I See That Hand

aisleOne of the first decisions I faced as pastor was how I would conduct the invitation at the close of our worship service.

Many members in our traditional Southern Baptist church were accustomed to an “altar call,” but to be honest, I had never seen this done in an effective, biblical way. I was aware of the dangers of a drawn out, highly emotional appeal that could manipulate people or give false hope. There was no way I was going to tolerate endless refrains of “Just As I Am” and melodramatic statements from the pulpit like “No One Looking Around” and “I See That Hand.”

At the same time, the gospel does demand a response. I knew I needed to provide some kind of opportunity and clear instructions for people to put their faith in Christ. I just wasn’t sure what.

For the first couple years, we concluded the service with a simple “hymn of response,” and I hardly pushed the invitation at all. I cringed at the thought of someone walking down the aisle and making a spectacle. However, some of our folks yearned for more. As I listened to their pleas and asked their reasoning, I realized that many were looking more for an opportunity to pray with a leader than a full blown evangelistic crusade.

As I grew in confidence and better understood the needs of my people, I finally began to develop our closing invitation. These links by Justin Taylor and this article by Nathan Finn also gave me a historical and theological framework to build on.

Personally, I still feel there is too much theological baggage and risk of manipulation in formal altar calls. Instead, we make several provisions for people to respond to the gospel:

  • Weave the gospel through the worship service
  • Present the gospel during the sermon with a sense of urgency, and invite people to repent and believe right where they are sitting
  • At the end of the service, welcome people to come talk with a leader
  • Have a leader available up front, plus myself in the foyer as people leave
  • Have a space on our Guest Information card where people can express their interest to receive Christ
  • Equip believers to look for opportunities and share the gospel with people around them

Invitations are a sensitive issue, and each church will no doubt do things a little differently. But whatever we do, we must be clear that walking down an aisle or praying a sinners prayer does not actually save anyone. It is a matter of faith and repentance in the finished work of Jesus Christ, and only He can accurately know our heart.

On a side note, our church is also more cautious about baptizing new converts than many churches. Not because we don’t want more baptisms, but because we want to celebrate genuine regeneration and minimize false conversion experiences. In the short-term, our baptism numbers may appear lower than other churches our size, but in the long-run, we have a much higher retention rate and ratio of baptisms to committed members. And that is something to truly celebrate.

Question: How do you think a church should communicate the gospel and give opportunity to respond without manipulation? Share your thoughts by clicking here.

Related post:

Photo credit: camknows

5 thoughts on “I See That Hand”

  1. I have a friend at a prominent Southern Baptist church. His biggest concern with their alter calls is the lack of time given to actually discuss the gospel with people. After roughly two minutes they sit everyone down and announce the “decisions.” Especially with children (who he works with especially) this seems like a horribly inadequate way to guide people through a response to the gospel. Good post, Pastor Stephen 🙂

    1. Good point James. God forbid that we spend more time conducting an altar than explaining the gospel itself, which is the power of God leading to salvation. It’s really tragic because many of these pastors love the Lord and have the best of intentions, but don’t realize they are confusing the sheep at best, and misleading them at worst.

  2. Hey Steven,

    Thanks for this post. I’ve been struggling with how to handle “altar calls” myself. I have chosen to continue the previous practice until this time because there have been many issues that need to be addressed first.

    Your discussion has led me to some resources for deeper inspection so that I can make a better decision when the time to fully address the issue comes up.

    1. Thanks, Jeff. It is very wise of you to take your time and study out the issue. This is a cultural tradition and not a hill to die on, particularly early in ministry. You can take many corrective steps just by being more careful with how you approach invitations and call people to faith in Christ.

  3. I’ve been witness to and participated in this practice in situations ranging from Assembly of God summer camp to a Promise Keepers conference to an independent Baptist church. Each one did it differently but there are always those similarities you even mentioned with the “I see that hand”. I can’t judge the heart of anyone but I do know that I personally have responded to an alter call more than once on an emotional urging when I was still an unregenerate heathen. I think that your current invitation for further connection following the service and continued pursuance of those who visit or express needs for assurance is outstanding and provides for the most exposure by the individual to gospel truth.

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