At annual conference, Hamilton spoke on church leadership, relevant worship and missional outreach. He has an engaging style, practical illustrations and self-effacing wit that has made him the latest “guru” in the revitalization industry of the mainline church. I can see why he is so popular.
I heartily agreed with most everything he shared. Our churches need pastors who are visionary leaders, not managers, and laity who see themselves as ministers according to the model of Ephesians 4. Worship needs to be experiential, touching hearts, helping people connect with God and leading them deeper into discipleship. We need to return to our Wesleyan missional roots, offering Christ-centered outreach that draws people in and gets them involved. In one form or another, this message has been out there quite a while, but Rev. Hamilton has a way of “repackaging” it in a winsome style.
It might seem foolish to disagree with Rev. Hamilton, given his popularity and success. But he seems to be an open-minded guy who is not threatened by challenge. He probably won’t even read this blog post. But for those of you who do, I want to put forth the case for the “altar call.” Rev. Hamilton shared that some people have questioned why he doesn’t issue such an invitation after his services. He made note that the altar call, as modern Protestantism knows it, didn’t develop until the 19th century and is really not biblical at all.
True, there were no altar rails in the days of Peter. But the principle of invitation is there; indeed it is all through scripture. After the fisherman preached a fiery sermon in Acts 2, the crowd asked, “What shall we do?” The Holy Spirit had unsettled their hearts and they knew there was another step to be taken—they just didn’t know what it was. Peter boldly responded, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:38-39)
The biblical record tells us that Peter warned and pleaded with many more words. Three thousand accepted his message and were baptized. Now that was an altar call!
Certainly if a preacher has nothing to say, or says it in an uncompelling way, there may be no need to issue an altar call. Even so, the Word has a power of its own that shatters stony hearts and breaks up fallow ground. Every time we share the Gospel, it seems to me that somebody just might want to respond. Why don’t we give them that opportunity before their hearts cool and their conviction fades away?
I know the arguments: it’s manipulative. Altar calls play on the emotions. They’re too “Baptist” or “Pentecostal.” When I issue my invitations, I tell the people that I will not hover over them or order the accompanist to play one more verse of “Just As I Am” until somebody comes up. I usually sit down in the front pew and let the congregation know that I will pray for them or counsel them if they want me to; otherwise, they are free to kneel at the rail and commune with God themselves. I am content with the Holy Spirit drawing people to Christ, but I still feel that people need to hear the preacher assure them, “If God is stirring your heart, come.” I’ve even had folks approach me after the sanctuary has emptied out to ask for prayer or make a profession of faith. They may have slipped out the back door if I, as a representative of Christ, had not extended the invitation that God himself has given:
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
Rev. Hamilton gives heartfelt illustrations, so I will offer one of my own. Recently I talked to a friend who visited a mainline church many years ago. He was going through spiritual struggles and visited the church in hopes of finding some answers. The sermon moved him that day and tears flowed down his cheeks. No invitation to faith was given. Despite the fact that the preacher and church members saw his distress, no one offered to pray or counsel him. My friend left the service feeling worse than ever.
To be sure, God has many ways of drawing us to him. The altar call is not the only way, but I still believe it can be a vital tool in our evangelistic outreach. What would it communicate to that one person who, like my friend, came to church with a heart-vacuum and then heard the pastor or worship leader say, “God is ready to receive you today. Come forward if the Spirit is drawing you and let us pray for you.”
A lot of folks may not come. But one just might. And didn’t that woman in our Lord’s parable light a lamp and sweep her whole house for one lost coin?