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Walking the Aisle — A Few Thoughts on Altar Calls

altar call first baptist church hammond
Altar Call at First Baptist Church in Hammond, Indiana

Every head bowed, every eye closed.

Is God is speaking to you right now?

What is it God wants you to do?

Do you need to be saved? Step out from where you are and come kneel at the altar. Cry out to God. He will save you. Don’t delay. Behold, NOW is the accepted time and NOW is the day of salvation.

Do you need to get right with God? Don’t delay. Don’t wait for another day. Step out from where you are, and come kneel at an old-fashioned altar and do business with God.

Whatever it is God wants you to do, do it today.

As we sing the first verse of Just As I Am, you come. Don’t wait. You don’t have the promise of tomorrow.

Come…

Over the course of 25 years in the ministry, I gave countless public invitations like the one above. The emphasis might have differed from week to week, but the focus was always on NOW, doing what God wants you to do without delay.

Sometimes, I would tell a poignant illustration that I hoped would drive home the importance of making a decision. My philosophy was clear:

  • There is a God
  • The Bible is truth
  • God hates sin
  • Salvation is through the merit and work of Jesus Christ
  • There is a Hell to shun and a Heaven to gain
  • No one has the promise of tomorrow
  • Death is certain
  • Decisions affecting our eternal destiny should never be put off

The invitation was the point in the service where I (God) brought everything together. It was the climax, the point where God showed his mighty power by saving sinners and calling backsliders back to the faith.

Thousands of people responded to altar calls given by me. I was pretty good at it. I knew what to say, and how to say it. I could read the emotions of those under the sound of my voice, and with a few well-placed words, get them to walk the aisle. What I called conviction back then is what I now call guilt. The Bible is a world-class book for making people feel guilty. And when people feel guilty (under conviction) they are ripe for manipulation.

In one church I pastored for 11 years, we had over 600 public professions of faith. We baptized hundreds of people. Rare was the Sunday when no one came forward during the invitation. (For many years, I gave invitations every time we held a service.)

On those rare weeks when no one stepped out for Jesus, I was often quite depressed. I thought, why didn’t anyone come forward? Maybe my sermon was poorly constructed, or perhaps God was punishing me because of some unconfessed sin in my life? In other words, God might send someone to Hell to get my attention.

The number of people responding to the invitation, like the number of people attending the church, is a measure that pastors use to judge themselves successes or failures. Church members judge the success or failure of their pastor by whether God is using his preaching to save people and reclaim backsliders. They also judge him based on the numeric growth of the church. In many ways, the church is no different from the corporate world, where corporations are judged a success or a failure based on economic output (stock price, revenue increase, increased productivity, bottom line profit).

Every church I ever pastored grew numerically. I was good for business. I knew I had good preaching skills. I knew I had “people” skills and that I was effective in reaching people with the gospel. I expected results. I expected God to work. I expected people to walk the aisle and do business with God. My modality in the church was similar to the manner in which I conducted myself in the business world. Over the years, I managed restaurants for Arthur Teachers, Long John Silvers, and Charley’s Steakery (along with a number of other management-level jobs). As a general manager, I was driven to succeed. Success was measured by net profit (a secular version of souls saved and church attendance growth).

Toward the latter third of my time in the ministry, I came to see that the altar call was a tool used by pastors to manipulate emotions, give the illusion that God’s power was on them, and that God was using them. I have no doubt that many pastors believe their own hype, I know I did. I came to see myself as a man used greatly by God. The proof was in the numbers.

When I stopped giving altar calls, many people responded negatively, and a few people even left the church. In their minds, an old-fashioned, Bible-believing church has altar calls. People should have an opportunity to respond to the sermon. People should have an opportunity to respond to the Holy Ghost’s leading. One former friend, a pastor, told me that he would never attend a church that didn’t give an altar call. Never mind that there is not one instance of an altar call in the Bible. Never mind that the history of the altar call can be traced back to Pelagian Charles Finney. In his mind, a good church was a church that gave altar calls. A church without altar calls was a liberal church that didn’t love souls.

billy graham crusade altar call
Billy Graham Crusade Altar Call

In the 1960s, evangelists such as Billy Graham popularized the altar call and brought it to the TV screen. Many of us remember seeing a Billy Graham Crusade on network TV. Who can forget the altar call, hundreds of people pouring out of the aisles making their way down to the front. What most people did not know is that MANY of the people responding to the invitation were actually Christian altar workers. They helped “prime the pump” with their movement forward, encouraging others to do the same. If you take the first step, God will help you take the rest . . .

