The pastor had just finished giving a powerful message about the necessity of turning from sin and following Jesus. As the altar call was given, several people in the audience were compelled to act on his invitation.
Too many times, at this crucial point, perfectly normal worship services turn into The Phantom of the Opera.
For the past 15 years, I've traveled the country speaking at churches, camps and other events. Because I'm an evangelist at heart, I've shared the gospel in just about every situation imaginable with just about every type of crowd imaginable. Nothing amps me up as much as seeing people respond to God during an altar call and commit their lives to following Jesus.
Consequently, there is nothing more frustrating to me than seeing someone fall between the cracks at such a pivotal moment because of missed opportunities and careless mistakes.
Unfortunately, there are many potential mistakes that can ruin an altar call and negatively affect a person's decision to follow Christ. Though all of us have made these errors from time to time, the good news is we don't have to ever again! Here are the seven biggest mistakes pastors and church leaders make during altar calls and a few simple ways to correct them.
Mistake #1: Let people stay in their seats.
I know this is going to sound old-fashioned, but the first way to ruin an altar call is to let people remain in their seats during the time of commitment. Sure, we might ask them to raise their hands or instruct them to pray in their seats, but what we're really doing is allowing them to remain anonymous. If we don't make them move, we can't counsel them, pray with them or follow up with them.
That's not good.
Looking at Scripture, it appears as though Jesus' version of an altar call was to say, "Follow Me." Peter and Andrew weren't allowed to stay in their fishing boats; Matthew was not allowed to stay in his tax collecting booth. Jesus made His would-be followers move. We need to do the same. We can't let them stay in the pews.
By the way, if they're honest, some pastors will admit they don't ask people to move because they're afraid no one will. They want to avoid the embarrassment of having no one respond, so they remove accountability in the name of making it easy to become a Christian. What these pastors really need to remove is their egos. Then they can preach boldly and biblically, trusting God for transformation.
Now that we've addressed the first way to ruin an altar call—not making people move—let's look at the second best way to ruin an altar call: Making people move to the wrong place.
Mistake #2: Make people do business with God in front of everybody.
We conduct financial business with our banker privately. We do health checkups with our doctor privately. So why do we insist on making people do their spiritual business with a pastor publically? This is the most important decision people ever will make, so why force them do it in front of hundreds of people, many of whom are strangers?
Just because we ask people to move from their seats doesn't mean we have to make them stand in front of the whole church as they process their emotions, their sin and God's call. If we want them to make an informed decision about following Jesus—and we do, don't we?—then we need to give them the proper time and place to do so. At the front of the church, with hundreds of eyes on them, with the organist playing the fourth verse of "I Surrender All" is not the best time or place.
Instead of making people carry on such an important conversation in such a distracting environment, consider having them meet with counselors in the pastor's office or some other designated meeting space that can handle adequately the task of impacting eternity.
Speaking of counselors …
Mistake #3: Only have a few counselors available.
It's happened way too many times. The preacher gives an invitation to follow Jesus, a few dozen people move to the designated area … and two counselors bravely wade into the sea of sinners. The pastor then says, "Alright, all you guys go with Bill. All you ladies go with Margaret."
These poor counselors are as outnumbered as King Leonidas at Thermopylae!
Why do churches have so few counselors? Do they not understand the importance of well-trained counselors? Do they not expect God actually to stir people's hearts to repentance?
Regardless of their reasons, the results of having too few counselors are terrible. People usually don't get the attention and help they need. Further, they're forced to choose between sharing their deep dark sin in front of the counselor and several other people or not sharing anything at all.
Guess which one they usually pick.
This mistake is so easy to avoid. Prayerfully select enough men and women from your church so that potential respondents can have a one-on-one conversation with someone of the same gender.
You're not out of the woods yet. There are other counselor-related mistakes that can ruin an altar call.
Mistake #4: Use untrained and unprepared counselors.
In trying to avoid mistake #3, some pastors use anybody they can get their hands on to counsel others. Any Christian can do counseling, right? After all, they've sat through hundreds of altar calls. Plus, they even went through this experience themselves! They should know the ropes by now. Right?
That's a big assumption, and it carries big risks.
Of all the mistakes that ruin an altar call, the use of untrained and unprepared counselors may be the most frequent. Teachers must be trained in order to lead a class. Preachers must be trained in order to lead a congregation. Why shouldn't counselors be trained to lead people to Christ!? Here are just a few of the important points on which your counselors need to be crystal clear:
1. Do the counselors know where to stand, when to approach a person and where to take him or her?
2. Do the counselors know what to say and not say? Can they clearly explain God's plan for salvation?
3. Do the counselors know the importance of confidentiality? Likewise, do they know when to refer a person to a professional?
4. Do the counselors have the necessary tools for the task? Counselors will need their Bibles, of course; but it wouldn't hurt to have extra copies of God's Word to give to those who do not have one. Counselors also will need forms to collect contact information for follow-up purposes. Further, they should provide people with information about the church, including a way to contact the counselor and the pastor. It doesn't hurt for counselors to have breath mints, too!
5. Are the counselors aware of all the expectations placed on them? Are they supposed to collect the people's contact information? Are they supposed to follow up with them?
