One Pastor’s Struggle With Altar Calls

I am always aware of the roots of my church, The Chapel. That in the 1970s Billy Graham came to Tiger Stadium and that arrival stirred the hearts of several couples in Baton Rouge to begin a church. Shortly thereafter they called upon Donald Tabb, who worked with Billy at the time, to be their pastor. The Lord had already been working in Donald’s heart to consider pastoring rather than traveling (he had a young family at the time); and Donald joined.

The Chapel’s 40th Birthday from The Chapel on Vimeo.

Donald can convert a man or woman by simply looking at them. I’m not kidding. His gaze is piercing and gracious. His steel blue eyes look right into your very soul and extract things you never knew were there. He’s a man’s man. And He’s God’s man. And for decades he would give altar calls or opportunities in the service for people to come to Jesus. And they were effective. At the end of June I did a funeral for a man who came to Christ because Donald preached. People in the congregation ask me from time to time why I don’t do them more regularly since that method of preaching was tranformative for their own life.

So this is my opportunity to praise God for Donald and share my heart. . .

I don’t regularly do altar calls or “every head bowed every eye closed” types of things in my preaching. And that sometimes bothers me. Sometimes it doesn’t. It bothers be because I preach at a church where it brought 100s of people to Jesus, many who are still there–or who have children, grandchildren, or great grandchildren who are still there. And at the same time I’m not bothered by it because I, too, have convictions about preaching and conversion. Such as:

  • Sundays are family gatherings: (I’m working on the wording of that one). I need a time to talk to the family of faith and strengthen them in the Word. And, while I consider regularly that there are non-believers in my midst on a Sunday, Sunday morning is that time. I will in my preaching speak directly to those who don’t know Jesus (“And for those of you this morning who aren’t sure if you know Jesus. . .”). I will take time to point out how to find books of the Bible for those in the congregation who don’t know 1 John from John. I will also urge men and women to repent and consider Jesus. But at the same time I want to strengthen those who call on the name of Jesus. I strongly believe that believers need a place for that. This four-minute clip helps think about it.
  • Christ-exalting worship and preaching is evangelistic: My hope is to create an environment where Jesus is lifted up in such a way that people want to follow him. I try to speak to believers and non-believers alike, but I want the beauty of Jesus to be seen and I want Him to be adored. And here’s the thing: people who don’t know Jesus cannot adore him. Only the believer can do that. And I believe a Christ-exalting environment can do great good in moving those who don’t know Jesus closer to him.
  • Altar calls can bring a false sense of security: For those who read this who have been converted by an altar call, hear me: I’m not saying you aren’t saved. What I’m saying is that it may lead to confusion on what true conversion is. Our faith must wholly and solely be placed in the person and work of Jesus, nothing else. Harkening back to a baptism, an event, a raised hand, or anything other than the person and work of Jesus isn’t saving. Only Jesus is. Listen to David Platt talk about it here.
  • Conversion is often a process: When I do baptism interviews with folks (which are new for our adult population) I ask things like “What is the gospel?” and “When did you believe it?” When I asked a gentleman recently he didn’t have a date in mind, he had a process. It was hearing the preached word. It was being in the congregation. It was seeing believers live their life. Suddenly, and before he knew it, he was hijacked by Jesus and realized he belonged to him. Precisely when is known by God. And I’m fine with that.

Now, there is a place for strongly evangelistic preaching. There is a place for itinerant evangelists like Billy Graham and Luis Palau. There is a place for asking for some type of response on a Sunday. I need a man like Donald to keep me focused on helping people know Jesus. We all work together for the glory of Jesus and the good of his church. And, by his grace alone, people believe.

Consider what Paul preached in Acts 17.

30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” 

32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.”

The work belongs to God, and the glory as well.

I’d love to hear thoughts, especially by those who disagree.

3 Replies to “One Pastor’s Struggle With Altar Calls”

  1. Again, another great post. Can I make a request? You touch on it very lightly above in the part about Sundays are family gatherings. I’d love to hear a Pastor’s take on the balance needed to be engaging to Christians and teaching them something new without leaving those who aren’t Christians behind.

I'd love to hear your thoughts . . .