When I was in my last year of seminary, I had a choice: take 6 units of electives or spend a year writing a thesis.
I chose the thesis.
It took me one semester to research and write a 100-page first draft, and after that, it was just a matter of making corrections.
But I wrote the thesis because I felt strongly about my topic: the public invitation, or as many Christians call it, the altar call.
I spent many years in fundamentalist churches, and at the end of nearly every service, the pastor would invite people who wanted to receive Christ to “come to the altar” (presumably the communion table even though the NT says that Jesus’ cross was the final altar.)
As a child, I just accepted the practice, but when I was old enough to read Scripture myself, I noticed something:
The New Testament does not record even one instance of an altar call.
So I started paying attention to the way my pastors handled their public invitations and comparing them with Scripture.
Because I sensed they were manipulating people into “making a decision” for Christ. They were doing more than persuading people to come to Christ … they were pressuring them in an unethical manner.
Here are four pulpit manipulations that I’ve observed after a sermon over the years:
First, the pastor intimates that a person must do something physical to be saved.
How many times have you heard a pastor say, “Everyone Jesus called, He called publicly?”
The assumption behind this statement is, “You can’t become a Christian unless you take some overt action.”
If this statement is true, then Paul and the apostles should have implemented this practice as well.
But Paul writes in Romans 10:9: “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
To be saved, Paul doesn’t say that an unbeliever has to do anything with his body … just with his mouth (confess “Jesus is Lord”) and with his heart (believe Jesus is alive).
Paul goes on in verse 10: “For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.”
We’re saved by what we do with our heart (inward belief) and mouth (outward confession expressed through prayer; see verse 13), not with our body. (When Jesus talks about confessing Him before men in Matthew 10:32, He’s referring to the mouth, not the body.)
And yet, when Billy Graham ended a message, he always called people to the front and intimated that if they didn’t come forward, they couldn’t be saved.
But then he’d turn to the television camera and say, “And if you’re watching this program at home, you can be saved as well by asking Jesus into your life.”
So if you’re watching Billy in person, you have to walk down near the stage to be saved, but if you’re watching him at home, you can become a Christian just by praying?
Wouldn’t it be more ethical to lead people in a prayer wherever they’re sitting … tell them that Jesus has now saved them … and then ask them to come forward or call/write to receive literature or counseling?
I knew a young woman who had received Christ but didn’t think she was saved because she was too scared to “walk the aisle” at church. How many others have felt as she did?
You can receive Christ even though you’ve never walked to the front at church … and you can walk to the front and not be saved.
So why do preachers and evangelists still engage in this practice?
Second, the pastor uses the foot-in-the-door technique.
This happened recently at a church I attended. After the message, the pastor presented the gospel well.
Then he asked those who wanted to receive Christ to raise their hands so he could pray for them. (“I see that hand … I see that hand.”)
So far, I was right there with the pastor, but I kept hoping, “Pastor, don’t do it … don’t do it.”
But he did.
He asked those who raised their hands to come and stand at the front … without telling them in advance.
Then he asked those who came forward to go into a side room for further counseling.
Why didn’t the pastor tell people how to receive Christ in their seats? Why did they have to come to the front first?
I don’t really know. Was this the way he came to Christ? Was this the way his mentor taught him?
Since the church was having a baptism that afternoon, is it possible the pastor needed more candidates?
We take great pains in our culture to insure that babies are born in private, and for good reason.
Then why do so many preachers insist that spiritual infants be born publicly? Couldn’t this be a barrier to the gospel?
Third, the preacher places undue pressure on unbelievers.
Years ago, I attended a worship service where the pastor told his congregation after his message, “God has told me that someone is going to come forward today.”
So we sang “Just As I Am” … not twice … not 5 times … not 9 times … but 12 times … and nobody came forward.
(I was thinking about going forward just so we could all go home.)
Why all that singing? Was the repetition of the stanzas supposed to melt someone’s defenses and cause them to walk forward?
I think so.
But again … where do we find this kind of thing in the New Testament?
I believe that the gospel is indeed “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). If someone preaches the gospel well, why do they need to pressure people to embrace it?
When the Holy Spirit is applying the gospel to the hearts of lost people, He brings people to Christ without using manipulation.
Finally, the altar call minimizes baptism.
When I was a youth pastor, I led a weekend college retreat, and a couple of brothers received Christ.
Both the brothers – along with their sister – wanted to be baptized.
I told my pastor that on a Sunday afternoon, and he said, “Jim, ask them to come forward tonight for baptism when I give the invitation.”
Although I didn’t want to do it, I passed on his wishes to them before the Sunday evening service.
They didn’t understand why they had to go forward. When I suggested they needed to publicly profess their faith, one of the brothers asked me, “Isn’t that what baptism is for?”
Of course, he was dead on … and they didn’t walk forward that evening. (To insist that they walk forward against their will would have been unethical.)
But I had the privilege of baptizing those siblings a little while later … the first baptism I ever did.
Why do many preachers insist that people publicly profess their faith in Christ twice … once when they “walk the aisle” … and again when they get baptized?
Which is the biblical practice?
When I lived in Arizona, my wife and I attended a church that had a baptismal pool outside … and that pool got quite a workout.
They never had an altar call in church … they just kept pointing new converts to that pool as the biblical way to profess their faith in Christ publicly … and it worked beautifully.
My first pastorate was at a small church in Silicon Valley. The congregation was composed of refugees from other community churches. We rented a school cafeteria for services.
Even with a map, few people could find the church. With one exception, everybody who attended was already a believer.
And yet, church leaders wanted me to give an altar call at every service. In fact, two leaders came to my house one Saturday night and begged me to do it.
Had I done so, I wouldn’t have lasted long.
When nobody came forward, the leaders would have reasoned, “God isn’t blessing Jim’s preaching.”
So to get results, I would have been forced to resort to manipulation … just to get someone … anyone … including that one unbeliever … to come forward.
A few years later, he did receive Christ … in God’s time and way.
It’s commendable for preachers to want people to come to faith in Christ. Our preaching should be filled with passion.
Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:2: “We have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.”
Let’s set forth the truth plainly in our preaching … and renounce all deception and distortion.