By the way, the best tactic for training a counselor is to partner him/her with someone who's already a great counselor. Let the counselor-in-training silently observe the mentor as he/she counsels people after an altar call. Just be sure the mentoring counselor gets a chance to debrief the situation with the counselor-in-training after everything is said and done.
These efforts will ensure that when people decide to give their lives to God, they can have access to well-trained counselors.
Mistake #5: Use counselors who talk too much.
Humans have two ears and one mouth, but hardly anyone uses them proportionately, including many counselors. I can't tell you the number of times I've observed counselors preaching to the people sitting in front of them after an altar call. (Didn't they just hear a sermon? Do they really need another one so soon?)
Some counselors think it's important to share every passage of Scripture on the topic of salvation with those who don't understand the concept yet. I hear them say, "Now let's turn to Ephesians 2:8-9," but the poor person is still looking for Romans 1:16, the last passage referenced.
Other counselors feel it's crucial to communicate every theological thought they have in their mental database. I've overheard counselors lecturing people about various atonement theories, the cosmological argument for the existence of God and the Levitical system of animal sacrifice! Meanwhile, the person who wants to accept Christ just sits there with a confused look on his or her face.
Yes, counselors need to be able to articulate biblical truth; but they must remember truth is meant to be life-changing, not overwhelming. Instead of talking so much, counselors should be trained to ask really good questions. Here are a few examples:
1. What's your name? (Yep, this is a big one! Most of us usually are reluctant to take advice from those who don't know our names. Take the time to ask this important question.)
2. How would you describe your relationship with Jesus? Why?
3. What made you respond to the message?
4. Are there any particular struggles, habits or sins you have in life?
5. What decision have you made as a result of the message?
6. Very specifically, how can I pray for you?
Counselors shouldn't talk too much … but at some point, they will need to speak. That brings us to our next mistake.
Mistake #6: Focus on the symptom, not the Savior.
I saw it happen recently in a church where I was speaking. A young man had responded to a message I preached from Psalm 20 and was partnered with a (young) counselor. The two of them were engaged in a serious conversation when I walked in a few minutes later. I quietly sat down beside them and silently listened as the counselor tried to help the young man with his addiction to pornography.
The counselor talked on and on about the best ways to overcome this destructive addiction: get accountability, download filtering software, read the Bible, ask for God's help, etc. All of it was good advice. Then the counselor stood up to leave; he'd said all that could be said about porn.
However, he'd said nothing about the Savior.
Acting quickly, I asked if I could pose a few questions to the young man. I was given his permission, so I cut right to the chase and asked him about his relationship with Jesus. Did he have one? How did he know? What was the quality of it? How was the sin of pornography affecting that relationship? What was his plan in dealing with that sin?
Sadly, it was the first time this young man had discussed Jesus. I spent a few minutes asking him more questions about Jesus and then prayed with him. When he left the room a little while later, fully assured of his relationship with Jesus, I nonchalantly held the young counselor back.
I gently pointed out to him that he focused only on pornography and never once got around to offering Jesus' forgiveness of that sin. I reminded him the young man's ultimate problem wasn't pornography; it was his sinful nature! "Think about it," I said. "Suppose he actually breaks the chains of bondage that porn has him in—Terrific!—but he's still in debt to God for his lust, not to mention his various acts of sexual immorality. He'll still be guilty before God. That is the reality we must focus on first."
Too often, counselors start off their conversations by focusing on the symptoms instead of the Savior. They discuss every form of sinfulness—anger, lust, lying, gossip, unforgiveness—but run out of time (or breath) before talking about the Savior and His cure for sin.
Don't let your counselors get sidetracked from their main task of helping people respond to Jesus. Be sure they focus their conversations on the Savior, not the symptoms.
Mistake #7: Pray for them instead of with them.
"Just repeat after me: Dear Jesus…"
I probably should say that I vehemently hate the Sinner's Prayer. I know it's been used by mighty men of God for decades, but the practice has its drawbacks.
Tell me something. If Jesus truly wants a personal relationship with us, then why do we need someone else telling us what to say to Him? Given that so many Christians, counselors included, view the prayer as a formula for salvation, it's no surprise that doubt ensues afterward about whether the right words were used.
When the time comes for a person to pray to receive Christ, why not let him or her use his or her own words? You might have to guide the person a little bit, but if we pray with people instead of for them, they never will look back on their salvation moment and realize it was someone else's words that were used instead of their own.
Some very simple guidance is usually sufficient; they need to confess their sins and ask for God's forgiveness, committing to walk with Jesus every day for the rest of their lives. Then, after taking a moment to show them the confidence Jesus had in our heavenly Father hearing our prayers (John 11:41-42), give them a chance to pray from their hearts.
They may mess up words, but they can't mess up heart.
Getting It Right
As pastors and church leaders, we have lots of great reasons to correct these mistakes when it comes to giving an altar call.
For starters, Jesus deserves our very best; and so do those who listen to us preach. Furthermore, these mistakes are too easy to fix, so there are no excuses for tolerating them. Finally, too much goes into our preaching to have it derailed at the last and most important moment.
As we preach, let's remember eternity is on the line. That alone is reason enough to get it right.