Invitations and Altar Calls: Is it Manipulation or Evangelism?

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What is going on when a pastor gives an altar call or invitation? Is this appropriate? Is it manipulation?

 

When I was a kid, at church there was a weekly altar call with the hymn, “Just As I Am” playing and we knew that if God was working on someone’s heart, they’d get out of their seat and walk down the aisle to the altar, sometimes in tears. As a kid, I didn’t know what the big deal was.

Here’s a Willie Nelson rendition of “Just As I Am.” It might take you back. Do churches still sing this song at altar calls? I’ll bet there are some that do.

 

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Later, at a different church, I remember the pastor giving invitations to come forward if someone wanted prayer.  Sometimes it would start out with the pastor asking for people to raise their hands and get eye contact with him as “everyone’s head is bowed and all eyes closed.”  By the way, I was the kid who peeked – – yea – probably 99% of the time – lol.  I did wonder if God would punish me for peeking.  Was that a sin?

As I got older and matured in the faith, I was more concerned about my walk with the Lord and hearing His voice. When the pastor urged people to come forward, was He speaking to me?  Did He want me to come forward? What if I was supposed to go forward to the front, but didn’t.  Did God care?  Would that mean I was disobeying God?  I got very confused about these things – especially when my friends would go forward and I remained in my seat.  There was a lot of internal pressure I felt, and I didn’t know what to do with it, so I usually stayed in my seat.

Earlier this week I read a blog article by Don Johnson, “on invitations,” and appreciated his words as it related to some of my church experiences:

But that is just it – so many invitations are vague, unclear, manipulative, dependent on the crowd management of the evangelist, psychologically damaging and entirely unscriptural. Let me give you an example of what I mean. Not long ago, I sat in a service where the speaker was passionate about something. I am not sure exactly what it was, it certainly wasn’t found in his text. But he did make it clear that times were bad and we need people to do something. At the end of the service, the invitation went along these lines: “If you know that you need to be more committed to the Lord and stand for him, raise your hand.” Apparently a lot of hands were raised. Next the preacher said (after a bit more exhorting), “All of you who raised your hands, would you stand up and show you are committed to doing something for the Lord.” Well, a lot of those folks stood up. I don’t know if they all did, but many did. Next (you knew it was coming, didn’t you?) he said, “Now I want all of you standing to come forward and tell the Lord you mean business.”

Be sure to check out Don’s article. I have a hunch that some of you may have some stories to share about altar calls or invitations.

What do you think about them?

Are they Biblical?

Do you find them manipulative?

Are they necessary?

Let’s talk.

I leave you with this hilarious video.  See how many expressions you are familiar with:

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179 comments on “Invitations and Altar Calls: Is it Manipulation or Evangelism?

  1. “Sigh, another book added to my impossibly long Amazon wish list. Thanks Lydia!”

    Tell me about it! Verduin is always worth it, I promise. He is a very deep thinker and incredible scholar. I wish he has written more. His books are only now being discovered by the peasants.

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  2. Daisy, you say, “These guys have been predicting the Soon End Of The World every other year since I have been a teen.” Hal Lindsey. Al Gore. Six of one. . .

    Eh, wonder who all I’ve offended now.

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  3. Lydia, great points. I would add that Jesus’ first “sermon” was to the majority peasants–considered unclean or marginally devout by religious elite like Pharisees. He told them “repent (change your mind) and believe the good news.” It was a call to embrace something good, not a warning to avoid something bad. So, the message has facets, not just a salvation from sin or wrath. In fact, John’s message was a call to right living and justice, not religious in nature at all. Later, Jesus’ message was a call to purity of heart, not outward purity, which is the stuff of human religion. These parts of the core message are minimized or ignored by evangelicals who instead make it all about “accepting Jesus as Savior” (and doctrines that implies) in some conversion experience. I see salvation more of a process and direction and a new paradigm, rather than an event.

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  4. Lydia,
    Have you ever wondered why Jesus would insist on being Baptized by John when He was actually sinless and the Baptism John was doing was focused soley on repetence?

    Yes, actually I have. I really think he was the example for us. He was perfect in every way and by being Baptized He was showing by example what he expected from us. He showed the disciples the sacrament of the Lord’s Table that we are to observe. He showed us everything that we need to know to live like Him. I for one fall very short of that example, but he loves me any ways. I agree without doubt that saying a prayer without a heart change is worthless, which would also make baptism worthless. You may as well go for a swim without the Spirit dwelling in your heart.

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  5. Daisy,

    TV prophecy preachers

    I refer to Matthew 24:26 when anyone brings up the whole, it won’t be long now topic. [ No One Knows That Day and Hour ] “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.

