Question: I visited a church a few weeks ago and experienced something different. At the end of the service, the minister asked everyone to close their eyes and bow their heads so that people could come forward. Can you please explain this practice?
Answer: This practice is called “The Altar Call” and is utilized by many American Methodist and Baptist churches. The practice has its roots in the Second Great Awakening which occurred between 1790 and 1820.
The concept of a “Great Awakening” was introduced to the American churches a few decades before that during a period which Jonathan Edwards described as a “surprising work of God” in otherwise ordinary times.
Part of what made his times so ordinary and God’s work so surprising was the means which God employed to accomplish so great an awaking: The Word, Sacraments, and Prayer. These are the things the church ordinarily offered and these are the things God so amazingly empowered to convert thousands of people.
Now, whenever you have thousands of people claiming a conversion experience, you run into a problem: Discerning the wheat from the tares or the sheep from the goats. Just because someone has some kind of personal religious experience does not mean they have been genuinely converted.
Pastors at the time like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield addressed this problem by reminding the churches that there was only one true test of the genuineness of conversion: Spiritual Fruits
If a person truly experienced and inward change of heart, then outward fruits of that change would eventually be seen in his life. This approach is in accordance with Jesus’ teaching, “By their fruits you will know them.” (Matthew 7:20).
However, this cautious and time-consuming approach to discerning God’s work in a sinner’s heart was not satisfactory to all. A group called the “revivalists” arose in the church who were looking for more “immediate results” to their preaching.
This period came to be called the “Second Great Awakening” and while it appeared similar to the first awakening in some ways, it was most certainly not a “surprising” work of God.
Rather than waiting upon God to work through the scriptural means he had appointed, church leaders began to invent and implement “new measures” which were intended to accomplish immediate (and immediately-observable) conversions during church meetings.
Charles Finney was the master of these “new measures” and employed them very successfully in his meetings. Some of his measures included very long meetings, highly emotional prayers, highly excited preaching, having people sit on an “anxious bench”, and yes – The Altar Call
Was there anything wrong with wanting people to be converted during a church service? No. Not at all. In fact, I pray that people will be saved and sanctified in every service I lead.
The problem with these “new measures” was, first of all, that they had no biblical warrant. They were invented by men and we should always be careful not to confuse God’s ways with man’s ways.
The deeper problem with the “new measures” was the theology behind them. Finney rejected the calvinistic theology which undergirded the first great awakening and replaced it with arminian theology.
If you are unfamiliar with those theological categories, that essentially means this: Finney believed that conversion depended upon man’s will rather than God’s work. All a person needed to do is make the right decision at the right time and it was the preacher’s job to persuade him to make that decision.
Conclusion – If eternity in heaven can be obtained by pressuring someone to make a decision after having worked them into an emotional frenzy during a long and loud church service, then the altar call makes perfect sense. On the other hand, if salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9), then we should probably leave it to him to accomplish through his own appointed means and in his own perfect timing.
– Pastor McShaffrey