What is the history of the altar call?

Hey, thanks again for sending in your questions. If you weren’t in service this last week, we had something a bit unusual from our normal practice occur at the end of the service. Steve, feeling rather moved by God, just invited anybody who wanted to come forward for prayer to be able to come forward, and we would pray for them. He felt particularly moved that he should do that, and he did, and of course, I’m glad he did. And a number of people came forward, and we were able to pray for all kinds of things that are going on in people’s lives.

So the question comes in this week, what is the history of that? Or even what do we call that? And so, depending on your church background, that might be something that you’re very familiar with, or it might be something totally new for you. But one of the terms that is used for that type of event is an altar call, meaning calling people to come forward in a church in the front of the church is often called an altar. And so it’s calling people to the altar to receive prayer or sometimes to confess belief in Christ.

And so what is the history of the altar call? I’ll do my best to answer that in as brief a period as possible, but there’s a lot to cover. Just as an example, Charles Finney’s books on revival the Invitation System by Ian Murray the Effective Invitation by Allen Street Revival and Revivalism by Ian Murray. The Altar call it’s Origins and Present Usage by David Bennett. If you want to come read all these books, you are welcome to, but I’ll try to give you a brief summary.

The altar call in terms of asking people to come forward is something that really did not exist in church history until about the 18 hundreds. We don’t see it in Scripture, we don’t see it in Reformation, we don’t see it even in the Great Awakening of the 17 hundreds. What we had in those time periods is a normal kind of rhythm of preaching prayer, of people in the church singing songs similar to how services look today. And sometimes God’s spirit would move, and people, in a way that they would just spontaneously want someone else to come for them, would spontaneously ask questions of, how do I put faith in Christ? Right?

You think about Peter preaching an acts. He just preaches. And then people cry out, what are we supposed to do? And Jesus, Peter says, Repent and be baptized. So that’s the normal kind of thing that we see until about the 18 hundreds, beginning with the Second Great Awakening.

In the Second Great Awakening, a number of people really the person who came most to the forefront, although it didn’t totally originate with him, is Charles Finney.

It’s more complicated than this is why you need to read the books, but a high level view is as God’s movement and people began to be less overt. People were no longer in services, asking questions like what must I do to be saved? Or they weren’t spontaneously coming out of their seats to be prayed for or to ask for prayer. A number of voices, Charles Fenny being the most prominent, began to say we need to work to make this happen, and so we need to be asking people to come forward. And a number of people did that.

Some people just prayer. Some people said, if you want to receive Christ, come forward. Charles Finney went as far to say, revival does not depend on God’s Spirit at all. It is only the right use of the appropriate means. And his appropriate means included things like asking people to come forward.

They included things that we have probably never seen. He called them exhorbers. So he would have people in the congregation like stand up and point to people and call out their name and say, like, I see that God is working on you. Like you need to go forward to try to encourage kind of the movement of God in people. And that happened really beginning with the Second Great Awakening and then continued in kind of revival campaigns that went on the road all throughout the United States.

And some people did that. Some revivalists were more, we’ll say, ethical in the way they did that, and some revivalists were more manipulative in the way that they used that system. But that’s the history of it. That’s where it came from. It has good origins of wanting to listen to what God is doing in hearts and be able to provide a means for people to respond to it, whether it’s the Second Great Awakening or the First Great Awakening or even way back further all the way to Jesus.

People who were preaching, people leaders in the church were always available for people to come pray with them. They would have specific hours to come to the church. If you feel moved by the Spirit of God, come talk to me during this time. But actually attaching it to the service and calling force for people to come forward really didn’t happen until the 1008 hundreds. So should we do it would be the next question.

And we’ll say Steve did a perfect job. If it’s on God’s heart that we need to extend that type of invitation, then we want to be sensitive to God’s Spirit and follow along with that.

It doesn’t seem appropriate to program something like that into every service because we don’t see anything like that in Scripture and we really don’t see anything like that in church history until the 18 hundreds. But of course, we always want to be sensitive to God’s Spirit and what he is doing to make it available. So people feel like they have permission to come and ask for prayer or to come and express that they have placed their faith in Christ. Well, we hope that is enough at least to wet your appetite, to go research further on your own. That’s as brief a history as the Alta call as I can give.

Thanks for the question, and we’ll see you next time.