Are Altar Calls Outdated?

Pastors confide that they are frustrated because people “just won’t come forward” for the “altar call.”

But what is the reason for that? What is the bigger picture?

I asked Warren Bird, the Director of Research and Intellectual Capital Development of the Leadership Network, if churches in general, and in particular megachurches, practice some form of an invitation. Here’s Warren’s response:

“I’ve visited literally hundreds of churches, and the clear pattern is that growing churches call for a response to their messages. The approach varies – some ask people to come forward in the traditional “altar call,” while others ask for a raised hand, a checkbox on a handout, or something specific to the Scripture of that day. For example, one church had a giant open door to walk through in response to the ‘open door’ reference from the Bible passage being taught.”

“Megachurches tend to do more altar calls and other invitations for a response than other churches. I suspect the reason is more because of outreach, which leads to growth, than due to size. Also, according to research, the larger the church, the more likely it is to have clarity of purpose – and an evangelistic purpose at that, which again would explain why larger churches expect, look for, and call for a response to God’s Word.”

An invitation of some kind, including the traditional altar call to come forward is still a relevant and effective practice.

So, the helpful question is – “How can we all do a better job with an invitation?

Your church culture will determine part of that answer. Your leadership and style of worship service will also have an impact.

But ultimately the answer is not a mystery. If people come forward for prayer, salvation, or whatever the invitation is for – then what you are doing works. If people fill out a card and turn it in, you know it works.

Here’s the practical focus. How can we continue to improve how we partner with the Holy Spirit to invite people to respond to the life changing power of God’s word?

5 Action Steps Toward Improving Your Invitations:

1) Your faith and prayers set the stage.

What you believe God can do matters significantly because that shapes how you pray. What you believe God will do has an equally huge impact and is connected to your faith. We don’t have to argue theology here to agree that faith and prayer play a large roll in what happens on a Sunday morning when you call for a response.

Faith and prayer will trump your communication skill level every time. We all still need to prepare with great diligence, but this is where the response begins.

2) Check your ego at the door.

All of us have experienced that moment of fear when we extend the invitation and wonder if anyone will respond. Perhaps you have been tempted to “soften” the call to ensure someone will come forward. We’ve all been there.

No one wants to stand on the stage and look like a lame leader. However, if you struggle with that, you’ve got to work hard to get over it. It’s important that you get freedom from that fear so you can deliver an authentic invitation that people will be drawn to. If you are tense, hesitant or insecure, the people will be as well.

Ultimately, you don’t determine how people respond. That’s not your responsibility. If no one comes forward, checks a box or raises a hand, then you pray again for the next weekend. That’s our commitment, and we never give up.

3) Create the moment, but don’t manipulate it.

Avoid routine at all costs. If you do the same thing every week without variance, that may be one of the top reasons the response is lower than you would like. The congregation doesn’t anticipate anything different, so they don’t respond any differently.

Creativity helps. You don’t have to use a “giant door,” but why not? Try different approaches. Don’t go for clever, but lean toward a little creativity and variation to keep the room fresh.

It is not necessary to “work the moment,” to make something happen, always refrain from that temptation.

4) Clarity and brevity in the invite is essential.

I have listened to thousands of invitations, and one of the top reasons people don’t respond is because the invitation is unclear. In many cases, the message should have ended earlier, and when it’s concluded, and the pastor begins the invitation, he starts teaching the message all over again.

The best coaching I’ve received for my invitations is: “Know (in advance) when it’s time to land the plane and land it. Also, know exactly what you want the people to do and make that clear. Then extend the invitation.”

Kevin Myers coaches with these two questions. “What do you want the people to know?” And, “What do you want the people to do.” Be clear and make the ask in as few sentences as possible.

5) Exercise great diligence in your follow-up.

Now that you’ve done all that work, whether one or one hundred responded, it’s essential to capture their information so you can follow-up.

Whether it’s a new Christian’s class for converts, or prayer for a specific need, one of the most spiritually practical things we do as a church is to help people make progress in their faith.

So, how will you capture their name and contact info?

Keep it simple. If you ask for too much, they will check out quickly. Most of the time a name and email is all you need. If you have a great text system and prefer that over email, then go for it, but don’t walk away from the harvest.

Keep going, and don’t get weary in doing good. Your work is worth it!

19 thoughts on “Are Altar Calls Outdated?”

  1. Great post, thanks Dan! I love the two questions about clarity: “What do I want the people to know?” and “What do I want them to do?” Making sure I answer those questions now as I prepare for Sunday’s message. Bless you!

  2. I totally agree with first two then the next three points are about us and totally ignore the leading of the Holy Spirit. Unless that goes without saying? But isn’t that the problem, we try to say and do too much excluding God and the Holy Spirit and rely on our own ingenuity?

