Although widely accepted as institutions of “traditional” evangelicalism, the altar call and the sinner’s prayer did not always enjoy such favor. When first introduced in the early 19th century, these innovative practices provoked great controversy and debate. However, as revival meetings and evangelistic rallies brought in thousands of new converts and those numbers were reported in the newspapers of the day, it became increasingly difficult to argue with success. The large numbers of converts were pointed to as undeniable proof of God’s blessing upon these “new methods” (as they were called at the time). Those who opposed them were labeled as “anti-revival men” who were “working against the Spirit.” The altar call and the sinner’s prayer did not win the day because of some new theological insight but on the pragmatic basis of success. Why would you want to oppose something that works? People are coming to Christ, aren’t they?
Since the altar call and sinner’s prayer were defended on the basis of success, one might think that if they proved to be unsuccessful, then people would stop using them. Not so. As Charles Finney and other “new methods” revival preachers went back to visit the areas where they had led large numbers of people to Christ in years previous, they found little change. Very few converts of these revivals had gone on to join churches or to continue in the Christian faith. Looking back at the results of his ministry, Finney had this to say:
I was often instrumental in bringing Christians under great conviction, and into a state of temporary repentance and faith . . . . [But] falling short of urging them up to a point, where they would become so acquainted with Christ as to abide in Him, they would of course soon relapse into their former state.
One might think that these grim facts would cause Finney and others to reassess their new methods but they did not. Finney simply thought that he hadn’t done a good enough job of convincing people to stick to their decisions. Even if Finney had had a change of heart in later years, these new evangelistic methods that he had helped popularize were so ingrained in the evangelical conscience by the time of his death that there seemed to be no going back. Successors to Finney such as D.L. Moody and Billy Graham have made the altar call and the sinner’s prayer into essential components of their evangelistic method. Graham acknowledges that not everyone who “prays the prayer” gets saved but he still presses on with the same methods.
But for Billy Graham and others, the fact that many who pray the sinner’s prayer at revival meetings and evangelistic crusades do not actually become Christians is accepted as just par for the course. In order to get at least some saved (the reasoning goes), we must consign ourselves to the fact that many decisions will amount to nothing in the end. While it is often lamented that so many fall away after initial decisions for Christ, I have heard very little about what becomes of those people who made decisions without actually becoming Christians. Where are they now? Have they merely melted back into society, nothing gained, nothing lost? Or might there another side of the story? In my next post, we’ll take a look at the negative side effects that sinner’s prayer evangelism has upon 1) those who pray the sinner’s prayer without really being converted, 2) those who follow-up the supposed new converts, and 3) those who hear the negative testimony of those who prayed the prayer without being converted.