Why is the deskbound editor of Liberty writing on the technique of making altar calls? What does he know about this evangelistic sine qua non?
First, and most important, he has made them. And, as pastor and evangelist, he has baptized people as a consequence. He makes them still, during a Week of Prayer in academy or college, or a revival series, which he tries to hold once or twice a year.
Further, he may make an altar call while promoting Liberty magazine on Sabbath morning. In one of our largest churches recently he made a determined appeal at the close of the Sabbath school lesson on justification. And some much-needed decisions were made that morning.
Now let's dispose of the third-person approach and get to the I-you state of acquaintance. Please understand, I am not doing a comprehensive study on altar calls. I am simply going to mention convictions I follow in making appeals, and stress the fact that successful altar calls need the personal touch.1. I seek never to forget that the Holy Spirit should be the agent that brings souls to the altar. Should be, I say, for an inspired pen tells us that Satan, too, has his converts in every meeting! When we use Satan's techniques—humor, flattery, cajolery, social pressures, appeals to pride, avarice, status, fear—we can expect to swell his congregation, not the Lord's.
Essentially we must stand in Christ's stead, using His methods—earnestness, forthrightness, tenderness, love, assurance, encouragement, reason, sensitivity—and plead, "Be ye reconciled to God." If ever there is a place for humor in a sermon, it is not during the altar call. Earnestness, please. Decisions of universe-shaking import are taking place. Spectators from other worlds are watching with breathless interest. The Son of God is interceding before the Father. The Holy Spirit is interceding in hearts. As ambassadors of Christ, we must give the invitation, bring the listener to the "threshold," and help him open the door to the Saviour's knock. In this work we must not use the Spirit, but let the Spirit use us as we work in cooperation with Him.
2. I do not follow a rigorous after-thissermon-I-make-an-appeal, after-this-one-Idon't, approach. Nor do I always determine that the response will take one form and not another. Of course, I do prepare—I have organized my sermon to get a specific response. Experience tells me that I can expect that response. But God alone knows hearts; at times I have had to abandon my plans for an altar call—and even the sermon I had intended to preach—because I have sensed that a call would not be propitious.
Sensitivity to the need of a congregation comes with experience, experience with God and with preaching. Early in my ministry I was unadaptable; as when giving filmstrip Bible studies, I was bound to a rigid approach. Now I seek to sense readiness and to capitalize on God's providences.
In a large western church a while back, I found the people shivering in overcoats. The oil tank had been filled during the week, but the church was cold. lust before the sermon an elder whispered to me that a leak had been discovered in the tank. It was empty. The people had come to meet with God in a warm church; they met with Him in a cold one. I had come to preach on religious liberty, and I did. But
I approached my material through the parable of the foolish virgins, to a congregation uncomfortably conscious of the need for having oil in their lamps. Would you have missed the opportunity for an altar call?
Just before Sabbath school in a Southern church a member's car was hit broadside as he turned into the parking lot. He, his wife, and children were taken away in an ambulance, extent of their injuries unknown. (They were not seriously hurt.) That morning I was to preach. I did not preach the sermon I had prepared. Instead I spent the Sabbath school hour putting a new subject together. Perhaps the expectant congregation will never again be so receptive to the lessons of my text: "To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts" (Heb. 3:15.) An appeal followed naturally.
In other words, an altar call should not be simply a routine affair, a perfunctory obligation imposed on the congregation, but rather the consequence of sensing God's providence, of observing the work of the Holy Spirit on hearts.
We must recognize, however, that the preacher has a vital part to play in preparing the congregation for an altar call. Here is one method I have used with success.
3. I state at the beginning of my sermon what response I am going to ask for. I began this after noting that it is effective in fund raising. "People need time to overcome pocketbook resistance," Cyril Miller, now president of the Chesapeake conference, and a very successful fund raiser, had told me. "Let them know early in the sermon what you expect from them."
Why wouldn't the same method work for altar calls? It does. Try something like this: "Tonight you are going to leave this auditorium a new person, walking with lightened step, the burden of sin you bear, gone. Like Christian in Pilgrim's Progress, you will leave your burden at the cross. And as Bunyan wrote: 'Then was Christian glad and lightsome.' Tonight I am going to invite you to the altar. The Holy Spirit will impress your heart and you will respond." I refer to the response
I want several times during the sermon.
I have found this preparation a decided help when I am preaching against the clock—especially on Sabbath mornings. In a sense your whole sermon becomes the altar call. A protracted appeal is not necessary.