    TV prophecy preachers certainly do not know more than the Son of God. I think most of these guys fall under the false prophet heading and will be more severely judged. I wouldn’t want to be them. God is patient and wants no one not to accept Him, but I don’t think He is going to have great Patience with these folks.

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  6. Exactly Gary. And why do people assume that Revelations was written ONLY for a future audience of a state church coming out of Rome and not the audience of it’s era?

    Are you saying it’s both? I could maybe argue both, but there are some elements that are futuristic, such as the literal, visible return of Jesus Christ on a white horse. That has not happened yet.”

    Oh sure, I agree there is prophecy about the return of Christ and rejoining the heaven and earth in redeeming God’s creation for those who have lived as redeemed people. I am not sure I agree the white horse is a “literal” horse Jesus would be riding. Why not a white helicopter if prohecy of transportation is the issue? Because the audience would not understand and it was written for the people of that day to give them hope.

    A white horse stands for something, obviously and we could discuss the different views all day. We tend to read the bible through our post enlightenment western literal black and white eyes and we miss the confusing literary story telling genres the 1st Century person was used to hearing. Even going further back to the OT, the “sea” communicated/represented something “dark, uncontrolled and evil” to people in stories. Something we have rarely been taught to take into consideration when we are reading the OT.

    But to give just one example of where I am coming from I will mention the much discussed “mark of the beast”. The Classical Greek word charagma translated as mark (of the beast) in Revelation 13:16 also means stamped or coin as in stamped coin and there was something going on in Ephesus (Domitions favorite city) about buying and selling in the Angora that made this a problem. (Domition insisted on being called a God and punished to death those who refused). Some ancient manuscripts render the number as 616. So if Revelation written later around 95 this makes sense. If written earlier around 60, we look to nero?

    The point I am making is that we must seek to understand how a 1st Century person would have understood this letter written to them of John’s Revelation. The information of the “mark” affected them even in Ephesus where it is thought John went after Patmos and the Revelation was first heard read. Some scholars insist the author was using a chiastic structure in various places often used in both OT and NT. I find that structure incredibly confusing because we are taught to communicate differently… but understanding that helps to make sense of some passages (like in Eph 4-5) that others use to proof text and beat us over the head with!

    Here is something it took me a while to wrap my head around: The Romans referred to Christians as atheists. In their view that is exactly what they were.

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  7. HUG,
    “How Many Souls(TM) Did You Save”. I don’t think God is going to judge us on this because he is aware that is his job, not ours. People get some crazy notions some times.

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  8. @GaryW:

    Oops! Controversial preacher would be Bell, Rob Bell, wrote “Love Wins.”

    And promptly got piled on in the “Rob Bell vs Team Hell” smackdown.

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  9. @GaryW:

    Daisy, you say, “These guys have been predicting the Soon End Of The World every other year since I have been a teen.” Hal Lindsey. Al Gore. Six of one. . .

    Both Hal Lindsay and Al Gore are coming from an Apocalyptic tradition, but expressing it in completely-different ways. God/The Plaaanet is Angry With Us For Our Sins Against Him/Her And We Must REPENT!!!!!

    Previous “Left Behinds for Brights” have included Inevitable Global Thermonuclear War, Ozone Hole, Global Cooling Crisis, and Marxist Economics. In all cases, World-ending Apocalyptic Crisis Enthusiasm (though Marx at least had a Millennial Utopia after his Armageddon of The Revolution).

    Apocalypse without Hope leads to despair and suicide. A lot of Apocalyptic memes offer hope that We Can Avoid The Apocalypse if we just Take Action and do X. (X varies, but ALWAYS agrees with whoever is making the Apocalyptic prophecy.) Hal Lindsay (cribbing from John Nelson Darby) substituted a passive Escape Route where God will beam you up before anything bad can personally happen to you. (Do I need to describe how dangerous an addition that is?)

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  10. @Daisy:

    By the time I got to my mid 30s, I was worn out. I have heard so many sermons or studies on TV (and in some churches in person) where the host explains who the Anti Christ is, and how the world ends, it gets so old.

    Lindsey used to say the end of the world was coming via the USSR, back in the 1980s. After 9/11 (and the USSR fell apart years prior), he began focusing on Islam.

    It’s not just him, other TV prophecy preachers have done similar.

    It’s analogous to writing SF set in the near future, or “future histories” where you have to plug your storyline of The Future into an ever-changing Present whose changes can invalidate your entire premise.

    The Second Russian Revolution in 1991 block-obsoleted a LOT of future histories and near-future fiction (including technothrillers), which assumed the Cold War would continue long into the future. Hal Lindsay fanboys took it further, where their “History Written In Advance” required the USSR and the Cold War to continue literally until the end of time.

