What is an altar call? If the altar belongs to God then the call should come from God. This is the authentic call. All other calls are artificial at best. The best example of an altar call is Jesus’ words to His disciples: “Come, follow Me.” An altar call should be a call from Jesus to follow Him as a disciple.
The sermon and worship service is meant to lift up Jesus. He said that if he is lifted up he will draw all people to himself. We need to allow his voice to speak to us this day as he did to his first disciples:
In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (John 7:37-38)
Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. (Matthew 16:24)
An altar call is not a plea for offerings. It is not about creating a climate in which listeners are made to feel guilty or embarrassed if they do not come forward to the altar. It is not a TV infomercial. In other words, an altar call is not about the manipulation of human emotions. The Holy Spirit is the One who convicts the heart of people of their sin. We must not interfere with what the Spirit is doing with our own agenda.
Good preaching is about allowing Jesus to speak through the sermon. This will happen with the help of the Holy Spirit when prayer is mixed with study. Provisions must be made to allow members of the congregation to hear and respond. An immediate call to the altar after the sermon is often a mistake (unless it is clear that the Holy Spirit is requiring it). Time for reflection and prayer, in most cases, will prove very beneficial. An “invitation hymn” may also compliment the post sermon response.
Some may believe that the liturgy will interfere with an altar call. Good liturgy will actually help facilitate an altar call. In many liturgical churches preparation to receive Holy Communion is built into the service. We are asked to examine ourselves. A time for confessional prayer is usually offered. For many, the receiving of Holy Communion is the altar call. (See Eucharistic Preaching.)
Liturgical churches, however, often fail to understand the individual needs and concerns that often arise within church attendees. Some may be unfamiliar with Communion and wonder if they should be taking it. Others realize that they are not prepared to receive Communion but may desire other ministry. They may want healing prayers or possibly even prayers of deliverance. (Yes, liturgical churches may also be pentecostal.) With proper preparation and an adequate number of trained ministers all these diverse needs may still be met within the context of the Eucharist or Communion. In fact, Holy Communion is an ideal setting for receiving God’s healing and experiencing His presence. (See Healing Ministry.)
As mentioned in Intercessor Prayer, prayer warriors should be assigned to cover the whole worship service. Specialized prayer teams are also desirous. These teams may be stationed near the altar in order to assist those with special prayer needs but not in such a way that they would interfere with others receiving Communion. Rather, they need to be prepared to escort those who may be seeking individual prayer and counseling to a more private and predetermined location. Bodies on the floor are not necessarily a sign of an effective altar call. The Holy Spirit is not a spirit of chaos and confusion.
The altar call should be a welcoming invitation. Jesus said He came to seek and to save those who are lost. We do not want to interfere with the call of Christ to His disciple or to limit the work of the Holy Spirit. But if we are more concerned about satisfying our own selfish needs through the altar call then we open the door to the enemy.
Does an altar call always fit into a worship service? If not, perhaps it should. The preacher must realize that unbelievers may always be sitting in the congregation. If, at the close of a service, no altar call has been given, it is still not too late to call people to the altar. Some people may leave, but that does not matter. There might be those who are struggling with the faith. Be alert to the Holy Spirit. They may not ready to leave. A simple invitation to come to the altar for assurance of salvation is more than appropriate. I like reading this scripture as part of the call:
“Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say?
“The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart”
(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Romans 10:6-13)