Altar Calls: The Fundamentalist Sacrament
In his book, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism, Joel Carpenter writes about how fundamentalists looked for signs of God’s visitation and yearning for miracles among them expressed through altar calls or invitations. Check out what he had to say.
Fundamentalist preachers regularly gave the invitation for people to step forward and publicly profess Christ as their savior, and many pastors insisted on giving this “altar call” at every service. Their reason for doing this was that it was their evangelistic duty, but this ritual, performed with the musicians softly playing, the congregation singing or praying, and the leader speaking in an almost liturgical cadence, had become the high and holy moment of the fundamentalist church service, the time when miracles happened. For many fundamentalists, the experience of walking the aisle was so inspiring that doing it once was not enough. Surely people might feel encouraged in their faith and be charged with holy joy when others responded to the gospel, but there was nothing like experiencing it personally. Since conversion happened only once, fundamentalists developed ways for born-again Christians to “come forward” more often. By broadening their altar call into an invitation or rededicate their lives to God, to surrender themselves to God’s service, or to testify to a “definite call” to a particular field of service, fundamentalists found a way to meet their thirst for holy moments. “Going forward” became a fundamentalist sacrament.
– Joel A. Carpenter, Revive Us Again, 77.
One must not need wonder why contemporary fundamentalists are so antagonistic about their brethren who either do not stress the importance of altar calls or have done away with it altogether. The sacramental reverence given to those closing moments in a church service were considered to be time where miracles happened. Furthermore, such movements down an aisle was a confirmation that God was working and the church was growing, such that a person coming down for the fourth time for rededication was more indicative of a renewed “surrender” than a faulty view of justification and sanctification. One of the inevitable consequences of this sacrament was that pastoral counseling and knowing the spiritual condition of the flock often became suppressed by the pragmatic temptation to permit more and more people to profess faith, be baptized, and join the church without any serious inquiry into the state of their soul or their understanding of the gospel. Most unfortunate the case, such a sacrament became the gateway for unregenerate church members to seek a better life now predicated on higher morals (moralism) and stricter standards (legalism) rather than new life brought by the Spirit of God. Thus, through performance failures and feeling a sense of inadequacy, many mourners were advised to seek a false sense of security through “nailing it down,” “surrendering it all” (again), or getting a fresh start through being re-baptized. These substitutes for salvation have become the statistical justification of “church growth” and the progenitors of modern-day nominalism.
I suppose that I must make my usual caveat here whenever I address this issue. I am not against altar calls per se. I am against the misuse and abuse of them, and it is quite uncommon to find a church where such a sacrament is not elevated to a status of blind acceptance or treated with serious pastoral care. Many excellent articles and essays have been written in recent years sharing such mutual concern over decisional regeneration and altar calls, but probably one of the more popular pieces available today is Iain Murray’s Invitation System. As Christians, both individually and corporately, we need to promote a doctrine-centered evangelism which expresses the heart of Christ with the truths of His Word. The effectual operation of the gospel comes when we do God’s work God’s way, and lest we think otherwise, we can find ourselves adopting a method of evangelism presupposed by a faulty doctrinal understanding of salvation which would produce “90-day Christians” and “Christianized pagans” who know the lingo but do not know the Lord. Let’s labor together in the fields which are white with a relentless commitment to reach the lost as well as a rigorous devotion to the gospel of which we have been entrusted.