Archive for March, 2004

The Evolution of the Altar Call

Theology Pub: The Evolution of the Altar Call

The way the Evangelical church has invited people to follow Christ has changed significantly over the last few hundred years.  From Wesley to Finney, Moody, Sunday and Graham popular evangelistic methods shifted from reliance on the Holy Spirit to methods designed to get a decision.

One of the things the church needs to rethink is how evangelistic methods and the gospel message itself have been tainted by modernity.


The Evolution of the Altar Call

The auditorium is filled to capacity. The preacher speaks to a hushed audience. “You have heard what I’ve said tonight. God is moving in many of your hearts. He is speaking to you – calling you to respond to him tonight. What will you do with him?”

The air is tense with anticipation. The preacher continues.

“In a minute I’m going to get the musicians to play the song “Just as I am”, and as it is sung, if God has been speaking to you tonight, and you want to become a Christian, I’m going to ask you to do a very difficult thing. While the music is playing, I want you to get up out of your seat and come down here to the front of the auditorium. A counsellor will come and stand with you and explain what it is to be a Christian. As the music plays, if you mean business with God, you come”.

With hundreds of variations, this type of scene is replayed in different meetings all over the world. The invitation to publicly respond to the preacher’s message by coming to the front of the meeting is a likely outcome of most evangelistic meetings throughout the western world.

Yet, like so many aspects of our modern day evangelism methodology, this form of response is a fairly recent innovation.

Whether it is known as ‘the appeal’, ‘the invitation’ or ‘the altar call’, it has become so much apart of the evangelical heritage that few people today realize it has only developed in the past 150 years. While challenge has always been an integral part of evangelistic preaching down through the ages. Asking for people to respond in some way has generally been an open-ended affair.

The Great Awakening – Open Ended Challenge

The Great Awakening – a massive revival in the 1700’s, which swept through Britain, North America and parts of Europe, produced a wave of evangelists preaching the New Birth’. While they challenged people to seek a conversion experience, the altar call was as yet unheard of. For example, Jonathan Edwards, the theological leader of the North American Awakening, frequently discovered the Holy Spirit had been doing his own work while he was preaching. In the midst of his very dry and somewhat monotone ‘lectures’ it was not uncommon for some in the audience to burst out in tears and cries, smitten with conviction. Edwards, it seems, would peer over the top of his glasses, and then continue with his sermon, leaving the Spirit to continue his work! George Whitefield, like his colleage Edwards, was a Calvinist and was quite content to leave the work of conversion to God. However this did not mean a passive response to the task of evangelism. Using all of his oratorical skills he would stir large audiences with his moving portrayals of bible passages and his challenge to faith in Christ.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was also, like Whitefield, a leading evangelist in the Awakening. Considered by many to be the ‘father of the evangelical movement’, Wesley’s preaching did ask for people to make a response, but not in the way that we might expect. Knowing that most of his audiences were ‘a long way’ from God, Wesley’s specific goal for most of his open-air preaching was to begin to ‘awaken’ people to their need of Christ. If during the course of his sermon he could get some listeners to begin searching spiritually, he considered his preaching a ‘success’.

This helps to explain why Wesley, in his extensive open-air field preaching, never invited people to accept Jesus Christ and become Christians on the spot! (At least there is no record he did so – even in the extensive accounts of his field preaching experiences in his

Journal.) That statement must surely shock those of us whose assumptions about public evangelism have been carved out in the Billy Graham era.’

So how did Wesley ask people to respond?

Sometimes Wesley invited people back to another meeting, or talked informally with people afterward, but almost always he invited those who wanted to pursue the issues he had been preaching about to join a ‘class’ – a small group of people who met together regularly to discover what it meant to follow Jesus. These class meetings contained both Christians and inquirers, but had strict guidelines regarding their operation.

It was in those class meetings that awakened people often experienced grace and discovered faith. And, even more often they experienced the great transition into abundant life in a period of solitude following a class meeting. That is why getting awakened people into classes was an indispensable part of Wesley’s evangelizing process. For Wesley, evangelism is not essentially getting individuals saved at the evangelist’s predetermined point in time. Evangelism is getting people into redemptive cells of the church, in which you help them become conscious disciples in God’s good time. 2

John Wesley was so convinced of the need for these class meetings that he quickly came to the point where he would refuse to preach in a place if he did not have the organizational means to follow up on those people who experienced an awakening. Becoming a Christian was a process, and Wesley recognized that in the context of relationships with believers, people who were genuinely seeking would best be able to discover salvation for themselves. Ongoing relationship with new believers was easy because of the already established network of relationships within the class meeting structure.