When we are part of a group, there is pressure to conform to the group standard. This dynamic is quite evident in church. Individuality is discouraged. Dissent is frowned upon. I see the same problem in the secular world. Most human beings don’t want to stand out from the crowd, so they tend to embrace whatever the group standard is.

Personally, I try to fight such conformity. I will gladly sing the national anthem and recite most of the Pledge of Allegiance, but I’ll be damned if I will bow my head and take off my hat in an act of worship as some knucklehead prays for God to bless the race car drivers or a singer sings God Bless America during the seventh-inning stretch at a baseball game. That said, I have no doubt that I succumb to the group standard more than I care to admit.

Group conformity is not necessarily bad, but we must be careful we do not surrender our ability to reason and think for ourselves. The pressure to conform to a group standard in church often sucks the life, vitality, and joy from a person’s life. When the pastor gives an invitation and scores of people respond, the pressure to do likewise is very strong. Being right with God = walking the aisle. Standing in the pew and not walking the aisle = Not right with God.

Many years ago, I attended a Sword of the Lord Conference in the Canton, Ohio area. Curtis Hutson was one of the main speakers. He preached on the family, on fatherhood. At the close of his sermon, he gave an altar call that basically said “if you want to be a better father, you need to come to the altar and profess your willingness to do so” Hundreds and hundreds of men responded. I didn’t. I thought Hutson was being quite manipulative, so I refused to walk the aisle. Of course, I stood out like a sore thumb. People thought, I am sure, Either that guy thinks he is a better Christian than the rest of us, or he refuses to get right with God. Who doesn’t want to be a better father? Never mind that one prayer at an altar does not a good father make.

Pastors well-schooled in their craft and blessed with the ability to effectively communicate, can, if they are not careful, manipulate people. The altar call is just one of many tools that can be used for manipulation. What pastors call God is actually the pastor and his well-honed communication skills manipulating those listening to his sermon.

A public church service can be a dangerous place. Parents, with nary a thought, allow their children to be influenced by men expert in mental and emotional manipulation. Even adults, especially those who have “sin” problems in their lives, are susceptible to manipulation. Adults enter the church building burdened with the cares of life, and the pastor, with his well-chosen words, convinces them to respond to an altar call. Jesus is the answer! Hooked on drugs or booze? Jesus will set you free. Family a mess, headed for divorce court? Jesus will make things right. Come, don’t delay. And people, with lives burdened down by problems and adversity, rush to the altar thinking Jesus will fix everything for them. He doesn’t, and they are worse off than they were before. Why are they worse off? Because they will likely think or be told by the pastor that the lack of change is their fault. They didn’t pray hard enough, or perhaps they had some secret sin they are holding on to. God never gets the blame for failing to do what the pastor said he would do. It is ALWAYS the sinner’s fault, not God’s.

Let me ask you a question. Every head bowed, every eye closed.

Are you saved? Do you remember a definite time and place in your life where you repented of your sins and accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?

If not, raise your hand. No one is looking. This is just between you and God. Raise your hand, I want to pray for you.

I see that hand. And that one. Thank you, Ma’am. Thank you, Sir.

Lord, you see the hands that were raised. Save them, Lord. In Jesus’ name, amen.

In a moment we are going to sing Just as I Am.

If you raised your hand, I want you to step out from your pew and come to the front. Someone will meet you and will share with you what the Bible says about being saved.

Don’t delay.

That’s right, keep coming.

Are there others?

Even if you didn’t raise your hand, is there something you need to confess to God?

Come.

Do it now.

Don’t wait.

Dinner will wait.

Your soul is worth more than all the money in the world.

We are going to sing the last verse one more time. That’s it. Don’t neglect so great a salvation.

God doesn’t promise to always strive with you. One day his Spirit may no longer call and it will be too late for you . . .

Come . . .

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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17 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Ami

    I’m reminded of when the small church we attended in Southern Cal hosted Dennis Corle. His schtick was, “Are you ashamed of Jay-sus? Are you? Then come here RIGHT NOW.”

