more stanzas are sung. Or a preacher says, “If today, you want to trust Christ, just raise your hand. That’s all I am going to ask you to do.” Then those who raise their hands are exhorted, “Now I am going to ask you to step out into the aisle and come forward. I’ll be waiting here for you.” Wait a minute, didn’t the preacher say a raised hand was all he was going to ask for? The altar call given in the above ways becomes an occasion for dishonesty and manipulation.
James 5:12 exhorts us, “But let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’, and your ‘no’, ‘no’, lest you fall into judgment.” That is, say what you mean, and mean what you say. Don’t let something as potentially effective as an altar call become a place where the truth is not spoken. If you’ve stated, “We’ll sing one more stanza,” only sing one. If you are going to ask one thing of the people, don’t ask two.
3. When altar calls are presented as the only way
The altar call is one way of finding out who is interested in trusting Christ; it is by no means the only way, however. A church that does not use variety in the way it invites people to express their desire for Christ is a church too deeply steeped in tradition.
As an evangelist, I’ve spoken in more than 1,000 outreach events over the last 36 years. I’ve used altar calls, but I’ve also used a host of other methods. A communication card with a check in the right-hand corner if a person has trusted Christ has been a highly effective method. I’ve also asked interested people to meet me and other leaders in an adjoining room as soon as the service is dismissed. I’ve invited people to trust Christ in their seats, and then come forward after the service for information on how to grow. What encourages a variety of methods? The fact that the altar call is not a biblical issue. Whether or not people trust Christ alone for salvation is the issue, but how we determine who those people are is not.
The altar call does not have its roots in Scripture but instead in church practice. Prior to the nineteenth century, it was never heard of. The altar call was started by Charles Finney and popularized under D.L. Moody. In fact, when it was first used, it was highly criticized. It was viewed as man-made and manipulative. Since then, though, it has become most common and widely used, largely due to the well-known and respected Billy Graham crusades. But since it’s not a biblical issue, we are free to use whatever methods we deem ethical and effective in encouraging the lost to respond to the gospel.
4. When altar calls are used for self-promotion
All preachers like to see results from their preaching, but our calling is to be faithful (1 Corinthians 4:2). Only God can make us fruitful. That’s why, as we preach an evangelistic message, we want every lost person to come to Christ. Who does and who does not is in God’s hands. Our job is to bring Christ to the lost—only God can bring the lost to Christ.
I’ve often said, “The acid test of an evangelistic speaker is not what happens when a multitude responds; it is what happens when nobody responds.”
If one gives an altar call, it dare not be done to flaunt the effectiveness of our own preaching and impress people or other preachers. If self-esteem and self-glory enter the picture, God has been dishonored. Methods used properly are used with right motives.
There is a place for a properly given altar call, but we must maintain a correct understanding of how, when, and where to use one. Altar calls properly handled don’t confuse the gospel, are not the basis for dishonesty and manipulation, are not viewed as the “only way,” and are not used for self-promotion. Instead, altar calls properly done say in a warm and caring way to non-Christians, “If you’d like to come to Christ, we’d love the opportunity to talk to you about that right now.” Let’s honor God by presenting the gospel clearly. Let’s also honor Him in the way we give an altar call.