The Beginnings of the Altar Call

A generation after the last of Whitefield and Wesley’s sermons were heard, a new phenomenon on the North American frontier saw the early development of the altar call. Camp meetings were large week-long evangelistic meetings where preachers began to invite listeners who were ‘under conviction’ to come forward and sit in the front rows, to pray and agonize over their sinful condition. This was soon known as the ‘mourners bench’. In these highly emotionally charged gatherings it soon became expected that many would experience conversion on the bench. These conversions were often associated with physical signs such as convulsions, fainting and crying out. It became a rather public affair.

Charles Finney and the Anxious Bench

In 1825, while camp meetings were still being held on the frontier, Charles Finney, a lawyer turned preacher, began to make his mark as an evangelist. Finney’s belief that all that was stopping his hearers from experiencing conversion, was lack of information and motivation, led him to ask people to make a decision on the spot to be converted. Adopting the mourner’s bench (but renaming it the anxious bench) he would plead with those who came forward to make a decision then and there, and then proceed to offer them equally instantaneous assurance of salvation.

In the years that followed Finney it became evident that the whole shape and style of evangelistic meetings had been radically changed. While some critics felt the mourners/anxious bench to be too public, and appealing only to the impetuous, its use prevailed. Coming forward in a meeting to the bench became synonymous with ‘accepting Christ’. This resulted in it becoming the way (ritual) by which people committed themselves to Christianity.

However, as time went on, revival conversions became spur of the moment decisions lacking in depth or meaning. The process of walking forward to sit in the anxious seat, instead of being an act of profound spiritual travail, became a stereotyped and forced ritual.

D L Moody and the Inquiry Room

In the twilight years of Charles Finney’s career a former shoe salesman, Dwight Moody, became the leading evangelist in North America. Developing city-wide crusades. with big budgets, extensive publicity and popular music. Moody continued the growing tradition of’ asking for an immediate response. However his desire to have his meetings appear respectable caused him to drop the ‘anxious bench’ as a means of response. In its place he would ask people in the audience to stand, and then to make their way to an inquiry room where he would speak briefly about the need for immediate surrender to Christ and then have trained ‘personal workers’ circulate, helping inquirers deal with their doubts and make the step of personal surrender.

To assist him in helping ‘woo’ potential converts to the inquiry room, at the end of the sermon Moody would ask the choir to sing a song such as “Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling”, as people responded. W. G. McLoughlin notes “these songs were called ‘invitation hymns’ and were specifically written for the purpose of coaxing people out of their seats and into the inquiry room”.3

Billy Sunday and the Sawdust Trail

In the early twentieth century, the ex-professional baseball player, Billy Sunday, developed his own unique style of invitation, which he applied consistently to well over 100 million listeners in his career. After his message he would invite people to “Come on down here and shake my hand and tell me you’ll be walking with Jesus beginning tonight.” His homely, warm and inviting style resulted in Sunday shaking hands with more than one million ‘converts’. He even initiated his own terminology. The walk to the front of the meeting was known as the “sawdust trail”. While lumbermen in the Northwest of the US would use trails of sawdust to find their way back home to camp after a day in the woods, Sunday maintained that people in his meetings could find their way back home to God by walking his sawdust trail. Having shaken Sunday’s hand, the person simply needed to sign a decision card and they were proclaimed a child of God.

Billy Sunday’s style became a familiar and accepted practice for much of the pre-WWII period. It received its fair share of criticism. Some stated that many went forward just to shake the famous preacher’s hand while others implicated the ’emotion of the moment’ as a major reason for the response. Despite these criticisms, the practice of inviting people to the front was widely employed.

