Billy Graham isn’t wrong (or why even church Christmas concerts should include altar calls)

December 18, 2014
Billy-Graham

Billy Graham isn’t wrong to emphasize the decision to accept Christ as Savior and Lord.

I have a Methodist clergy colleague and Facebook friend who tends to post things that make me feel both inspired and guilty—or maybe “convicted” is the right word. A post of his from this week was no exception. He said that while he enjoys seeing online photos from various church Christmas musicals, cantatas and programs—and he knows first-hand how much work goes into pulling these things off—he finds it perplexing that he rarely hears about conversions at these events. Is it because we’re not inviting people to respond to the good news of Christ’s incarnation?

Meanwhile, he said, Mt. Pisgah United Methodist Church in Johns Creek, Georgia, the largest United Methodist church in our North Georgia Conference, reported over 100 professions of faith during their recent Christmas program.

Over 100 professions of faith! During a Christmas music program!

I can’t comprehend that. I am, like most of my colleagues, one of those pastors who hasn’t offered an invitation to salvation at a Christmas program. Nor have I ever seen it done (at least since I was a child in a Baptist church).

Why? We are not betraying our Methodist heritage, or becoming more “Baptist” (if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that fear expressed by clergy colleagues, I could at least buy a grande latte at Starbucks), if we offer an altar call at the end of our services. Revivalism is more authentically a part of our Methodist tradition than the ecumenically-minded liturgical reforms that mainline churches implemented in the wake of Vatican II.

I say this as someone who is not anti-liturgical. I have a great love for our denomination’s Anglican roots. I love the Book of Common Prayer. I appreciate that our movement’s founders, John and Charles Wesley, were lifelong clergy in the Church of England.

But inasmuch as the Wesley brothers were high-church, they were high-church evangelicals. They rightly understood that merely being baptized and confirmed, and going through the motions of liturgy week in and week out, without a corresponding change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit, is meaningless.

All that to say, even we Methodists need to be converted! Indeed, we need to be saved! 

And, yes, we understand that salvation is a lifelong process of inward change that begins with God’s prevenient grace—by which we are able to repent, believe in Jesus, and be justified—and continues throughout our lives through the Spirit-initiated process of sanctification. We understand that God has given us means of grace, such as the Eucharist, holy scripture, prayer, and worship, through which God sanctifies us. We understand that we are not fully and finally saved until we arrive safely in heaven on the other side of death, the Second Coming, and resurrection.

And more controversially, unlike most of our fellow evangelicals, Methodists do stress the possibility of backsliding. Even after we’ve been converted, we believe, God grants us the terrifying freedom to turn away from Christ, such that we lose salvation.

I think I’ve faithfully represented—in a very brief sketch—our Wesleyan understanding of salvation. I affirm all the doctrines underlying this understanding.

So I understand that salvation is much more than a one-time decision made in response to a preacher’s invitation at the end of a church service. I understand that leading someone to pray the “sinner’s prayer” is, by itself—apart from genuine conversion, without the corresponding change of heart wrought by the Spirit—insufficient for salvation.

I get all that. But for all the outrageous slander directed against pastors like me who affirm praying a sinner’s prayer (bless your heart, mainline Protestants!), would somebody please tell me a better way for someone to get started down the path of salvation and lifelong discipleship? What would you have someone do when the Holy Spirit has led them to accept for themselves God’s gift of forgiveness and eternal life through Christ?

Everyone must ultimately decide for themselves whether they want this gift of salvation. Everyone must make a decision! That’s what the sinner’s prayer represents.

And this, in my mind, is the rationale for preachers like me inviting people to “accept Christ as Savior and Lord.” I have no problem with using this revivalistic language. Because it’s true—even if, in respectable corners of our dying mainline Protestant tradition, it’s unrespectable.

I couldn’t care less about respectability. We are facing a desperate need on the part of people to be saved. We Methodists have enabled them to avoid making a decision long enough. We’ve taught them—at least unintentionally—the damnable lie that simply going to church, getting baptized, going through confirmation, and being a “good person” is somehow enough.

I’ve been part of that problem, believe me!

Jesus said, “Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.”

We Methodists keep saying, “There are yet four months.” Then, when four months pass, we say there are four months more. And so on. The harvest, oddly enough, never arrives.

As you can tell, I’m convicted.

Our church’s Christmas music program is this Sunday evening. It just so happens that even before I read my clergy friend’s Facebook post, my music director and I had built into the service an altar call for people to receive God’s gift of salvation. There will be people who come to that service—I have no idea who they are—who haven’t yet made a life-changing, soul-saving decision to accept Christ. I’m going to invite them to do so.

Will they respond? I don’t know. But I’m praying with all my heart that they will. Will you join me in that prayer?

