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  • Jason Cherry

Four Reasons Young Evangelicals Should Learn the History of the Altar Call

Since the beginning of days human beings have hankered to rank things. The caveman ranked the loin cloths of their fellow cavers. Northern Europeans of ancient times debated the most esteemed Nordic poetry. And if the aborigine islanders of Kiribati didn’t have a burning hot opinion of the most feared mosquito-borne illness, then they were sent on the first canoe out of town. It’s almost like God hard-wired the human operating system to love lists. With that in view, let us consider the top four reasons young evangelicals need to learn the history of the altar call.

1. Because they were raised in churches that practice the altar call

Every Sunday they sat with heads bowed and eyes closed while the congregation did “spiritual business” with God. And next week they did it all over again, and at the end of the service the preacher asked any who wanted to make a decision for Christ to come forward down the aisle, just like he had done the week prior. At some point most thoughtful young evangelicals realize that there is a way to become a Christian apart from—or in spite of—this ritual. Learning about the history of the altar call will not only put the practice into perspective, but will awaken younger evangelicals to the manifold implications the altar call has had on their current beliefs.

2. Because they are unfamiliar with the altar call

Maybe they didn’t grow up in church or maybe they attended a church that has matured out of the peculiar altar call formality, and that is precisely why they need to learn its history. It is true enough that the percentage of churches that practice the altar call is declining and will continue to decline. But that is actually an urgent reason to learn its history. Even if the altar call isn’t being practiced, it has had and will continue to have an enduring shaping influence, not only on the American churches doctrine of conversion, but their doctrine of the Christian life. Apart from knowing the history of the altar call, evangelicals will keep using their conversion jargon (e.g. “pray to accept Jesus”) convinced it comes from scripture. A scary thought, indeed.

3. Because it provides historical context to one of the most important questions in Christianity

Martyn Lloyd-Jones talked frequently about how the question, “What is a Christian?” is one of the most important question for the church. At minimum, an answer to the question requires considering sin, grace, conversion, forgiveness, and sanctification. The way twenty-first century Christians answer this question is shaped largely by the altar call, even if they don’t realize it.

4. Because it might provide clarity for how they can deal with their future children who become interested in the gospel

Trying to faithfully shepherd the heart of a child toward Christ has been made incalculably more complex because of the altar call. Learning the history of the altar call can undo the complexity and provide young parents with insight, wisdom, and perspective as they parent their children. Should assumptions about child conversions come from a temporary methodology built on unstable ground, or should such assumptions come from the Word of God? Learning the history of the altar call will help them discern the difference.

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