Wednesday, March 14, 2012

THE GOSPEL & the altar call

This is, once again, an issue with a rather broad spectrum of ideas with respect to evangelism and The Gospel of Jesus Christ. Although the altar call is generally understood to be a product of decisionism, it is most often an accompaniment of an easy believeism presentation. You can read about these issues in my most recent blog post.

There are those of you who may read this, who came to Christ as a result of an altar call. That may very well be your testimony, and Praise the Lord that you have a relationship with the Savior. My intention here is not to disparage the testimony of those who have walked the aisle, but to draw attention to the multitudes who have walked the aisle and gone on into lives of sin, with no relationship in Christ, yet believing in their minds that they are Christians. The question is, just because something is pro-active and achieves large numbers of apparent converts, does this qualify it as Biblical or sufficient? A friend of mine wrote an excellent series of articles, they primarily address the issue of Christian Criticism and accountability, but he draws out some excellent points with respect to "Is Good, Good Enough?"; I suggest you give the entire article a read. Biblically speaking, our best is not sufficient (Isaiah 64:6, Romans 3:10), so our mediocre is certainly not.

There is an excellent article by Thabiti Anyabwile that approaches this issue with great clarity. The following list of reasons NOT to hold altar calls is presented in his article as quoted from Pastor Ryan Kelly of Desert Springs Church.
1. The altar call is simply and completely absent from the pages of the N.T.

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.

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.
Thabiti Anyabwile adds one last item to Pastor Ryan Kelly's list;
11. The “altar call” teaches the congregation to evaluate the “success” or “effectiveness” of the ministry on outward, visible actions and results.
This is an excellent summation of the dangers of the altar call. Thabiti makes an excellent point in his article as well; "I don’t think the pastor who practices an “invitation” at the end of a sermon is in sin, but he may not be acting wisely either." Which serves to return us to the issue of - is 'good' ever really good enough?

The connection between altar calls and easy believeism is in the timing and pressure. Most often - the altar call and the sinners prayer lead to a false conversion. A false conversion is bourne out of ignorance of Gods Word and is not evidence of a repentant heart. Scripture says we will be known by our fruit (Matthew 7:16, John 13:34-35), Biblically speaking, this is a 'tell' that someone has made a false confession. When a confession of Faith has been made and an individual continues in a willful lifestyle of sin, this can be an evidence of a false conversion - or at the very least a complete misunderstanding of the Gospel. How can one repent and follow God and then willfully continue in the sin that separates him from God (Romans 6:1-2)? Herein lies the evidence of a "false conversion."

If someone has no understanding of who God is and what it is that separates us from Him, there can be no real understanding of a need for a Savior (2 Thessalonians 1:3-10). This misunderstanding is a byproduct of easy believeism.

The issue of manipulation and pressure is a serious one. Coming from a background of marketing and design, I can tell you that the use of colour, light, sound, scent, texture, music, associative behavior (product placement), etc.; all of these things contribute to, and are regularly used as manipulative tactics. It is no secret that man is easily manipulated, yet God's Word calls us to live honestly and love completely (Mark 12:28-31, Micah 6:8). When we seek to manipulate and cajole people into walking an aisle and making a profession, we seek to usurp the role of the Holy Spirit (John 3:3-7, Titus 3:5, John 16:8, II Thessalonians 2:3-10). We must always remember just what our role is meant to be, before God and before the world. The Holy Spirit will do His work, we must do ours. (II Corinthians 2:14-16)

In this short three minute video, Todd Friel shares some excellent insights about altar calls, but most specifically with respect to manipulation and it's place in church.

It's a lot to consider and our heart and goal should be simply to be as clear and Gospel oriented as possible - so as to allow the world to hear and understand the Truth, in God's timing - not in our own (2 Peter 3:8-9). Generally speaking the altar call is a method to achieve a goal, accompanied often by the sinners prayer as the easiest means to an end. That is, ostensibly, to see someone come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. This is an excellent goal (and should be our ONLY motivation), but it is not our role to convict and to save, it is our role to disciple and to teach. (Matthew 28:19-20)

Ray Comfort has some excellent information about the long term effects and result of altar calls in evangelism in his book "God Has A Wonderful Plan for Your Life". The statistics are grim and should inspire us to seek to evangelize to greater effect by engaging in the work of discipleship. The following are just a few statistics taken from chapter six "The Motive and the result" (I highly recommend you read the entire book to get the comprehensive list of statistics and information);
• At a 1990 crusade in the United States, 600 “decisions for Christ” were obtained. No doubt, there was much rejoicing. However, ninety days later, follow-up workers could not find even one who was continuing in the faith. That crusade created 600 “backsliders”—or, to be more scriptural, false converts.

• In Cleveland, Ohio, an inner-city outreach brought 400 decisions. The rejoicing no doubt tapered off when follow-up workers could not find a single one of the 400 who had supposedly made a decision.

• In 1991, organizers of a Salt Lake City concert encouraged follow-up and discovered, “Less than 5 percent of those who respond to an altar call during a public crusade . . . are living a Christian life one year later.” In other words, more than 95 percent proved to be false converts.

• In 1985, a four-day crusade obtained 217 decisions. However, according to a member of the organizing committee, 92 percent fell away.

• A church in Boulder, Colorado, sent a team to Russia in 1991 and obtained 2,500 decisions. The next year, the team found only thirty continuing in their faith. That is a retention rate of 1.2 percent.

• According to Pastor Elmer Murdoch, “Chuck Colson . . . states that for every 100 people making decisions for Christ, only two may return for follow-up a few days later. George Barna says that the majority of people (51 percent minimum) making decisions leave the church in 6–8 weeks.”
The Gospel of Jesus Christ has value, it has great value. It is the single most important thing you will ever come to understand and the single most important thing you will ever communicate. It absolutely deserves your attention and a clarity of presentation; it is worth the time needed for the discipleship expected of us. God has given us the entire Bible to communicate the gospel to us, why do we feel the need to reduce it to formulas and over simplified untruth?

We must shout the gospel from our very lives. Live it always, preach it as often as possible, and disciple everyone that we come into contact with. We must plead with people to hear the gospel and to know God.

The Gospel is not complicated, mankind in our depravity (Ephesians 4:17-18, I Corinthians 2:14, Jeremiah 17:9, Ephesians 4:19, Romans 7:24, I Timothy 4:2) is complicated.

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