CHURCH & MINISTRY
Walking the aisle for Jesus
By Bill Brenner
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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.
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