The “altar call” or public invitation after a sermon is a common evangelistic method designed to give people under conviction the opportunity to make a decision for Christ. Baptists are no doubt the denominational tradition which has clinged most tightly to the necessity of an altar call. I think there are some good and positive aspects of the invitation. The most important is that it allows a community of believers to see and share in one another’s joys and sorrows – that is certainly biblical. It also gives a person the opportunity to follow up on whatever might be on their heart in the moment, seeking prayer or guidance while they are dealing with the issue at hand.
I can’t help but wonder, however, if we have placed too much emphasis on “walking the aisle.” The danger inherit to such a tradition is identifying a salvation experience with the act of physically moving. How many people would connect their salvation to the act of walking the aisle before they would consider the implications of their trust in Christ? In other words, when they reflect on their faith, does their mind go to the process of walking in front of the church and filling out a card, thereby securing their relationship with God, or do they reflect on their wretched state of sin before being cleansed by the blood of Christ?
Another problem is the tendency to relate the effectiveness of a worship service or sermon based on the number of people, if any, who “walk the aisle.” It is my belief that God works through sermons over the course of time, allowing truths to sink into hearts gradually. I know for certain his word never returns void. And yet we seem to have this litmus test of a sermon’s impact on the congregation by the way they respond to the “invitation.” That is damaging and an improper way to think of proclamation. Over time, it can begin to gradually color the way a preacher handles his sermons, creating a greater desire to preach for the “Amen” and not for the edification of the congregation.
Lastly, “walking the aisle” has in some way replaced the biblical understanding of baptism. The significance of baptism is partly in it being the public profession of our faith in Christ. Yet, it seems folks might want to “come to the front of the church” before baptism in order to let people know they are getting baptized. Kind of strange. And certainly not a biblical mandate.
It should be noted that the “invitation” is a fairly recent part of the church worship service. Jonathan Edwards would have had no idea what we are talking about. Nor would Charles Spurgeon or Martin Luther. It came about primarily during the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century, perfected by Charles Finney who was convinced that revival could be man-produced by utilizing the right tools during a service. His “anxious seat” was a place where people who wanted to know more about becoming a Christian could speak with someone.
So, I don’t think we need to necessarily do away with the invitation. We just need to think through it a bit better and understand why it is there, what it is for, and what it isn’t for. There is nothing magical about an altar call. God does the saving, and he can do that anytime and anyplace. Even without a card to fill out.