Imagine if you can, Jesus having people bow their heads after hearing the Sermon on the Mount, and then very slowly and softly (while Bartholomew plays “How Great Thou Art” on the accordion) saying to the crowd, “While your heads are bowed and your eyes are closed, if you really want to be My disciple tonight, if you really want to show My Father and I that you truly mean to follow this sermon I have given, then I want you to slip your hand up slowly, so that I may see it. There now…yes…yes…I see that hand…and that one…and the one way back by the fig tree…yes! Now, please, while Bart plays another chorus, I’d like you to start moving down through the center of the crowd…yes, those who raised their hand. I want to know if you really mean business. I’d like to lead you in a prayer…”
I realize that there are some who will see such an illustration as sacrilegious. And that’s just the point. They think that making fun of the “altar call” is making fun of God. But it isn’t. Traditions die hard, because they take so long to form. Once I received a very intense letter from the pastor of a church who had sponsored me in a city-wide concert in his area. He was upset that I had “let several hundred souls go ungathered” because I had not given an altar call. He said, “It seems you have no burden for souls.” (Nothing could be further from the truth.) But because I had not given the recognized “official invitation,” this pastor could see no value in my presentation of the Gospel. Or as Tony Salerno (director of “The Agape Force”) recently remarked, “If you don’t give an altar call, they think you have committed the unpardonable sin!'”
Believe it or not, the altar call was invented only about 150 years ago. It was first used by the American evangelist, Charles Finney, as a means of separating out those who wanted to talk further about the subject of salvation. Finney called the front pew “the anxious seat” (for those who were “anxious” about the state of their souls) or “the mourner’s bench.” Finney never “led them in a prayer,” but he and a few others would spend a great deal of time praying with and giving specific instructions to each, one by one, until finally, everyone was sent home to pray and continue seeking God until “they had broken through and expressed hope in Christ,” as Finney would say.
The early Salvation Army, going a bit further on Finney’s innovation, developed what they called “the penitent form” or “the mercy seat.” After a rousing time of singing and preaching, they would invite any sinner present who wanted to confess his sins to God and repent, to come to the front, and they would be prayed for individually. I have met a few older Christians who used to attend some of these early meetings, and they said that sometimes people would stay there all night, and on a few occasions, even a few days, weeping and confessing their sins with broken hearts. There were always some who would stay right there to instruct them further, encouraging them to make a clean sweep of sin from their lives.
This is what the early “altar call” was like. But gradually, it began to become a fixed part of every meeting, and like all other traditions, it began to lose its original spirit. The “coming forward” part started to be more important than the “sorrow, confession, repentance, and instruction” parts. Eventually, anyone who would “come down the aisle” was excitedly proclaimed “a new believer in Christ!” No matter how they felt, they still were told, “Your sins are forgiven, brother! Rejoice in Christ!” How many a miserable, defeated, and confused person has come away from a meeting like this? (Jer. 6:14).
note from Anna: though I see value in this article, I am not a supporter nor a defender of Finney.