    1. If that were the case, that would be a problem for sure. I’m definitely assuming we invite the power of the Holy Spirit! Without God, none of this works, not in terms of eternal life change. But God has asked us to step up and lead in His church. So I think it’s a partnership, with God as the senior partner. Thanks for your comments Kevin.

  3. Good stuff, as always, Dan. This is very timely for us, as we are actively discussing our new believer response and follow-up process. As a <7 year-old church, we have seen rapid growth as a result of many people coming to faith and taking next steps. As I'm sure you would agree, salvation and spiritual growth is much more of a process than ever before, and we do get that and try to honor that process. At the same time, we feel like we need to get better at helping people understand and take those initial steps after salvation. Here is our biggest challenge: While people seem to be willing to raise their hands (literally, at the invitation), they seem very reluctant/slow to identify themselves beyond that. For example, this past Sunday, no less than 18 people responded to the salvation invitation with raised hands (on Labor Day weekend!); however, we received only one(!!) response card (these cards in in seat backs and only ask for name, number, email, and we explain that we simply want to send them a text with some helpful info for their next steps). Over the past seven years, we have literally tried everything from coming forward, to going to a prayer room, to meeting the pastor down front after the service, to text message response (i.e., they text a keyword), to cards, to meeting with a prayer team member…and we barely get any response compared to the numbers that raise their hands. On the positive side, people do seem to respond to other on-ramps and we have experienced tremendous growth, so clearly God is at work and people are responding. Still, we are wrestling with how to create a better "initial" discipleship process that will set up new believers for more significant ongoing growth. Of all the things we've tried, filling out the card has generated a much greater response than anything else. However, no more than about 1 in 12-15 of the people that we text actually respond…and those who do usually respond with nothing more than a thank you. (Note that the text message does direct them to a link with some short videos we've produced, along with a link to baptism and Bible reading plans, etc., so they certainly may be investigating further.)

    Anyway…just wondering if you have any thoughts on these efforts v. the responses we are seeing? Thanks for any insight you may have.

    1. Most of us experience very similar things. Getting names and info is challenging! The good news is that God is moving and those individuals experienced God in some way. We can hope and pray they will continue to press forward. It is a process indeed! Keep asking for the info, try different ways. We live in such an in the moment and sometimes emotion driven culture that we have to be patient, and definitely leverage the other on ramps! One thing we can all work on is training our people to help with the follow up if a friend goes forward or responds in some way.

  4. Great stuff again Dan! There always needs to be some time of invitation – the problem might be that the traditional altar call assumes that the Sunday morning worship service is the accepted “front door” of the church and is the best time to offer it. I think we’d be better off spending more time equipping our people to be invitational – for it is the followers of Jesus that are to be the best front doors of the church, taught to lead people to Jesus.
    Keep up the great work!!

    1. Great comment Al! With as important as it is for people to respond, the priority of the congregation inviting is huge! Plus, when people are equipped to do the follow up personally on an individual basis, (with the person they brought), that’s an ideal model.

  5. I heard an invitation at the end of every sermon and they always seemed to ruin the sermon. Going to talk to someone during the Eucharist or a song is better than waiting on someone to go up the aisle. Then again, I saw it abused by people who wanted hugs and then the fake tears from people who went up to support the respondent.

    1. Mark, you are right that altar calls and invitations can be done ineffectively or even misused, that’s why we’re all working so hard to do them well and asking God to help us. Thanks for your comments!

      1. The anglicans don’t have a vocalized one which keeps the sermon the sermon from ending on a begging note. In the bulletin it says that you can go to the chapel if you want to talk to a lay person or priest.

  6. Dan, my parent’s pastored 60 years and my mother responded to my dad when he asked her what she thought of his message that morning. She responded by asking, which part, the monologue, the message or the meddling?’ I have been in full time ministry for over 40 years myself and I think mom saw something very relevant. Thought you might like the story and on a personal note, I am blessed by your ministry and my files are filled with insight from the Pastor’s Coach.

    1. Over 100 years of ministry between you and your dad, that is awesome!! I’m so glad you have found the Pastor’s coach helpful, and I love your “monologue, message or meddling” story!!! Thanks Marcus!

    1. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the father but by me.” Be careful where you place your trust.

  7. At age twenty I would come to salvation. For weeks the pastor had been preaching the gospel message, and he knew I was lost and so did I, and though I wanted I was ashamed to acknowledge Jesus Christ. Finally this one evening I stepped forth and walked the isle and accepted him as my Lord and savior, and that night I literally felt his wondrous peace come upon me.

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