By Aaron Menikoff
Several years ago I preached my first sermon as the pastor of Mount Vernon Baptist Church. The minister of music stopped me before the service with a question. He wanted to know how I’d be making the altar call.
I was confused. Prior to this Sunday morning I’d been at MVBC three times, and not once did I see anyone give an altar call. I assumed the church had decided long ago to abandon the practice. I was wrong.
As it turns out, my church has a long history of closing the service with an appeal to walk the aisle in order to join the church, recommit one’s life to the Lord, or make a public profession of faith. The three Sundays I had attended were exceptions to the rule! In fact, many of the members had come to see the altar call as the primary means the church used to reach the lost. They saw the altar call as synonymous with evangelism.
WHY NOT GIVE AN ALTAR CALL?
I trust that many who give altar calls have the best of intentions. In the early nineties I attended a church whose pastor ended the service by asking every person in the congregation to close their eyes and bow their head. Next he would invite anyone who wanted to receive Christ to raise their hand and look toward the pulpit. For about thirty seconds the pastor would scan around the hall, notice the raised hands, and in a calm, soothing voice say, “Yes, brother, I see you. Good, sister, amen,” and so on. I believe this pastor meant the best for these seekers.
Nonetheless, I’m convinced that the altar call does more harm than good. The practice of granting people immediate assurance of salvation—without taking the time to test the credibility of their profession—seems unwise at best and scandalous at worst. It is unwise because the pastor cannot sufficiently know the person he’s about to affirm is a Christian. It is scandalous because it replaces the difficult and narrow gate designed by our Savior (Mark 8:34; Matt. 7:14) with an easy and wide gate designed by us. With the best of intentions, practitioners of the altar call have given many unsaved persons the false confidence that they truly know Jesus.
But that’s not all. The altar call has a tendency to put the congregation’s focus in the wrong place. After the Word is preached, members and visitors alike should be examining their own hearts. Everyone should be giving serious attention to how the message calls him or her to respond. But the altar call, ironically, tends to produce the opposite response. Instead of self-examination it leads to audience-examination. People are looking around, wondering who’s going to go forward. And if no one moves, one wonders, did the pastor fail? Or worse, did God take the day off?
These are just a few reasons why I think it’s unwise to use the altar call for evangelism.
HOW TO EVANGELIZE WITHOUT AN ALTAR CALL
How should a pastor who rejects the altar call think about evangelism in a public worship service? Put another way, what does it look like for a corporate worship service to be marked by evangelistic zeal? Here are seven answers I strive for in the services I lead:
- Be earnest.
Be earnest. Though there is nothing more important for a preacher than fidelity to gospel truth, earnestness must be a close second. God uses men whose hearts are gripped by the tragedy of sin and the reality of salvation. Until the doctrine of God’s amazing grace has settled in a preacher’s bones, it will never flash from his lips.
- Be clear about the gospel.
Be clear about the gospel. Every passage of Scripture is a gospel text. In all of Esther, the name of God is never mentioned, yet his handiwork is on every page. A pastor who wants to see sinners saved will faithfully teach the Bible, showing his congregation how the person and work of Christ is the point of every text.
- Call people to repent and believe.
Call people to repent and believe. There is a place in every sermon for a pastor to invite sinners to find hope in Christ. So often I hear sermons that end with a call to stewardship, a call to risk, a call to faithfulness—but not once a call to Christ. The preacher should carefully and passionately urge his listeners to repent and believe the good news, to submit their lives to Christ the King.
- Create space for follow-up conversations.
Create space for follow-up conversations. When I preach the gospel during my sermons, I want unbelievers to know that I’m eager to talk more about the faith I’ve just shared. Therefore I make myself available after the service to talk about the gospel and its implications.
Other pastors that I’ve talked to invite seekers to a special room after the service for prayer or conversation. Spurgeon gave over every Tuesday afternoon to counsel seekers and new believers. However you decide to do it, provide opportunities for people to talk more personally about what you just preached.
- Offer evangelistic studies.
Offer evangelistic studies. I commonly let seekers know that they are invited to join a short, straightforward study that explains the basics of the Christian faith. The study I use is Christianity Explained, a six-week study through the Gospel of Mark published by the Good Book Company. I’ve found it to be an invaluable introduction to the gospel. In fact, training in how to lead this study has become a staple class at my church.
- Make a big deal out of baptisms.
Make a big deal out of baptisms. Of course, baptisms already are a big deal. We should recognize that each baptism is an opportunity to show the congregation that God is at work building his church.
At Mount Vernon, we ask each baptismal candidate to share his testimony to the congregation. I’ve never required this, but I’ve yet to have a person turn me down. These new Christians are eager to testify to God’s grace, and seekers are led to question their own response to the gospel.
Finally, pray. In the pastoral prayer and even the closing prayer, I regularly pray that seekers would repent and believe the gospel. I pray they would submit their lives to Christ, overcoming whatever obstacles they perceive to be standing in their way. I pray that God would make himself known by drawing sinners to himself this very day.
As you can tell, I don’t give an altar call at the church I serve. But I plead every Sunday for sinners to come to Christ. Let us long to see the saints in our congregations encouraged by the gospel, and the seekers convinced of their need to repent and believe God’s good news.
 For a detailed treatment of the dangers of the altar call read Erroll Hulse, The Great Invitation: Examining the Use of the Altar Call in Evangelism (Audoban Press, 2006) and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching & Preachers (Zondervan, 2011), chapter 14.
 Arnold Dallimore, Spurgeon: A New Biography (Banner of Truth, 1985), 80.