Billy Graham and the Invitation

The rise of post-war mass evangelism saw the development of a growing organization around the altar call. Billy Graham led the way (his own ministry has netted more than 2 million ‘decisions’). While still encouraging people to make a decision for Christ, by way of his ‘invitation’, Dr. Graham has refined the whole area of counselling inquirers and developed “follow-up” procedures to a new level. Counsellors skilled in their use of tracts and other material, are linked up with responders to “lead them through to salvation”.

Is the Altar Call Valid?

With our history of importation of American revivalists and their methods, it is not surprising that most sectors of the evangelical community have instituted altar calls as a standard feature of their evangelistic endeavours. Crusades, Sunday night gospel services, youth rallies, camps and street meetings all exhibit a familiar pattern of invitations to respond to the gospel message.

While it is important to remember that the altar call is not a “God ordained, from the foundation of the world” institution, this in itself does not make it wrong. Methods are important and useful, so long as they are consistent with our understanding of the nature of the gospel.

If we see conversion as a radical, fundamental and supernatural change at the deep roots of a person’s life, and if we see that the decision to follow Jesus is one that needs to be considered and weighed at least as carefully as a decision to get married, then identifying any part of an altar call or

inquiry room procedure with conversion is inadequate. It is likely to trivialize conversion, resulting in genuine inquirers who have neither understood nor experienced the new birth, being labelled as ‘Christians’, when in fact they have simply made a response according to their situation. A touch from the Holy Spirit doesn’t equate to new birth, any more than feeling the tingle of holding hands with a guy or girl for the first time equates to marriage.

The tendency to simplify and reduce conversion to a few easy steps has been entrenched in revivalism since the days of Finney. While not always bordering on the ridiculous (like Billy Sunday’s ‘shake my hand and sign a decision card’ method), revivalism has often trivialized conversion by encapsulating it in a man-made ritual or process. The biblical examples show that God’s work in a person’s life is frequently different from any system or method we might try to put in place. It is, as Edwards stated, ‘a surprising work of God’.

When we misread the miraculous process of the Holy Spirit’s work in a person’s life, and attempt to ‘standardize’ the procedure for entering the Kingdom, we are in grave danger of doing enormous damage. The history of evangelicals’ use of altar calls bears tragic witness to this. It is little wonder that such a high percentage of those who come forward, sign the decision card or pray the sinner’s prayer at meetings all over the world, become very quickly statistics of drop outs and ‘backsliders’, and/or Christian in label but not in life.

None of this means that altar calls are inappropriate in evangelism. It is how they are used and what ‘coming forward’ indicates which is the crucial issue. In a large crowd, an altar call can provide a practical way for genuine inquirers to be identified, and linked up with people who can give them sound counsel and guidance.

Though Jonathan Edwards’ style of reading theological treatises on justification by faith has real limitations in communicating the gospel, his habit of allowing the Holy Spirit to do his work in people’s lives can teach us much. Edwards, Whitefield and Wesley all had a strong confidence in

God’s ability to work in a person’s life, as well as in the variety of each person’s unique experience with the living Spirit. He is more than capable of bringing this work to completion in his own time. As his junior partners, we are privileged to play a part in this process – challenging and encouraging people to consider the implications of the gospel, but always careful with our methods not to limit the Spirit’s unique work of grace.

1. George Hunt Ill, “Wesley’s Approach to Evangelism and Church Growth” (1982) Unpublished paper. School of World Mission, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California.


3. W.G. McLoughlin Jr, Modern Revivalism: From Charles G. Finney to Billy Graham (New York: Ronald Press, 1959), 239.

Wayne Kirkland lives with his wife Jill and three daughters in Hutt City, New Zealand. They have lived there for over 13 years and have built a host of friendships in the community. Wayne is the chairperson of the local school board and leads an interdenominational house group in the area which focuses on friendship evangelism. He balances the rest of his time between writing and speaking for Signpost Communications and running a car importing business. He is the author of The Man Who Split History, Light from a Dark Star, and co-author of Where’s God on Monday?

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If we worshipped the Northern Lights

If we worshipped the Northern Lights

God and the Northern Lights are stunningly similar in some ways. This thought came to me as I was driving to the cabin this winter. Just before I hit Shell Lake I noticed this incredible display in the sky. I stopped the car, grabbed my camera and tried to capture this image digitally but all my camera could see was darkness. I know some photographers with the right equipment and the correct settings on their camera can capture Aurora Borealis, but it was beyond my capability. My mind began to explore the analogy.

