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In his book, “The Altar Call,” author David Bennett looks at the ministries of Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and John Wesley. All three are widely acknowledged as successful evangelists who saw many come to Christ, yet the first two were Calvinists and the third an Arminian. However, as Bennett documents, none of them used the altar call or any other form of public invitation to produce Christian conversions. While listeners would sometimes approach these preachers to inquire about salvation, these men did not issue public or private calls for people to indicate their conversion by an external response of some sort. These men preached about law and gospel, counseled people, and left the results to God.1
reviewed by Karl Dahlfred
Has the altar call always been a part of Christian evangelism? If not, where did it come from? How did it become so popular? And is it really as effective as is sometimes claimed? These are the questions that David Bennett sets out to answer in The Altar Call - Its Origins and Present Usage. Based on his M.Th thesis for the Australian College of Theology, Bennett has put together a thorough, scholarly, and extremely readable book that is vastly informative for anyone who has ever wondered about the legitimacy of the altar call.
Although Bennett has a definite theological bias (which I happen to share), the book reads in a very even-handed manner. In the first half of the book, Bennett takes up the question of historical origins from the eighteenth century through the end of the nineteenth century. He has read broadly in the primary sources and is careful to qualify his conclusions where the historical data is ambiguous. In the second half of the book, the author looks at modern usage and then makes an analysis and assessment of the altar call, drawing upon theology, statistics, and contemporary rationale for use of the altar call. For those who favor the altar call and would hesitate to read Bennett’s work, respected church historian Mark Noll assures readers in the foreward that “the book should be as stimulating for those who fully embrace use of the altar call as for those (like Bennett) who see real problems in its use.” (vi)
Although many people concede that there are problems associated with the sinner’s prayer, many can not conceive of not using it. “If we don’t give an altar call and ask people to pray the sinner’s prayer,” it is asked, “how else can we call people to respond to the Gospel? Despite the fact that many fall away, we still need to use this evangelistic method in order to give people an opening shot into the world of Christianity.”I would contend, however, that it is completely possible to give people an “opening shot” into the world of Christianity without the sinner’s prayer. Whether from the pulpit or personally, we urge people to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. We urge them to flee from sin and from God’s wrath, to depend on God’s gracious promises, and to trust Him alone for salvation. We tell them to examine their hearts to see if they are truly trusting in Christ’s promises. Do their warm feelings (or guilty feelings) wear off after a while, or is there a continued desire to seek God, to read His Word, and to throw oneself at the feet of the Savior to escape God’s wrath?
In December 2009, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), together with major Thai church denominations, sponsored and promoted the "My Hope Thailand” evangelistic project. They produced an evangelistic TV program that aired several times on Thai national TV just before Christmas. The program featured testimonies and music videos from Thai pop stars who became Christians, as well as preaching from Billy Graham and Franklin Graham, dubbed in Thai.
As a result of the program and associated church based events, nearly 12,000 people made "decisions for Christ". Many in the Christian community (both in Thailand and abroad) were overjoyed by the number of “new Christians” produced by My Hope (such as here and here) but I have a more mixed review of the project. But before I get to the negatives, I want to say up front that there were some really good aspects about the My Hope project:
Statistics don't tell the whole story but can be helpful to get a general idea of what is going on. Missionary Dwight Martin collects data on the Thai church and recently released the data on Thai church growth in 2009. Here is an excerpt from his report, along with some links for more information:
"At the end of 2009 there are 339,048 Christians, which is 0.54% of the total population. Even though this is a very small percentage, the good news is that the percentage of growth is seven times faster than the biological growth rate of the country. The number of churches continues to grow as well. There were 170 new churches started last year (2009). The need is still great in Thailand. Over 47% of the sub-districts in Thailand have no Christian presence at all. This means there are 21,814,049 (about 1/3 of the population) people who have very little opportunity to hear the Gospel Message. Please pray that God's word will penetrate this whole nation.
