Altar Calls and Mercy Seats

i came across a short article entitled “10 Reasons Not to Give an Altar Call” by Thabiti Anyabwile. he’s the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman in the Grand Cayman Islands.

it’s a thought provoking read.

Anyabwile quotes a list complied by Pastor Ryan Kelly of Desert Springs Church in Alberquerque, New Mexico, and shares a few thoughts of his own. 

here are a few of the points made…

“1. The altar call is simply and completely absent from the pages of the NT.”

“2. The altar call is historically absent until the 19th Century, and its use at that time (via Charles Finney) was directly based upon bad theology and a man-centred, manipulative methodology.”

“6. The altar call can mislead us to think that salvation (or any official response to God’s Word) happens primarily on Sundays, only at the end of the service, and only ‘up front.'”

“8. The altar call is not sensitive to our cautious and relational age where most people come to faith over a period of time and often with the interaction of a good friend.”

these and other compelling arguments are made.

i do not think altar calls need to be eliminated all together; my own tradition, The Salvation Army, is big on appeals and altar calls. the mercy seat or altar is a big part of our worship.

there are, however, things we need to do better and teach better about the mercy seat and altar calls.

do better – use the mercy seat. be attentive to the Spirit and tone of the worship meeting; we do not need appeals and chorus after chorus every time we gather for worship. we do not need “fishing.”

teach better – the mercy seat is a place of grace; not disgrace. it’s a place of communion with God. it’s a place to pray, give thanks, ask for help, start a spiritual journey, refresh a spiritual journey, etc.

for further reading/thoughts on the mercy seat/altar calls from a Salvation Army perspective, check out The Mercy Seat and/or The Mercy Seat Revisited (an updated version of the book) by Nigel Bovey and chapter three of Battle Lines by Wesley Harris entitled “Symbols of Salvationism: The Mercy Seat.”


5 Responses to Altar Calls and Mercy Seats

  1. James says:

    Hey Mark

    I’ve wondered about this myself. The altar call was originated as a revival technique, and yet in the Army we continue to use it every single week, as if we are constantly on a revival campaign. I’m with you on saying it doesn’t need to be totally scrapped, but I think it needs some fresh thinking.

    I’ve thought about in particular in relation to two other types of “going forward” that I’ve experience in other churches.

    First, I’ve noticed that some other Wesleyan churches have a prayer time (usually during the pastoral prayer/intercessions), where anyone can come forward and pray. It’s not usually tied so directly to the sermon (sometimes it happens before the sermon), so that it’s a bit easier to make it open ended and people feel they can come up to pray for whatever. It seems like its easier in this case to avoid people jumping to conclusions about why people are “going forward.” For example, in an Army service, if you preach on adultery, who’s going to go forward? Even if you say they can come forward and pray for anything, people will probably shy away, because we tie the altar call and sermon so closely together.

    Second, after spending a year in a placement in an Anglican church, I really noticed the contrast between the “altar call” and the practice of weekly communion. In an Anglican (or Catholic, or Lutheran) church, everyone goes forward every week. It creates a sense that ALL of us are in need of God’s grace, so we all go up and humbly receive the bread and wine. Whereas, with the altar call scenario, the message we’re sending is, “well, SOME of you need to come up here and pray!” In other words, are we sending the message that some people DON’T need to repent and seek God’s grace? Obviously that’s not what the altar call is intended to mean, but spending some time with Anglicans got me thinking.

    Not sure how any of those might bear on reforming or rethinking SA practice, but it’s food for thought.


  2. markbraye says:

    well said, James.

    that makes so much sense, doesn’t it? seems simple. perhaps one more reason, among the many, TSA should practice The Lord’s Supper.

  3. Jason says:

    Good points Mark – please send me the link or tell me where i can find this article. Nice to know i am not alone in my thoughts on the altar call.

  4. Tony Brushett says:

    Hey Mark, been saying it for the past 7 years… the altar call quite often is more of a stmbling block than a place of grace for many. When I make an appeal, much to the disgust of some ‘old thinkers’ I allow Christ to do His work wherever He sees fit, and in several cases in my ministry, it has been a soul coming toChrist while sitting in thier seat or on a Wednsday evening driving to Walmart. And heaven forbid you should go to the mercy seat during a service! I remember going once and just very quietly began to thank God for all Ge had done in my life that week, when all of a sudden this hand touches my shoulder and this soldier of many decades says…”now, now Captain, you’re only human, you too can make mistakes.” He then asks me what would I like to pray about, and I simply answer, I’m good with God, kneel with me and I’ll pray for you.” That was the last time he done that to me.

    I love nothing more than to give or receive a good message form Him, and I know that if I allow the Spirit to lead then I will meet with Him wherever He sees fit.

    • markbraye says:

      too funny, Tony. isn’t that crazy? we too often assume a visit to the mercy seat or altar is a confession of sin.

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