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  11. @Daisy:

    I am expected to fully agree with all things Islam, homosexual, and atheist, but if I do not, the lefties on those sites will not just “agree to disagree” and let it go.

    They are just as Fundamentalist as any of the Right Wing Haterz in pulpits they denounce.

    Funhouse mirror reflections of each other, like Josef Stalin and Ayn Rand.

    Or the half-black and half-white aliens going for each others’ throats in that third-season Old Testament Star Trek script.

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  12. @GaryW:

    Well, my question is, if the Roman Catholic Church is the whore that sittith on many waters, just which institutions, exactly, are her harlot daughters? Hmmm?

    One faction views the Whore of Babylon as some sort of economic system (like Rome sitting on its seven hills bleeding her outer provinces to support bread and circuses and bling-bling at home; remember where the seven churches in the earlier part of Revelation are located). This often leads to denunciations identifying the Whore of Babylon as the USA and her destruction as Global Thermonuclear War. (“God’s Judgment for America’s sins sits ready and waiting in the Nuclear Missile Silos of the Soviet Union!!!!!”)

    But the most consistent thing I heard along those lines was the Whore represents corrupted economic system, the Beast corrupted political power, and the False Prophet corrupted religious systems. And Christ’s return ends the corruption forever.

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  13. Hug, I got to the point I totally avoided Escatology at all costs. It got to be ridiculous during the 90’s, too with the Left Behind books. One mega had David Reagan in about 4x per year to packed crowds. He was big into the temple mount stuff in Israel.

    My cousin was a missionary in Romania and when home on sabbatical took some of the current Left Behind books during their hayday with her back to show her colleagues. They were confiscated at the border and her papers marked. It was very unpleasant a situation that freaked her out.

    One reason it really started to bother me big time is that there IS something significant about the timing and historical rise of Zionism, the Hebrew language almost dead making a comeback through Hertzel, the process of Jews in Europe buying so much land from the Assyrians (who laughed all the way to the bank) and then the founding of Isreal in 1948 which became only democracy in the ME and so on. But people take it to ridiculous levels and put meanings into things that are a total stretch.

    It started to remind me of the DaVinci code or something. Anyone remember Jack and Rexella Van Impe? In college on Sunday mornings we would watch them while drinking Mismosas for breakfast. What a trip!

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  14. “Funhouse mirror reflections of each other, like Josef Stalin and Ayn Rand.”

    Except Ayn Rand had no military and escaped the Russian Revolution.
    Which explains why she became an athiestic objectivist. (She got her new name off a typewriter, btw) I loved her book, Atlas Shrugged, though. I went through a Rand phase in my 20’s. It was short lived. :o)

    Stalin, had prepared for the seminary to be a priest when the communist religion called him. Funny how life goes.

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  15. @Lydia:

    Except Ayn Rand had no military and escaped the Russian Revolution.

    More important, Rand (“The Only Truly Rational Mind Who Ever Lived”) didn’t have the absolute power of life and death over a country and everyone in it that Stalin had. If she had, I have no doubt her Objectivist regime would have been just as bloody as Stalin’s Communist regime.

    And now for something a little weirder:
    Ayn Rand as a My Little Pony Villain!
    http://www.fimfiction.net/story/5172/5/the-bad-apple-chronicles/apple-shrugged
    Join Bad Apple, Riverboat Gambler Con Pony and special agent for the Equestrian Crown as he infiltrates Vault’s Vale in “Apple Shrugged”.

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  16. Hug, LOL! Now that was clever.

    Just thinking of an Objectivist regime made me ponder lots of arrogant Howard Roarks running around blowing up lots of buildings not built to their precise specficiations. :o)

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  17. Lydia said, Anyone remember Jack and Rexella Van Impe?

    Yep. They’re still on TV. I used to watch them in the 1980s, and have seen their show off and on since then.

    Their show doesn’t really amount to much.

    Every single episode is the blond lady (Rexella) reading a batch of that week’s news headlines, the deep voiced guy offering DVDs for sale, and 20 minutes of Van Impe yelling Bible chapter names and numbers, such as (I’m just making these up, have no idea if these are actually in the Bible or not),

    ~Presenting every episode of Jack Van Impe ever created~
    [Jack Van Impe speaking]
    “Hey everyone, Romans 4:23! Genesis 1:34! Don’t forget Galatians 5:22, Isaiah 52:3, Psalm 125: 79, and Hebrews 55: 2. On top of all that, you must bear in mind that right before Jesus comes, Acts 10: 15 is true, and expect Peter 56:21!! And how can anyone forget Micah 15:34? Repent! Repent! The Lord is coming soon! And what about 1 Corinthians 6:7! 1 Thessalonians 5:3! 1 Thessalonians 17:29!!”
    ——————————
    BTW, in the early years, back in the 80s and into the 90s, Van Impe was very much against Roman Catholicism, but in the last ten years or so, he became a huge fan of Roman Catholicism.

