Wednesday, November 05, 2008

To Altar Call or not to Altar Call

Kevin Johnson defends the idea of an altar call on his new blog: Prophezei, which has replaced Reformed Catholicism. He gives several reasons for including the idea of an altar call.

His first is that worship has always been innovative. He gives a few examples such as the Book of Common Prayer, which I find completely unconvincing. I would like for him to trot out a few more examples if he has them. It is my opinion that Reformed worship looks a lot like worship of days gone by, and dare I say it, the worship of NT church. That claim will probably draw some criticism, but it is a claim I am still willing to make until proven otherwise. I do not see the role innovation has played in history.

The one example he does break out that deserves mention is the Great Awakening. There was an innovation in the worship service during that time that serves as the basis for the modern “altar call”. They preached what they called the “terrors of the law” in those days, and that grew into the New Methods which actually used the “anxious bench” and later the “altar call” perfected by Moody and others. I am an Old Sider at heart. I am against the Great Awakening. I do not view it like most do within Presbyterian circles. I think the theology of Edwards has led to as many problems as it has anything else, and that George Whitfield began a horrible trend of Evangelists without a home church, undermined local ministers, and his theology was muddled at best. His sermons were often out right heretical. Referencing the Great Awakening to me hurts his case more than anything else.

His second point is that Christianity is no longer the dominant player in American society and culture. I agree with this, and this point needs a bit more examination. The point made by Kevin Johnson here is that we can no longer assume a familiarity with Christianity and that using old creeds and modes of worship do not connect with modern man. He goes on to state the forming the worship service for the believer rules out unbelievers, evangelism, and the chance to grow the church; thus, we cannot model the worship service to appeal only to those already in the community of believers. I grant his premise about the culture and he makes a solid point about the need for true evangelism. My rebuttal is that the worship service does not have to be the answer for evangelism. He is right that it ought to be accessible, although we doubtless disagree about the accessibility of Reformed worship as it is today. However, I do think that the church is not doing enough to reach out to the unbeliever and is not reaching people where they are in their lives. Churches need to change quite a bit in this area, but changing the worship service is not the answer. If you look back on the history of the church one can see the church reaching out in a myraid of ways other than the worship service. How often do churches have active deaconal help and pass it to someone in the community who is not a member of the church? How often do churches start schools and educate the young of believers and non believers alike? This was the common method of the church in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. I would advocate reaching out to those who have no history of Christianity, but I do not think that the worship service is the place to do that. It should not be exclusionary, but it should not serve as the main outreach.

The point about preaching and asking people to make a decision for Christ, I think is a different discussion from the one about the altar call that began the post. Asking men to repent and make a decision for Christ is not the same as having an invitation to come forward during Just As I Am. The post referenced the minor prophets as pressuring men to make a decision. To that I could add Joshua telling the people to choose this day or Elijah asking how long they would hesitate between two opinions. That practice is right and should be done, especially when the text demands it. However, ending the sermon with a time for people to come forward is not that. I believe the worship service has a flow, and build up if you will. The heart of the worship service is to be the Word of God and prayer. That is the heart of the service. I am against the altar call for the same sort of reason that I am against weekly communion. It supplants the preached word as the main part of the service. In Southern Baptist churches it is not going to far to say that the altar call is there sacrament. It is the main point and the high point of their service. It then also becomes something that people can put their trust in. I went forward at an altar call and I made a decision. Did they? Billy Graham usually thinks that about 10% of the people that came forward actually followed through on their decisions and went to church. Are we changing the service for the hopes of reaching 10%, if we preach as well as Billy Graham?

I share the concern that churches today (not just Reformed and Presbyterian) do not practice evangelism and the church is receding because we are not sharing the gospel. However, I think it means we are failing outside of the church walls and on Monday through Saturday, not necessarily on Sunday. This is a mounting problem, and one that I pray the church as a whole can address.


Andrea Powell said...

Lee, very interesting post. I have a few questions. Assuming you are in agreement with the RCUS practice of fencing the Lord's Table, which I have seen offend several visitors over the years, do you think the Lord's Table implies the worship service is for the community of believers?

Are Kevin Johnson's arguments really outside of an understanding of a people living in covenant with one another and God?

I really liked your point that evangelists outside of a home church are a terrible thing and brought many problems with the trend. I have thought this for a long time. Jay Adams, in his book "Preaching With Purpose", refers to preachers outside of an intimate, covanental relationship with a congregation as engaging in prostitution.

Do you have any thoughts as to why churches reject the God-given sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Table for things like the altar call?


Lee said...

I do think the Lord's Table implies that the worship service is for believers. I think the idea that God wants us to worship him in Spirit and truth means worship is for believers. I am not advocating kicking unbelievers out of the worship service, but when we begin to speak of people partaking of the signs of the covenant of God, we ought to fence them as much as possible.

Obviously I disagree with Kevin, but I am not sure I would say that his arguments our outside of an understanding of living in covenant with one another and God. I think he has a fundamentally different view of the purpose of the worship service, but I am not sure that causes him to forfeit any idea of livinig in covenant.

I am about to paint with a broad brush, but I think churches reject sacraments in favor of things like the altar call because they have narrowed the gospel to conversion and they need a physical sign to grab hold of. This is why I think it is historically hard to hold the position of say a Great Awakening and not descend into the excess seen in both the First and Second Great Awakening and modern day Pentecostalism. When the focus is place on outward shows, people can put on a show. Again, I am painting with a broad brush and I am sure there are more reasons.
Thanks again for your great comments.


Andrew said...

I think the main thing to keep in mind is that conversion is a supernatural miracle that happens in the heart of the regenerate. As Wesley described it:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;

Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;

My chains fell off, my heart was free,I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

Of course, this miracle happens in conjunction with a very natural occurance, which is the proclamation of the Gospel. Overall, I do not think that Gospel believing churches are failing. I think we do a fairly good job of getting our message out through various media. The problem is, we are seeing less of the internal miracle. Thus, I see the lack of conversions in our time as less a failure of the true church and more of a judgment of God. This does not mean that we should stop or even curtail our efforts. However, I think it does mean that we should not necessarily take responsibility for the lack of results.

Peace to you,