    And is there a script all pastors use? ‘Cause all the words you wrote (every head bowed, every eye closed, blah blah blah…) I heard them a million times.

  2. Avatar
    Ian

    Let me guess, all of those people in the top picture are repenting for letting not one, but two serial adulteres run their church?

  3. Avatar
    Stephanie

    Scare ’em into heaven! I remember this starting as a kid. They would even say their goal was to convert them as young as they possibly could because they were more likely to accept opposed to when they got older. Yeah, they don’t have critical thinking skills yet! Of course, they didn’t mention hell back then really, that started as you got older.

  4. Avatar
    Steve

    “Parents, with nary a thought, allow their children to be influenced by men well schooled in mental and emotional manipulation”

    So very true. Truer words were never spoken

  5. Avatar
    Becky Wiren

    Concerning church and manipulation by pastors and church people: I sent my sons to a local Baptist church that picked them up every Wednesday. (Bruce, you probably know which one.) I no longer went but still believed exposure to church would be a good thing. It was, but not for the reasons I thought.

    My sons don’t remember if there were altar calls on the nights they went. But, my older son was exposed to their homophobia. One guy taught that it was “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Jacob, being autistic (bless him, we didn’t know!) bluntly said to the guy, “You say that, but then you talk like you hate gay people.” WOW.

    It wasn’t long before they both quit going. The bad things of that church taught them what they did not want to believe. And by the time they quit going, I too had changed my beliefs. I could argue that the church’s flaws, its unkindness towards different people, showed my sons what NOT to believe. Now all four of us in my family have different religious or non-religious beliefs, but we live in respect and harmony of each other’s beliefs. THAT is what I wish for our country and all mankind. Because we don’t care so much what a person believes regarding a deity, as long as what they do is be good people. (Sorry this is long.)

  6. Avatar
    David

    Hi Bruce,

    My name is David, I’m a Lutheran Pastor. Let me just say that I agree with your critiques of evangelicalism. I am sorry that this was the kind of “Christianity” that you knew. Charles Finney has to have been one of the worst things that ever happened to the Christian Church. In Lutheranism we confess that the law cannot make someone a believer, in other words, you cannot scare people into faith, nor can you manipulate people into faith. We simply preach law and gospel. I suppose you might call that emotional manipulation too but I believe it’s vastly different. We preach that the bad things which happen in a person’s life are not a result of any particular sin but evidence of sin in the world in general. We preach that while we want to serve and love God and neighbor better as Fathers, mothers, etc we are never going to be perfect at it and so daily repent of our failures to do those things and know that we are totally forgiven by God without doing anything to earn it. We don’t do altar calls. I agree they are completely manipulative and anti-gospel. A good maxim for what we do is what Luther said once (I’m paraphrasing) “I just preach the gospel, go home, drink my beer, and let the Holy Spirit do His work.” We don’t believe that changing hearts is our work or our business, it’s God’s. We just preach His word.

  7. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    These altar calls are a script! I remember each and every one of these phrases! I desperately wanted to peek to see if there was really someone raising their hand as I suspected that was something preachers said to try to get more people to comply. I was afraid of what might happen if I got caught peeking – all I could manage was a sideways glance which didn’t reveal anything.

    It always seemed to me like the 11-14 age group would go forward in packs, while adults would go alone – or as a couple, especially if they were “moving their letter” which in Southern Baptist church parlance meant they were members of another congregation but were committing to our church. (I wonder if my “letter” still sits at the original SBC church I attended as I never formally notified them I was moving lol). I suspect they don’t really care about you if you aren’t a butt in a Pew putting a check in the offering plate.

  8. Avatar
    Trixie Woods

    Awesome insight! As a new atheist, it surprised me how much of the emotional parts of Christianity can be put down to some kind of manipulation. I admire you for acknowledging that you used to be a part of it, cause it was difficult for me.