The Northern Lights are so much like God in many ways.
You can’t fully capture essence and experience of God with human words. Much in the same way my camera can’t capture the Northern Lights. My half hearted attempt rendered no results at all. There are some that are as skillful with their words as some are with their cameras. They can deliver a likeness, a still shot which captures one facet of the beauty of what they observe but it is nothing like the real thing.

Those that first put words to the experience with the North Lights wrote about it. Some are letters from a group of light aficionados; others are historical accounts of the first discoverers. They form the first body of literature surrounding the lights and an organization is formed to experience the Lights. It is called the Holy Church of Lights.

An early church theologian would look at the Northern Lights and say. They are not reflections in the sky, fire, or smoke. They are not the sun, the moon or the stars. They aren’t anything people put in the sky. They dance, they have colour, they are found in the North, and often light up the sky. Some even say you can hear them crackle.

This would be just about perfect because this framework gives people just enough information to go and experience the Northern Lights and know what they are experiencing is the Northern Lights.

Eventually people would develop methods for viewing the lights and begin to define them even further. The lights are green. The lights are purple. The lights are blue. The lights crackle. They don’t crackle. People should watch the lights standing up. People should watch the lights lying down. The followers of the lights would get mad at each other over the other’s apparent heresy and split up.

Then someone would come along and say all this stuff written about the Northern Lights is inconsistent. We need to go back the earliest writings about the Northern Lights and view them as the sole authority over our theology of the lights. The traditionalists will counter by saying if you do that people will begin to interpret the writings themselves and it will fracture the Holy Church of Lights. This is exactly what happened.

A new age of enlightenment came and people began to consider the whole scope and relevance of the lights. People began to live in large cities with electric lights obscuring their vision of the sky. One group looked at the body of literature surrounding the Lights and concluded that the lights are not real because the writings are inconsistent. One person says they are green and crackle. The other says they are blue and don’t crackle. These lights are just a superstition” they said.

Some people objected and said All you need to do is go to the north, get out of the city and you will see them”. The enlightened people respond I went once and didn’t see anything, it is all myth”. The faithful No, they don’t appear every night, and sometimes it is only for a short while. You need to make some sort of dedication to see them”. The enlightened answer You guys have just tricked yourself in to believing those things are real. I have all the light I need in this little city.”

There were some who were frightened by new critical approach to the ancient writings so they formed a coalition against them. The Perfectionists. They declared all early writings to be total consistent and perfect. They began to study them in earnest. An entire culture developed around this coalition to the point where studying the writings took precedence over seeing the lights. Eventually a culture of organizational success came over these people. They began to build large organizations dedicated in name to the lights. The fractured segments the Holy Church of Lights began to compete earnestly with each other and flocked to conferences that gave them the latest method to build their organizations. The followers of the lights became cogs in an organizational machine.

The faithful began to come in to conflict with the perfectionists. Especially if they didn’t believe the ancient texts were totally perfect or if they thought some of the writings were flavoured by the author’s perception and context. The perfectionists thought that once you gave up on their view of the ancient texts you would slide down the slippery slope to the enlightenment camp.

Some people in the perfectionist coalition began to become disillusioned. They lost faith in the institutions that guided them. Some felt abused. Others questioned the consistency and integrity of the institutions that claimed to follow the lights. Some became so tired of the hollow dogmatism they embraced all forms of light to find truth. They dabbled in electric light, fires, candle light. They concluded that no one can ever be really sure that they’ve seen the lights. No one sees anything perfectly anyway.

Those that had actually seen the Northern Lights said You should come North with us in the winter time. If you get away from the electrical light you will see some dazzling Northern lights”. The disillusioned responded You guys are just being a bunch of intolerant fundamentalists. Who are you to say that there isn’t truth in the electric light.”


Observing Young Leaders

Observing Young Leaders

Working at a bible college I get observe trends through the years. In the last 10 years there has been a dramatic shift in mindset of the people that attend the college. Changes that have deeply impacted the culture outside the church are now being reflected in the youth of the church. I’ve had the privilege of watching the people I lived with in residence 2 years ago mature. It gives me a lot of hope. After some of the events of the last few months I need some more infusions of hope.