11 Responses to “Billy Graham isn’t wrong (or why even church Christmas concerts should include altar calls)”

  1. Josh Says:

    Yeah, I’m really praying about how I approach evangelism in the church. I spent some time in the SBC before making my way back home to the UMC and I have a strong distaste for altar call type evangelism because of what I saw in the SBC – emotionally charged pleas, emotionally-driven responses, preachers posting numbers of people who got “saved” but those “saved” people are nowhere to be found a few later after the “crusade,” new people who have made professions just plopped in the pew and not specifically told how they are to grow in Christ (no catechesis, no intentional discipleship), etc. etc., etc.
    I am looking at ways that I can be better at communicating to people that they need to cross a line and come to know Christ. But in writing this post, I once again felt disgust at some of the “evangelism” practices I have encountered. I don’t think I have as much a problem with some of these practices as long as their is a definite and clear process of discipleship in the church. I would think that in most growing churches there is some sort of plan like this (you would think).
    But again, I am wary. One of the reasons that the church in NA (the West in general) is in the shape it is – is because many of our churches have failed in the area of discipleship. We “ran” churches and showed off our numbers of “converts” instead of investing our lives in the discipleship of our children and newcomers. Real disciples make disciples. That is the philosophy that I base my ministry off of. Although, like I said, I would like to explore faithful methods of evangelism. I don’t want to NOT do something just because others have done it badly.

    • brentwhite Says:

      We Methodist preachers already post the number of people who have “professions of faith”—that’s just “saved” by another name. But I hear you… I hardly disagree with anything you say, except that I’m sure any appeal to receive Christ will be at least emotional, since it appeals to something at the core of our being. We don’t want it to be manipulative, obviously. Firm and clear, but not manipulative.

      But your last sentence above says it all: “just because others have done it badly…”

      • brentwhite Says:

        Besides, I came to faith in Christ through an altar call. 🙂 There are pros and cons to different approaches, but it’s not like confirmation by itself is working very well in most churches.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Also, I’m not really saying that altar calls, per se, are the answer so much as a deliberate focus on conversion. Even confirmation ought to focus on that. We must be converted; we must allow for a decision, whatever method we choose to facilitate that.

  2. Josh Says:

    Oh, I’m not disagreeing with anything you’re saying. I too am wrestling with how to better proclaim the gospel faithfully. I’ve just seen the dark side of so-called ‘evangelism’ and don’t want any part of that. Proclamations that are not followed with clear and concrete instructions on how to get from point A (lost, without Christ, alienated from God) to point B (faithful disciple, Spirit-filled, serving others, missional-type person) is what I want to avoid.
    And you’re correct – calls to respond to the gospel should be emotional . . . and passionate. But they should also be driven by a heartfelt desire to please God and do what exactly what he wants. And what he wants us for us is to make disciples (Matt. 28). Passionate evangelism should be followed by passionate discipleship (investing our time, life, and energy in others).
    Don’t misunderstand me, I’m right there with you in what you’re saying. I want to do better with evangelism too. I was just trying to add another aspect to what you were saying.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thanks, Josh! I understand. Let’s both pray about it. Recognizing that we have a problem really is the first step, right?

      • Josh Says:

        I have some electives left at Asbury so I am looking to take a class or two about evangelism. I’m a student pastor so I hopefully will be able to quickly integrate whatever I learn into real life ministry.

        Probably my best learning experiences and lessons about evangelism were learned while working for 8 years in a large factory. Living out your faith, sharing the gospel with real people, seeing different responses – both short term and long term – to the gospel, interceding for people and witnessing the Holy Spirit work in their lives – man, thank God he put me through the school of real life before I went back to college and seminary.

        I will say that one of the biggest problems that hinders our evangelism is the secretly held universalism among many of our pastors, teachers, and bishops. Even though the BOD states otherwise, many believe it and will plain out tell you that they do. I don’t see how there can be a lot of impetus to do evangelism if you don’t believe in the wrath to come. To make matters worse, there is also a lack of understanding about the work of the Holy Spirit (like many Protestants). When I was born again, the power of the Holy Spirit delivered me from drug addiction and other forms of bondages. And of course, he still is delivering me from the power of sin. If you don’t have a biblical theology of sin, flesh, and the Spirit then you are not going to understand why responding to the gospel and receiving the power to escape the bondage to sin is so important. People are already living in their own personal hells and the forgiveness of Christ and the power of the Spirit brings salvation in the here and now.

  3. Susan McBrayer Says:

    AMEN Pastor Brent!!! Know you are in my prayers and appreciate the convictions of your heart! I so hate it, but we will not be at the service Sunday night, it is our annual Christmas family get together with my family.

    May God continue to bless your ministry in the coming year at Hampton.

    Blessings! Susan Mc

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  4. Domini Says:

    Great post Brent. I am always moved by your passion and I agree it is an emotional experience and a time when we (the church) need to help the person use that emotion to make connections through discipleship, like your study of Romans. I’ve missed being there! blessings


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