Sunday, October 07, 2007

Taking ownership with God

Today's sermon by Peter Desmond Wee was from Acts 9:1-6 on Taking Ownership with God. The call is to be serious with our relationship with God and to heed his calling and commandments.

He also talked about altar calls and it reminded me that this is something I need to think about. What exactly are altar calls? What is its history and practice in the church? Are there any references to it in the bible? I don't think so and so how did it come about? What is its validity? What does it accomplish? Real change or a series of guilty conscience in action?



  1. Hi, I might actually be of some help here for once!

    Historians tend to trace the popularisation of altar calls (I'm not completely sure he "invented" it, but certainly you can hardly find any references to altar calls before the 18th century) to Charles Finney, a Presbyterian evangelist during the Second Great Awakening in America. Finney was never formally trained and he depended on an exuberant preaching style and long meetings full of prayer and music (does this sound familiar? :> ) He would place a bench in front of the auditorium or wherever he was preaching and invite those that were thinking of making a decision for Christ to come forward and sit there.

    Finney's theology wasn't the best - he didn't think much of total depravity and thought humankind had the capacity to turn to Christ without divine intervention (whether one is Calvinist or Arminian, both agree on the need for God's grace to intervene). So this led to him being rather pragmatic in his methods, often going for emotional appeals. In his defence, he did have a heart for the lost, and he was big on social reform.

    Biblically, I suspect you won't find much warrant for altar calls as it's commonly practised today. One could potentially confuse saying a sinner's prayer or being slain in the Spirit with true repentance. I've been there myself. :-)

  2. Pearlie, I know I haven't been around much, but was glad to come back and see you're still asking good questions!

    I wonder much the same about this. In my youth, I answered many alter calls, but I must admit almost all where bound in a worldly sorrow akin to guilt, so I have not held high opinion of the practice.

    But there is one instance in scripture that reminds me of the heart-felt response I think most people would hope an alter call would be:

    "When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, 'Brothers, what shall we do?'" Acts 2:37

  3. Hi bk,

    I agree with you about the origin of the altar call and its association with the Great Awakening. However it really come into its own during the early days of Pentecostalism.

    I guess it has its use of being symbolic i.e. moving to the front to show your commitment or repentance.

    Unfortunately, like you I have seen how preachers manipulate the audience for numbers in the altar call, and the audience psyching themselves out for the same call.

  4. Thanks bk for the heads up. Lessen my work, you did :) not that I have the time to really go into at the moment. It might have to go to the shelves first. But we are on the same note. True repentance happens in the very depth of the soul, whether one take the step to go forward in altar call or not. It is when someone says, "Oh, I miss the chance" that I feel altar calls has taken a wrong turn.

  5. Hey Missy :)
    I have been at your blog time and again and I have thought you must have been away or been busy. Good to have you back. Hope all is splendid and well!

    The same with me, in my youth, it is one altar call after another. Then some time ago, I am usually the "counsellor", or so we were called. And how it went about is usually "how many? how many??" I didn't like it that it has boil down to numbers. I think it takes more than altar calls - it takes discipling, pastoring and prayer.

  6. Alex,
    I think that moving to the front to show commitment in itself is a good thing. But like you said, more often than not, it has come down to playing of emotion, psyching and guilt. Nowadays, I just feel uneasy during altar calls. What I think is good though is going forward to be prayed for by the pastor, for example after the service - that is more personal and to the heart, which can bring about more change in one's lives.

  7. At jails we regularly give inmates a chance to come to Christ by standing up.. but that is more evangelistic in nature and not really the heart of what you are asking Pearlie.

    On rare occasions I have been part of a genuine move of the Holy Spirit where people came forward and genuine revival broke out.. over 30+ years I can probably count them on one hand.

    I guess tradition (always giving an altar call or not) would limit the Spirit but alternatively I think power can be released when He leads.

  8. Thanks KB for putting it in perspective ... yes, God works in many ways, sometimes in ways that we never imagined.

  9. Hi,

    I'd agree with what all of you have been saying about altar calls. I was in a church last sunday where the preacher gave an altar call. No one responded initially. The preacher said, "Looks like I have to continue praying since no one responds to the altar call." He then raised his voice and made emotional plea for people to respond to the altar call, etc. This is where I get a bit uncomfortable. Are we manipulating God and the people, like what Alex said? It is wrong for people not to respond to altar call?

  10. I know it is quite mean to say this but maybe it is wrong to allow the speaker to embarrass himself? It's just that when what you mention happens, I not only get a bit uncomfortable, I get quite uncomfortable. Or maybe it's just me :) In all fairness, there are genuine ones.

  11. Although it is true that there are genuine ones but in most cases altar calls play on people's emotions. Usually what precedes altar calls are loud music, screaming, shouting and a lot of other things which are done to enhance the 'ambience' of the place and to psych people up. More often than not people answer altar calls because they are hyped up. I've answered altar calls many many times in my teen years and after just a week, I revert back to my old sinful ways and in doing so, I need plenty of altar calls to get 'converted' and 'recommitted' to Christ when in the first place, my heart was never renewed at all! My true conversion happened when someone spoke to me personally about the Gospel and from when I studied the Bible earnestly. It didn't happen through altar calls and for genuine cases, people who have received Christ through altar calls should be follow-upped, but most are left to fend for themselves.

    That's my take on it.

  12. loud music, screaming, shouting
    oh, I have not experienced that before on altar calls :) it is usually the pleadings.

    when someone spoke to me personally about the Gospel
    Another reason why I must be more active in spreading the news! I have been searching and thinking about this lately.

    people who have received Christ through altar calls should be follow-upped, but most are left to fend for themselves
    So so true.