I grew up in a small town Baptist church. I have experienced my fair share of altar calls. In fact, when I was a small child my pastor gave some of the most awe-inspiring altar calls I've ever seen. The sincerity, the honest pleas with the lost to repent. His voice still rings clear in my head.
I've always been a fan of altar calls. I think that they give real opportunity to some people to make a move toward Christ. But, the older I get, and maybe the more times change, the less effective I think they really are in bringing lost people to Jesus. I know that God uses many means to bring us to Him, and the altar call is one way that many people I know took their first step toward God. But, I have begun to notice a certain irresponsibility in the use of this mode of evangelism.
Tonight I had an interesting experience with an altar call at a revival-type service. Chad stayed home with the baby and I took the kids to a local church for the program. The service was filled with entertaining acts and heartfelt stories of encouragement, ending with a mini-sermon during which the speaker offered several anecdotes which were designed to point to the hope that Jesus Christ offers. Then he asked everyone to bow their heads and close their eyes, and he talked for a while longer before asking anyone who wants the hope of Jesus in their lives to raise their hands. Then he asked everyone in the room to repeat a prayer. He prayed, asking for forgiveness and telling God that he was giving his life over to let God be in charge. I listened as the many children in the room, including my own seven year old daughter, sweetly repeated the prayer, obviously just doing what the nice man told them to do.
When the prayer was over, he congratulated them on having made the biggest decision of their lives. Then he invited everyone who had prayed the prayer to come to the platform and stand there to watch the final act, which was going to be performed "in honor" of the little ones standing on the stage. Music started, and slowly the children made their way to the stage, more and more coming with his encouragement in the microphone. He said that he was willing to bet that no one would want to stay in their seat.
My sweet daughter, having no idea that the man believed he was leading her to say anything other than a regular prayer, looked at me expectantly, and I told her she could go to the stage to watch the final act up close, which she was obviously dying to do. The kids were so thrilled to be close to the stage and you could tell they were super excited to see this final act in living color, only a few feet away from them.
At the end, the pastor of the church took the microphone and asked for a round of applause for the children on the stage. Then he told the kids that they should head to the back of the room to pick up a booklet the church was providing to help them grow in their "new faith." My daughter didn't bother to head back there. She came and sat down again, excited to have been allowed to get so close to the stars of the program, and raring to come home and tell Daddy all about it.
Will she be counted as one of the many who accepted Christ tonight? Were any of those children coming forward for any reason other than: 1. They were told to. 2. They really wanted to see the stage without obstruction? Maybe. God can use any means to save us. But, the revival team and the church will never know because they offered no counseling or questioning of any kind. And, tomorrow night when the revival continues, how many will they claim came to know the Lord tonight? To claim even one would probably be dishonest.
And in ten years, when those children are really being dealt with by God, will some well-meaning pastor assure them that because of tonight's altar call, they must be Christians, and they should stop worrying about it?
I know that many of us have emotional attachments to altar calls. I am probably one of them. But, what I witnessed tonight makes me more convinced than ever that unless reasonable counseling is available, the altar call should probably be nothing more than an invitation to meet with the pastors after the service to seriously sit and talk about what's going on in the heart and soul. An altar call should never be flippant or manipulative. While I'm sure their hearts were in the right place, tonight's team seemed to care little for the genuine conversion of those sweet souls. True evangelism is more than collecting clueless prayer repeaters. I pray these children have someone in their lives who will sincerely counsel them.
My daughter seemed totally unphased by the whole experience. In fact, both kids are begging to go back tomorrow night. I'm willing to bet that if we did go back, words would once again be put in their little mouths all in the name of getting kids to say a prayer and checking them off the list as headed for Heaven. This type of altar call looks nothing like the ones I remember from my childhood. And, I honestly believe that this type of irresponsibility, no matter how well intended, is a bad practice that leads to confusion and empty assurances.