    The flip flop was breathtaking. I’ve no idea what moved the dude from being in disagreement with the RCC to now he is a very big RCC cheerleader (unless he has since flip flopped yet again. I’ve not watched an episode in several months).

    Regardless of if you are RC, or not RC, or agree with RCism or not, the “about face” seemed weird to me.

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  18. Daisy,
    From what you’ve said I’m glad I never watched Van Impe. My Mama didn’t like tv evangelists and I never took up the practice.

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  19. HUG,

    Glad you escaped some of it. I didn’t come across the two types of tracts I mentioned until my late teens, when I could critique or just laugh at them.

    I’m also immensely thankful to have escaped the Gothard empire and the crazy world of fundamentalist Baptists largely due to being from the Pacific northwest.

    That wacko stuff I described witnessing was in an Assembly of God church.

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  20. Anyone else ever sit through Thief In The Night? I can relate to being worn out by eschatology debates, and this was one reason why. These days I guess I’m panmillenial, as in it will all pan out in the end. Sometimes I find amillenialism mildly attractive though. Don’t really have an opinion on the Great Tribulation.

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  21. Gary,

    No, you didn’t create any confusion! And, I was just sharing what I have come to understand baptism to mean. Isn’t it refreshing that each individual is welcome to share their thoughts and concerns here at SSB. All of these conversations are intended to bring about more healthy, mature believers in Christ – as each discussion makes us think for ourselves instead of being told what to think! 🙂

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  22. All of these conversations are intended to bring about more healthy, mature believers in Christ – as each discussion makes us think for ourselves instead of being told what to think!
    Pondering–AMEN!!

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  23. Has everyone seen O Brother Where Art Thou? 🙂 Remember when Delmar went and ‘got saved’ ? He said, that preacher done washed my away sins! What Delmar said is what many preachers believe today: that it is they who have the power to wash the sins of the people away.

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  24. Tim, Thank you for sharing that. It is always good to have something to laugh about throughout the work day. I enjoyed that.

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  25. I grew up in a non-abusive Baptist church. I currently go to an non-abusive non-denominational mega church. Both churches have “invitations” every Sunday. I never saw anything wrong with it, but I see how it could be manipulative.

    I got saved at age eight or nine. The pastor gave a sermon on Heaven and then said, “If you’re not sure if you’re going to Heaven or not, pray this prayer.” I prayed it because I thought it was a magic charm to get into Heaven, but shortly after that, the Spirit began working in my heart, and I got saved for real.

    So altar calls can be a good thing, but I think kids esp. need to be taught that the mere acts of going forward and praying won’t save you.

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  26. As a Catholic Bishop, I do not use altar calls or altar call songs in my liturgies. This does not mean I discount them though. As a young enlisted Chaplain Assistant in the Army during the Vietnam era, I was assigned to an Assemblies of God Chaplain. During our first meeting he told me he did not expect to be assigned a Catholic assistant. He didn’t know too much about Catholics but didn’t think I would be too comfortable working for him. E explained that I would be expected to assist him with a “special” service on Tuesday nights. I told him I was trained to assist at Protestant services. He said this one was different because various charismatic gifts of the Spirit would be present and, frankly, he prayed to be assigned a pentecostal assistant. I said, “How do you know your prayers weren’t answered?” He looked at me with a big question mark on his face. I said, “I may be Catholic but I am also charismatic and have been given some of the gifts. I am the only Charismatic Chaplain on the post. I assisted with altar calls and took to my heart some of the old time Gospel songs like “He Touched Me” and “Just as I Am.” I think altar calls should be changed a little bit though. The preaching and music are compelling but I think folks should be called forward who want to commit their lives to Christ as well who want to (usually silently) confess their sins or receive prayers or a blessing. In our tradition, every time I celebrate Divine Liturgy, I invite people up to the altar to receive the actual Body and Blood of Christ. our type of altar call. I also invite folks to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation to unburden themselves. May God bless each of you who read this.

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  27. Welcome Bishop Robert!

    Thanks for sharing your altar call experience. I’ll bet your chaplain was surprised. I was raised Catholic and our parish priest was one of the very few Charismatic Catholics in the area. I’ll never forget his kind heart.

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