I hadn’t realized how just rare it has become these days to hear altar calls—the act of inviting hearers to receive Christ after a sermon—in churches lately until my memory was jolted back to this phenomenon when I chanced upon a pamphlet by Iain H. Murray titled The Invitation System where he examines the merits of this methodology of soul winning.
This may probably be as a result of the sharp decline in evangelistic outdoor crusades which mostly served as avenues for such altar calls. Another possible reason, among others, could be the widespread decline in the preaching of the unadulterated gospel in our churches where the simplicity of the saving gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, has been replaced with motivational messages that are sure to garner impressive crowds that will fill church auditoriums.
Times have indeed changed so I was curious to find out his views of this phenomenon. Right from the beginning of his examination, Murray unequivocally affirms a clear scriptural stance on the proclamation of the gospel as being the “divinely ordained means for the conviction and conversion of sinners” and does not dispute the fact that “wherever preaching has ceased to require a response and wherever hearers are left with the impression that there is no divine command requiring their repentance and faith, true Christianity has withered away.”
His concern is with how the whole idea of inviting hearers to walk down the aisle to the front of the crowd has come to be identified with salvation. The author tackles head-on, three of the main reasons that the popularizers of this system resort to as basis for adopting it namely;
(i). that Christ always called people publicly,
ii. ‘Coming out’ it is said, ‘settles it and seals it’ and
iii. the invitation has value as a visual demonstration to the uncommitted. To make his case even more appealing, he cites such people as Billy Graham who are renowned for this practice.
Regarding the first reason, Murray took time to elucidate some of the scriptural verses which are often quoted (and out of context at that) in support of this system. One such verse is Matt.10:32, ‘Whosoever shall confess me before men…’ and remarks rhetorically that “Is Christ here saying that by an act of confession we become Christians or is He teaching that one indispensable mark of those who are Christians is that they live a life which openly acknowledges Him?” He observes that “the whole invitation system inevitably gives the impression that ‘confessing Christ’ by moving forward is in order to conversion.”
The second reason for this system seem to find its support more in its psychological effectiveness than the seeking to engender sincere and truly genuine response from hearers. The idea behind this technique is to stir the emotions of hearers to a high pitch and then pressing for a decision for conversion in that very moment. This whole attempts betrays our distrust in the preaching of the word of God alone for salvation so much so that we have resorted to emotionally manipulative schemes for forced conversions.
The third reason immediately brought to mind a recent incident that made some waves in the Christian blogosphere about a year ago when it was brought to the fore that Pastor Steven Furtick and his Elevation Church have produced a baptism manual with the telling titleSpontaneous Baptism How-To Guide.
This guide teaches, among other strategies that, some people are to be positioned at certain vantage points in the service where they will be visible to all and are to pretend to be responding to pastor Furtick’s alter call and by this act encourage the undecided to also walk to the front and make a profession of faith and be baptized. The idea behind this strategy is that once the undecided hearer sees very decent people walk the aisle to the front, they will be convinced Christianity is not only for the riff-raffs of society but the respectable members as well. It is very troubling to say the least that this man made technique though might produce the large number of ‘conversions’ as it is designed to achieve, it smacks of nothing but false conversions.
In the end, Murray succeeded in convincing me that The Invitation System as a method for conversion ought to be discarded since firstly, it has no biblical basis; secondly it is a fairly modern phenomenon popularized by such evangelists as Billy Graham and lacks any historic backing and thirdly it gives rise to a pragmatist approach where it is the end—in this case high numbers of conversions—that justifies the means rather than what is biblically sound.
This is however not to say that preachers should be precluded from requiring a response from hearers after a presentation of the gospel but rather, that it should be made clear to hearers that walking to the front is not by that very fact a testament to their conversion but rather repentance and faith in the finished work of Christ on Calvary alone is their only hope of salvation.