I have heard Elden Chalmers, of the Kentucky-Tennessee Conference, do something similar. Before the sermon, he tells the people, in a few well-chosen, confidently spoken words, the blessing that they will receive from that night's subject. Words of assurance condition the audience to expect a blessing. Why leave them in doubt for the first half hour of your sermon what blessing you want them to receive and in what manner you want them to indicate its reception?4. I do not always state at the beginning of my sermon of appeal what I am going to ask for. This is true when time is no factor and when spontaneity is desirable, or when I make a progressive appeal. The progressive appeal is particularly effectual in that it carries the listener from an initial (he thinks final) easy response to the altar. Reuben Engstrom of our Mountain View, California, church—and a veteran evangelist—is a master of this. After carefully preparing the people and leading them into prayer, he may suggest, almost casually, that some might desire to be remembered for victory over some specific problem. "Are there those who would slip up a hand?" Then: "And would you not like to show God your need and determination by standing quietly where you are?" Then: "I would like to pray especially for you who have indicated this awareness of your need and of God's power to deliver. Will you not slip quietly down the aisle to the altar?" It was after watching Elder Engstrom in action, earlier in my ministry, that I saw how jarring and abrupt some of my appeals were.
Occasionally I do just the opposite: I stress how difficult public commitment is: "To stand alone, to dare to bear public testimony takes courage; but can we say, in the light of Calvary, that any testimony is too hard to make for our Lord?" I find this approach especially good for academy youth toward the end of the Week of Prayer.5. I take care not to embarrass either members or nonmembers by putting them on the "spot." I recall a meeting I attended in a Protestant church at which the evangelist ordered his listeners to close their eyes. "I can embarrass you if you don't," he threatened, and then directed the deacons to lock the doors so that no one could leave while he was making his call! I sat through his call, all right, but I didn't listen. Nor did I return.
We can embarrass nonchurch members by singling them out for special attention —having someone urge a visitor to go forward is dangerous. Judiciously done, it may get a decision. I do this only in the case of a visitor I know well, and whom I feel impressed will respond favorably. Too often I have seen one approached this way refuse to come again.
Our church members, too, can become embarrassed if we pressure friends whom they have encouraged to attend. A professional man told me recently that he would never again invite anyone to Elder________ 's meetings. "The effort was not well attended, and he seemed to feel his reputation was at stake," the member said. "He pressured people unmercifully. My friends resented his calls." Other church members gave the same report.
I would rather see a man go home uncommitted but still friendly and receptive to my visits and appeals, than with a stop sign erected on the avenue to his heart.
6. I do very little talking during an altar call. In this day of frenetic action, of radio and TV announcers to whom a dead spot is anathema, we are inclined to feel that silence is a sign of incompetency on the preacher's part. Don't you believe it! Watch George Vandeman during a protracted appeal—the kind all of us should make once or twice during a campaign. You will forget that he is in the pulpit. But during the quietness you will see evidences that the Holy Spirit is working. A "Bless you, son" or "Yes, come; God sees your tears and walks with you," will serve to let those who are praying their way to victory know that others are going forward. Spend three-four-five minutes without a word. Appeal hymns played softly—and I mean softly—are effective. Read a few verses of Scripture (Hosea 11:1-4; Isaiah 53) slowly, solemnly, and well. A verse of Scripture is worth a thousand well-reasoned words.
7. I make altar calls. Yes, here is the irreducible minimum, for the way to make an altar call, after all, is to make it. I would like to invite you to join me in the ministry of the altar.
As I have listened to you speak in your church, I have wondered whether many golden opportunities to call men and women to new decisions are not passed by.
"There are souls in every congregation," says Mrs. White, "who are hesitating, almost persuaded to be wholly for God. The decision is being made for time and for eternity; but it is too often the case that the minister has not the spirit and power of the message of truth in his own heart, hence no direct appeals are made to those souls that are trembling in the balance. The result is that impressions are not deepened upon the hearts of the convicted ones; and they leave the meeting feeling less inclined to accept the service of Christ than when they came. They decide to wait for a more favorable opportunity, but it never comes.'—Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 447.
Yes, there are souls suffering defeats. Souls wearied with the struggle. Souls who have found the cross too heavy and painful to bear, and who have put it down. They are still attending church. Still looking up to you. praying, hoping for encouragement and, yes, an invitation to start over. There have been times when I, too, have needed your altar ministry. And I have prayed. "Lord, help him to make a call. I need to make a new decision."
Look at your flock next Sabbath. How long has it been since you answered their prayers for the therapy of public commitment? I may be there in the congregation, praying with them. Will you let us go without commitment at your altar?