I couldn’t believe my ears. A founding member and leader of a large church in Bangkok was telling me about “The Salvation Room” (ห้องรอด) at his church. Each Sunday, visitors are encouraged to come to a special room on the side of the sanctuary during the service and over the course of a few weeks (assuming they come back), current church members explain the Gospel to them and try to get them to say the sinner’s prayer. I asked, “Is it effective? Not everyone who says the sinner’s prayer really becomes a Christian, you know.” His answer surprised me. “No, that’s not right. Eventually, they all become Christians. We know that not everyone who prays is converted yet, but if we can get them to say the prayer, then that is the foot in the door.” “But,” I replied, “how do you know that they will come to faith eventually?” With a gleam in his eye and a smile on his face, this respected church leader asserted confidently, “They just do. Saying the sinner’s prayer is what breaks Satan’s power and guarantees that they will eventually be saved.”
In my last post, we saw that the sinner’s prayer became popular because of its supposed success rate in producing Christian converts but that the claimed successes often amount to nothing. However, many evangelists persist on using the altar call and the sinner’s prayer, justifying their preferred methodology by claiming that, “Even if only one person became a Christian, it is all still worth it.” Is it really? The case has been made that even if many people fall away, it is still effective and worthwhile to use the altar call and the sinner’s prayer because “at least it works for some people.” But what if, as I have argued in a previous post, the sinner’s prayer doesn’t actually save anyone? And if it doesn’t actually save anyone, but does do a substantial amount of damage, then why keep using it? In the remainder of this post, I want to take a look at four negative side effects that come from using the altar call and sinner’s prayer in evangelism.
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?
The title of this article may seem like an overstatement but it is not. Some may object, “But surely the sinner’s prayer has worked for some people. Even if many have fallen away after praying to receive Christ, not all have.” I happily concede the point that there are many Christians who continue to walk with the Lord and grow in their faith many years after having said the sinner’s prayer. But what I question is this, “Was it really the sinner’s prayer that converted them?” 19th century revival preacher Charles Finney, who is largely responsible for popularizing the use of the altar call and the sinner’s prayer, would probably have said yes.
When new believers disappear from church and seemingly give up the Christian faith, it is often a disillusioning and discouraging time for those who introduced them to the Gospel, and perhaps even led them in saying the sinner’s prayer together. Great expectations and high hopes are dashed. Why do people seem to come in and come out of the faith so easily? As part of a series of lectures on communicating the Gospel to Thai Buddhists, Thai pastor Wan Petchsongkram offers some helpful observations on the true motivations of those who seemingly become Christians. Pastor Wan comments,“And here is another important point about Thai people becoming Christians. Out of all the people who become Christians in 1 year, about 80% of those disappear. Have you seen this? People who become Christians and then disappear. We need to understand why this is so. I feel like this is a real problem for Christians in Thailand. When Thai people become Christians, they do so with certain reasons and because of certain factors and they remain Christians because of those reasons and factors so long as those reasons and factors still apply. But when those reasons are no longer there, they stop being Christians. Because of this, when they are still Christians and we know they are Christians because these reasons are still in effect, you should jump on the opportunity to teach them, no holds barred. If you don’t hurry up and teach them while these other reasons are still in play, then when those reasons are gone, they will stop being Christians.”
No matter where you go in East Asia, you are bound to find instant noodles. The appeal of instant noodles is that they are quick. You are hungry. You don’t have time to get a real meal and you want to eat something NOW that will satisfy your hunger. Instant noodles really aren’t that tasty of a meal but in a bid to get people to buy their brand of instant noodles, the companies who produce them make the pictures on the package look as appealing as possible. Steaming golden noodles held between wooden chopsticks over a bowl of more steaming golden noodles, together with a multitude of lush green vegetables and savory prawns or slices of succulent pork (or some variation on that theme). If you go by the picture on the package, this bowl of noodles is going to be a really tasty and satisfying meal. In reality, instant noodles are somewhat rubbery and those nice looking vegetables and meat are not included. Your stomach gets filled for a little while but that promise of a tasty satisfying meal remains unfulfilled. But if you are desperate enough for something good to eat, it is possible convince yourself that these noodles will be like that fancy picture on the label.