  9. Avatar
    Dave

    Oh how I hated altar calls even back in my Christian days. Bruce, how right you are to call them manipulative. I would never go forward but felt there was something wrong with my faith for not doing that. It was always a no win situation and it seemed to go on forever

  10. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    I might have saddled y’all with this poem I wrote many years ago but it’s apt today:

    Just As I Am

    Ten-year-olds
    a dozen of us lined up
    at the front of the church
    because the world
    might just end today
    and we have all sinned
    Romans 3, verse 23
    our fisted, hounded hearts
    and the preacher
    offering one last chance.
    Streets paved with gold
    stream liquid
    through amber
    stained-glass windows.
    Some of us softly weep
    awful doubt in ourselves
    our Baptist Jesus
    and the preacher walking
    our line and shaking hands
    as if we were grownup
    and big enough to deal
    with being caught
    between heaven and hell
    on a Sunday morning
    and our walking right
    into the arms of it
    idiot-faced
    crying along with the music.

    (Just typing that old thing out again puts a lump of rock in my stomach. How could they do that to us…)

  11. Avatar
    Ian

    As a congregant, I felt the pressure to step up, even if I didn’t have anything to confess or get right. I wanted to support the pastor and show that his words meant something to me. So, I randomly responded to the altar call. Sometimes, I was the only one who went up front.

    Our church didn’t always have people kneeling up front. Most times, we went and shook the pastor’s hand while he prayed with us. We might share (confess) a sin with him, or just say we needed prayer.

    A few times, people would kneel at front benches and stay there for 10 or 15 minutes. When that happened, the pastor would usually quietly call an end to the service and patiently wait for the person to finish praying. This often happened on Sunday morning, after people were caught sinning (as in something that couldn’t be swept under the rug) by someone else in the congregation. I knew that the Sunday night service would be a little shorter and that we would be seeing a repentant sinner ask for forgiveness, followed by a handshaking party, ending with a rousing rendition of Amazing Grace or Our God Reigns. These repentant sinners would speak either in vague generalizations, justifying what they did, or angrily state the specific accusations, glaring at the person who dared snitch on them. Either way, the altar call showed that all was forgiven and that the Prodigal Son®️had returned.

  12. Avatar
    kittybrat

    These alter calls are still such a trigger, even after all these years away from the Independent Fundamentalist Baptists. Reading your quotes from the calls, I got sick in the stomach and started to cry. Such sorrow, so many tears, and why?
    The amount of emotional and mental manipulation over the decades surely has taken its toll, and although my mind is free, I fear the harm is evident quite near the surface.
    Not only the preacher’s entreaty is troubling, but the music, the minor chords and lyrics of unworthiness. It’s a stew of emotional exploitation. This is the orchestration of a puppet-master.
    When I hear an alter call at a funeral, I get extremely angry. If not a direct family member, I walk out. There is no excuse for this.

  13. Avatar
    ... Zoe ~

    I use to read The Sword of the Lord. 🙁

    I went to a service that John Bevere was preaching at in Toronto. Towards the end of his sermon he started preaching about lust . . . then told us about his problem with sexual sin and masturbation. Then he whipped the church pretty much into a frenzy by leaning hard and long (pardon the pun) about “the problem” and seriously, that sermon went on and on and on. I thought, good grief, what is this guy doing? And of course, when the altar call was given, men started weeping and heading to the front, then some women, Bevere just kept it going and going . . . you know you’re a sinner ie) a fellow masturbator . . . and before I knew it, the entire church had gotten up out of their seats and with no room at the front any longer at the people were lined up to the back. I wasn’t suppose to be peeking, heads down eyes closed, etc. But I had to peek because it’s the first time I saw a preacher start speaking in tongues. It was the same refrain over and over again. At one point I could see him looking at me. I looked around. There were seven of us that did not answer the masturbatory altar call. He was looking at us like we were a bunch of liars.

    I wonder how John is doing these days?

    Anyway, when I look back on it, he truly whipped everyone into a frenzy and I think people went forward whether they had “the problem” or not. 🙂

  14. Avatar
    Dave

    Kittybrat I hear you loud and clear. The few times I have agreed to go to church since my deconversion have been very difficult and I have experienced the same visceral reactions you describe. Very much like PTSD. I wish you well

  15. Avatar
    mary

    oh i remember the emotional manipulation of altar calls.it’s all trickery. as a former pk i have heard pastors comparing notes on the best way to manipulate people into altar calls, service, etc. that is why i cannot stand the thought of even attending church right now. thanks for exposing this mess.

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