I’m worried about these young leaders. Releasing young people in to ministry is like releasing whales in captivity. You hope the whalers, or in their case hostile church environments, don’t kill them before they can fully mature. I’m sure some people might read this and think I’m being pessimistic. I’m not trying to be. More than half of my friends who went in to ministry had disastrous experiences. Sometimes other church leaders look down at them as lazy. I don’t think they realize how churches have changed and how today’s cultural shift forms young people in such a way to make them less compatible with modern church life.

The church is changing in my context. The students who support women in church leadership now out number the ones who don’t in our upper level classes. There are 20 year olds that can clearly see the shallowness of the popular ministry methods of the day. Many see the need for foundational change in the church. One student interviewed me for a course they took. They were really interested in blogging and how Internet technology is changing the church and ministry. After 2 hours of wonderful conversation I was almost in awe. There are young people that are keenly aware of what is going on in the church and culture.


Saskatchewan: Prepare for a tough budget

Saskatchewan: Prepare for a tough budget

Our Premier Lorne Calvert has told us we are in for an unhappy budget.  I am really glad to hear this.  Regardless of whether he cuts spending or increases taxes our provincial government needs to get its house in order.  We went through this ten years ago, we might as well go through it again.  Better now than later.  Calvert has the potential to impress me here.  I hope he does. 

It’s going to be tough.  There are a bunch of public unions up for contract renewal.  It was heat from the unions that caused a lot of grief for Romanow.  I saw an ad in the newspaper pointing an accusatory finger at provincial income tax cuts for the government’s deficit problems.  It was put out by the province’s public unions.  Perhaps they are doing some pre-emptive political maneuvering.

A careful review of provincial government revenue and expenditures will find that revenue increased with tax cuts until we ran in to the complete collapse of the farm economy.  We ran deficits because revenue plateaued for a few years while spending just kept increasing. 


More freed Guantanamo prisoners speak of ill treatment

More freed Guantanamo prisoners speak of ill treatment

Other released prisoners have spoken up about the harsh mistreatment they received in American custody.  I’m bitterly disappointed in the United States.  How many democractic ideals will be trampled before people actually stand up and take notice?  Is it because these people are Islamic that so few in the western world care?  Is the United States on the slippery slope to becoming an oppressive authoritarian state? 

As a Canadian with a generally positive view of the US I really didn’t want to believe what these freed prisoners were saying.  My emotional bias said.  The Americans would never do this kind of stuff.  They are probably lying because they hate the US.  The fact is the stories are very consistent.  If everything going on in Cuba was above board why the secrecy and limited access? 

I think the people of the United States need to face some possibly dark and bitter truths about their country.

Update: For more info try Google news.


Phil 2:12-18

Phil 2:12-18

2:12 So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, continue working out your salvation with awe and reverence,2:13 for the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort—for the sake of his good pleasure—is God. 2:14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 2:15 so that you may be blameless and pure, children of God without blemish though you live in a crooked and perverse society, in which you shine as lights in the world 2:16 by holding on to the word of life so that on the day of Christ I will have a reason to boast that I did not run in vain nor labor in vain. 2:17 But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice together with all of you. 2:18 And in the same way you also should be glad and rejoice together with me.


WEstern Canada: The Last Best West!

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Shocking account of Guantanamo Bay

Shocking account of Guantanamo Bay

I have no idea how accurate the facts are in this article.  The full truth needs to be disclosed. 

Link from Linsay.

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Theology Pub: Evangelism

Theology Pub: Evangelism

The next Theology Pub is Thursday March 25th at 7pm in the Saskatoon Inn.  It’s quiet.  It’s nice.  It’s one of the few places where things grow in the winter.  All are welcome but we do require you do some thinking and research on the topic of evangelism.  I will post some articles as well as my own thoughts.

The following is a summary of some of things we’ll be talking about.  As always your comments are welcome.

  • What does ethical and honest evangelism look like?
  • Has evangelistic practice changed in evangelicalism over the last 300 years?
  • Can evangelism be free from manipulation?
  • Is it fair to ask a non-Christian if they are going to heaven or hell when they die?
  • Are the churches motives for evangelism pure?
  • Are the 4 Spiritual Laws” an accurate presentation of the gospel?