You’ve probably been there.
Whether it’s in a big stadium while attending a conference, or a small, rural church while attending a church service, most of you have experienced what many have nicknamed “The Altar Call.” The preacher has just gotten up and spent thirty or forty minutes delivering a sermon, but before he goes, he announces there will be an altar call. It’s the portion of time when the altar is opened up and the audience is encouraged to come up front, whether they are making a profession of faith, “re-dedicating their life to Christ,” or praying for something specific. For the record, I’m not saying all altar call scenarios are bad. But the kind of thinking it can produce, both in the mind of the congregant and the preacher, has the potential to be concerning.
For example, attractional churches have taken this model for evangelism and altered it (pun intended) to fit their own devices. There’s fear-mongering and bullying people into heaven, and coercing people by trying to force emotional and feelings-driven responses. Some go as far as to manufacture evangelistic “success” to their audience by having staged responses to go forward and be baptized.
The gospel-centered movement has thoroughly, and helpfully, denounced such practices. We have called for evangelism to be authentic, to be driven not by fleeting feelings, but by firm conviction in who God is. Many have ditched the altar call altogether. There’s no longer an “invitation” portion following the sermon. I think this is by and large a good move. It’s our way of saying that we don’t ask people to come to Christ out of shame, out of mere feelings, out of coercion, or out of concern to be seen.
But my question is, even though we may be gospel-centered, are we still asking people to come to Christ?
I worry that, in our gospel-centered efforts to fight manufactured evangelistic tactics, we’ve swung the pendulum too far, and have softened our zeal for evangelism in preaching. We have made the sermon a lecture instead of an invitation to repent and be baptized. Yes, we preachers may not ask people to respond in a tangible way on Sundays. But are we asking them to respond at all?
It hit me when I was preparing a sermon a few months ago. I spent hours figuring out the best way to exposit the text, showing how the Old Testament points to Christ, praying through what I had to say, finding quotes to express my sentiments. I got a lot of good feedback about the sermon. People noticed my careful study, and my passion for what I had to say. But what of the person in the audience that wasn’t a believer that morning? Could they summarize my sermon by saying, “Come to Jesus!” or did I miss the mark? I certainly shared the gospel that morning, but did I explicitly invite people to put their faith and trust in Jesus, to “go forward” in their hearts?