Last Sunday, we had our first Q&A at Athens Church. It is an opportunity for people to come and find out what we are all about. One of the questions that came up had to do with the lack of response times in our services. We typically end the service without a public call to make a decision or come forward or raise your hand or anything like that. As a result, we had a spirited discussion about it. Some of us have made major spiritual decisions as a result of the altar call and some of us (I am in this camp) have had really bad experiences with them. I figured I would make a few posts about the concept and my feelings about it.
I think it is first important to look at the origin of the altar call. It was very interesting to me when I learned that it is a very recent phenomenon. There was no such thing as an altar call until the 19th century. Most people attribute the birth of it with a man named Charles Finney. Apart from a lot of other theological problems that he had, Finney had a very specific theology about God’s work in the process of conversion. Specifically, he didn’t see God all that involved. Here is an example of what he thought…
“There is nothing in religion beyond the ordinary powers of nature. A revival is not a miracle, nor dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means—as much so as any other effect produced by the application of means. . . . A revival is as naturally a result of the use of means as a crop is of the use of its appropriate means” [Charles Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, n.d.), 4-5]
His basic theology was that revival or conversion for that matter could come as a result of the “application of means.” For Finney, this meant that people could be manipulated and coerced into making a decision for God. With this theology in mind, the altar call was born. He even created an “anxious seat”. This was a seat that he pressured people to come sit in to make a decision for God.
Please don’t hear me say that I think everyone who has an altar call agrees with this theology. I know that is not true. But the practice itself was born out of this theology. The bottom line is that whenever we make a decision about how we do ministry, there is a theology that informs it. When discussing the place of a altar call or response time, we have to consider the theology behind it. I’ll talk more about that in future posts.
Interestingly enough, Finney made this statement toward the end of his ministry…
I was often instrumental in bringing Christians under great conviction, and into a state of temporary repentance and faith . . . . [But] falling short of urging them up to a point, where they would become so acquainted with Christ as to abide in Him, they would of course soon relapse into their former state [cited in B. B. Warfield, Studies in Perfectionism, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford, 1932), 2:24].
I don’t know about you, but that is something I never want to have to say at the end of my life. My hope is to leave a legacy of people living passionately for God.