I’m 33 years old, which means, in that time, I’ve either preached or listened to around 2,000 sermons.
In nearly every one of those sermons – at least the ones that I can remember – the preacher has always ended the sermon with something along the lines of “Come, as we stand and sing.” It may be some variation of that phrase, such as “If we can help, please come forward” or “Won’t you come as we stand and sing?,” but I can’t ever remember a sermon that didn’t end with some kind of invitation to walk down front and have a one-on-one with the preacher.
Why is that?
I’ve looked throughout the New Testament, and I don’t see where Jesus invited the people to meet Him near the Sea of Galilee after the Sermon on the Mount. Peter didn’t call for listeners to swarm near him as he struck the final verbal blow in his great sermon on Pentecost.
So if neither of those two giants closed their sermons with a call to action, is it unscriptural if I close mine without one?
No, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily should.
History of the “Anxious Bench”
As with most modern worship conventions (at least in America), the idea of the “anxious bench” originated during one of the four great Awakenings. In 1842, during the Cambuslang revival in Scotland, fiery preacher George Whitefield preached a sermon based on Isaiah 54:5, and ended it by asking if anyone wanted to “take Christ for their husband.” If so, he asked that they would “come, and [he would] marry them just now.”
That probably sounds a little strange to our 21st century ears, but Whitefield’s point was not to create some sort of marriage union, but to urge people to make a decision for Jesus right then and there. It’s an admirable concept; delay can sometimes mean procrastination and then abandonment.
The trend of encouraging immediate decisions began to gain steam in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, hitting another peak with the introduction of the “anxious bench” by Charles Grandson Finney in the 1830’s. He believed that by inviting people down front, those who would be close to making a decision to follow Christ could be pushed over the edge by their proximity to Finney, and by extension, the Holy Spirit. We would rightly argue the sincerity (and validity) of such a belief, and indeed, several leading figures did. Charles Spurgeon, arguably the greatest Baptist preacher of the 19th century, said “Sometimes [we should] shut up that inquiry room. I have my fears that if that institution be used in permanence and if you should ever see a notion that it’s fashioning itself, that there is something to be gotten in a private room that is not to be had at once in the assembly, we may blow at that notion at once.”
Technically, the “inquiry rooms” that Spurgeon argued against were not pews up front, but rooms that were near the church building where further admonition to be saved could be given to those who were thought to be spiritually “anxious.” Those people would gather in a room and the other teachers would continue urging them to obey Christ now, before they went home. Spurgeon’s point was that any sort of emotional pull that’s not tied directly to the Gospel – and is instead manufactured by some kind of outside influence – should not convince someone to follow Christ.
Is he right? In a sense, yes. Romans 1:16 is clear that the Gospel is the “power of God unto salvation,” but to argue that all anyone should do is read the Word and that’ll be enough ignores the impact that can come from powerful, convicting preaching. Certainly, no one should be tricked into obeying the Gospel, or promised some kind of material gain by their decision, but that’s not to say fervent conversations that are Biblically-centered can’t lead someone to a point of decision. In fact, I would argue that they should.
It wasn’t until the 1900’s that the “altar call” as we know it finally came into view. At the end of his crusades, Billy Graham famously played the hymn “Just As I Am” as members of his team fanned out into the crowds to pray for and with those who would like to ask for forgiveness. The whole series was carefully constructed, with Graham’s words and volume reaching an emotional fever pitch just as the organ kicked in. Those who were on the edge of the seat were almost involuntarily thrust into the aisle as they responded to Graham’s call.
Critics argued that the conversions at Graham’s crusades were shallow and short-lived. Graham believed he was creating disciples, not just gargantuan head counts. The false doctrine of the “sinner’s prayer” notwithstanding, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
Should We Ask People to Come Forward?
The history of “Altar Calls” and “Anxious Benches” is steeped in Holiness and Calvinistic theology, but as the practice itself stands, I can’t find a reason not to simply ask people to make a decision regarding Christ. There’s nothing magical that happens on the front pew; in my limited experience, the decision to follow Christ is made long before they ever walk down front. Very rarely do people appear at the front of the building and shake my hand in response to something that I said just based on that morning.
Good preaching will always evoke a response, though. Peter’s fiery sermon on Pentecost helped people connect the dots between what they knew had happened fifty days previous, and what it actually meant in the God’s eternal plan. Paul’s sermon on Mar’s Hill helped people see that the God they were ignoring was the only God worth following. The fact that they didn’t ask people to join them “down front” didn’t diminish the impact of what they said.
Paul asked Agrippa to respond to his preaching in Acts 26:27, when he said “Do you believe the prophets? I know that you do.” Paul was angling for Agrippa to act on his burgeoning faith. Unfortunately, he responded with the immortal phrase: “In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian.”
Even a decision that’s made in the spur of the moment isn’t wrong. What is wrong is when we rely on that emotion to carry them, spiritually. After Saul was baptized in Acts 9, the text records for us that he stayed with the disciples in Damascus for “several days” (Acts 9:19). They strengthened him then, as he would strengthen them later.
Whether done at the end of the sermon or in your living room at 3AM reading the Gospel of John, a decision needs to be made for Christ, one way or the other. And once that decision to obey Him has been made, they need to be baptized to wash away their sins. And I think I speak for every Christian when I say that’s one phone call I don’t mind waking up in the middle of the night to receive.Last modified: October 21, 2019
Seems like an opportunity to follow Jesus in producing fruit is being passed up by not using altar calls to produce it.