There is considerable unwillingness among evangelical churches to question whether altar calls are helpful or harmful in bringing unbelievers to Christ. In modern times, the invitation system is customary in virtually all Evangelical, Fundamentalist, Wesleyan, Pentecostal, and Charismatic churches, and they often consider it to be an essential part of evangelism. In fact, if there is no altar call, some of these denominations will accuse that church of being ashamed of the gospel or unconcerned about soul winning.
I say "in modern times," because many are unaware that this practice was unknown to the church prior to the early 19th century and was never used by Jesus, the apostles, or the early church. For the first nineteen centuries, no one had even heard of an altar call. Well-known evangelists such as George Whitfield, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, and even John Wesley successfully evangelized thousands with no more than the gospel. In the last century, people are asked to make a "decision for Jesus," without even being told who Jesus is, what He did for us, or why anyone needs Him.
Altar call methodology has encouraged preachers to set goals by body count to measure their soul-winning success. Yet, follow-up calls of those who "walk the aisle" for Jesus consistently reveal disappointing long-term results. The majority of those who respond to an altar call end up staying away from church, living lives that show little or no change from their lives prior to the experience. Worse, many report that they responded to the altar call due to only an emotional peak, psychological pressure, or the herd instinct in a crowd. Shortly after, they returned to sinful, unredeemed lives, with hardened skepticism about the truth of Christianity. This sad report includes the results of "Crusades" by the best-known evangelist of our century.
On the other hand, those who are led to Christ though a firm commitment to gospel preaching about the fallen nature of mankind, our need for a Savior, a promised Jewish Messiah, and His death and resurrection to atone for our sins, result in transformed lives and long term dedication to Christianity. Methodology plays little or no part in these conversions because the Holy Spirit is the focus and power through the gospel. The conversion can still be emotional, but it remains clear that the soul is not won to Christ through an emotional presentation that implies that walking the aisle is the action that saves your soul. It starts with the facts presented in Scripture, understood by the mind, and from there, penetrating the heart to respond. This is the very way that Peter and Paul won thousands to Jesus, beginning with Pentecost when 3000 were converted (Acts 2:41).
Soon after, Acts 4:4 reports that 5000 were converted in Jerusalem. Many think Luke reported only male converts but if women and children were not included in the 5000 total converts might total 10-12,000. Various estimates of the population of Jerusalem ranged from 40,000, 50,000, 100,000, to more than a million. Josephus reported the city's population to be 3 million when Titus laid siege to Jerusalem. Tacitus estimated 600,000 in Jerusalem. Although we can't settle on an accurate number, we can assume that hundreds of thousands of people were in Jerusalem as Peter preached on Pentecost. The gospel he preached spoke of Christ's blood atonement, and no one was asked to come forward to accept Jesus through any movement of his feet.
Charles Spurgeon, well known for his evangelistic abilities, firmly refused to adopt the practice of altar calls and he severely criticized it. He viewed the altar call as a method to force decisions as results, but he recognized its potential abuse and dangers.
When and where did the altar call get its start? Its widespread promotion is principally associated with the influence of Charles Finney's crusades. Finney said
Preach to him, and at the moment he thinks he is willing to do anything, bring him to the test; call on him to do one thing, to make one step that shall identify him with the people of God...If you say to him, "there is the anxious seat, come out and avow your determination to be on the Lord's side," and if he is not willing to do a small thing as that, then he is not willing to do anything for Christ.
Later, Finney's "new methods" spread to Dwight L. Moody, and more rapidly into the 20th century through Billy Sunday, Mordacai Ham, John R. Rice, Sam Jones, Bob Jones, Billy Graham, and countless others. The system seemed to be successful and was adopted by most evangelical churches.
Altar calls are not found in the ministry of Jesus, or even the church of the post-apostolic period. Jesus and His disciples did invite men and women to Christ to be saved, but never by this method. They provided invitations, but never altar calls. If neither Jesus nor His apostles used the method and never commanded anyone to do so, it is obviously not necessary. A church that avoids this methodology should not be criticized for its refusal to follow this practice. It is not only not a matter of Biblical precedent or command, but it can potentially backfire by leaving people unsaved, uninterested, unchurched, and feeling deceived.
Charles Spurgeon only directed people to Christ: "Go to your God at once, even where you are now! Cast yourself on Christ, now, at once, ere you stir an inch!"
Notice that he directed all attention to Christ alone. He also stressed urgency. He told his listeners that the time to repent and trust in the Lord as Savior was today, not tomorrow. He urged them with the passion of his heart to seek Christ alone because we have nowhere else to go. It is a matter of eternal consequence. He said these things without asking anyone to move physically from their pew to the front of the altar or to an "inquiry room" or "anxious bench." The altar call is an artificial, man-made invention that truly has no power to save souls. Only the gospel has that power, and only the Holy Spirit can convict a person of his or her need for a Savior. It has nothing to do with a physical action taken during a fleeting emotional moment.
Spurgeon realized that the altar call would cause many to enter the wide, comfortable gate by making a "profession" and then live as they liked, forgetting Christ and turning away from sin in earnest repentance. If asked if they were Christian, these people would quickly report that they were "saved" and had no further need of anything to get to heaven. The creation of false assurance is said to "send people to hell with decision cards in their pockets." Jesus demands that our faith be evident. He cannot be ignored or denied. To do so is to remain in sin and continue on a path of convenience to destruction.
David Martin Lloyd-Jones said, "Most would agree...that this method tends to produce a superficial conviction of sin, if any at all. People often respond because they have the impression that by doing so they will receive certain benefits." Many go away from the altar, told they are now Christians, but knowing that they have not changed a bit. Most show no signs of conversion even a few weeks after their decision. Their unbelief may then harden into skepticism about anything Christian.
Even Charles Finney had doubts about his own methods toward the end of his life. He witnessed how many of his "converts" continued to live godless lives.
We don't want people to think that they must walk the aisle to be saved. We want them to know that Christ can save them even while they remain seated. We must make our message clear that they must go to Christ with their faith, trust, and commitment, to the only one who can save their souls. It requires no physical movement or display of emotion. "Coming to Christ" means to turn to Him for refuge, receive Him into your heart, and we speak of matters of the soul. We do not want to confuse anyone into thinking that they must wait for an altar call to be saved. We want no one to think that if they failed to walk the aisle that they have missed their chance to be saved. They do not need the confusion of dramatic lighting, soft music, and a powerful preacher to make a difference. They can accept Christ as their Savior in the privacy of their own thoughts at any time. No mediator is required. No one needs to provide prayer instructions to be valid. God saves us through his Word. "For the message of the cross...is the power of God." (1 Corinthians 1:18).
We must invite people to come to Christ. However, the sinner must be taught to understand the great truths of sin, redemption, regeneration, repentance and faith. We must reach their minds if the heart is to be moved. We must not imply that they can have a Savior without making Him their Lord. There is no easy believism
that saves without any demands. "Confessing Him before men" is not a single act, but an act of continually confessing Jesus. The message we preach is the power of God to save sinners, and that alone brings people to Christ. The preacher's duty is not to "get decisions," but only to proclaim the Good News and exhort men and women to go to Christ. That is enough. God is well able to do everything else. God cannot be manipulated in any way to grant salvation.
In summary, the altar call offers no required help, and can result in harmful temporary or false conversions with no depth. The dangers of such a method may outweigh the benefits that some claim. A return to the New Testament is the surest prescription to effective evangelism. Paul said, "I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16) Proclaim the truth, call men to repent and believe, and leave the results in the hands of the Holy Spirit, who alone can bring faith to the convicted heart.