While the sinner’s prayer is designed to help people become Christians, here in Thailand (as in other places) it many times has the opposite effect of confirming people in a fundamentally animistic worldview. At its core, animism is the using of religious rituals and ceremonies to manipulate the spirit world into doing what the animist wants it to do, whether that be warding off evil or inviting blessing. Thai Buddhism is a mix of pure Buddhism and local animistic beliefs in spirits, omens, relics, sacred objects, fortune telling, astrology, sorcery, and so on. This mix of spirit beliefs and Buddhism forms an important part of the worldview and belief system of Thai people, and it is this understanding of spiritual reality that Thai people bring to the table when they come to an evangelistic rally or hear a Gospel presentation.
Every year there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Thai people who pray to receive Christ but never become involved in a church. Or if they do, it is only for a very short time and then they are gone. Many people have suggested possible reasons, such as they need more follow-up or more encouragement in order to start and continue with the Christian life. Granted, following-up new believers is important but what if a majority of these “new converts” were never converted to begin with? What if they had received a superficial Gospel and were prematurely led to say a prayer of conversion that they didn’t understand? Is it possible that the sinner’s prayer, which is supposed to signal conversion to the Christian faith, actually fails to challenge the animistic worldview of Thai people? What if instead of helping them find new life in Christ, it confirms them in their basically animistic worldview, but merely adds a temporary Christian veneer on the top of their existing beliefs.
There is a Thai Christian with whom I've done evangelism and visitation several times and the way that he shares the Gospel worries me. His Gospel presentation is quite brief, consisting of only a few points, namely - 1) There is a God 2) You're a sinner and God sends sinners to hell 3) You want to go to heaven and not hell, right? 3) So, if you want to go to heaven, believe in Jesus because he died for your sins so you don't have to go to hell 4) God healed my ankle and he can help you too if you pray to him. This is the gist of his Gospel presentation and it is my friend's belief that as long as someone consents to say "the prayer of faith" (or "the sinner's prayer"), then that person is good to go, as it were. He would love for that person to come to church and grow in their new faith but even if that doesn't happen, at least he is saved from hell.While my friend's desire for people to be saved from hell is a commendable one, I am concerned that his evangelistic method leaves out some important elements of the Biblical evangelism (helping people see the severity of their sin in light of God's wrath, the necessity of repentance, the Lordship of Christ, and cost of discipleship). The preaching of this kind of truncated Gospel is not a phenomenon unique to Thailand, but is quite common in evangelicalism in America (and in much of the world, I imagine). This morning as I was reading about John the Baptist in Luke 3, I was struck by how radically different John's evangelism was from my friend's all-too-common modern way of evangelism. In Luke 3:7, we see crowds of Jews coming out to John to be baptized. In modern parlance, we might call them "seekers" (I actually have a problem with the term "seekers" but that discussion can be left for another time). These are Jews who would seem to have a spiritual interest in the preaching of John the Baptist but instead of welcoming them with open arms and encouraging them to believe his message, read their Bibles, go to synagogue, and to rely on faith and not feelings, this is what John says to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the roots of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." (Luke 3:7-9). Wow! John really lays into them, doesn't he? No encouragement there! Only rebuke is to be had for those who claim to be believers but aren't bearing any evidence of being believers. John wants to shake them out of their reliance on external factors (lineage, being religious, etc) and get them to see that true faith and true heart change always results in a changed life. If someone doesn't have a changed life, then that person needs to be shaken out of their false assurance of salvation and helped to see that he is not really saved because he does not have a life that reflects true faith. This is the same point that James makes when he says, "So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead." (James 2:17)