It is very much the case that theology drives our methods. I have been convinced for years now that the prevalence of altar call evangelism betrays the prevalence of arminian theology. Some of the most psychologically intense and prolonged altar calls that I have ever experienced were at a Freewill Baptist Church.
Jim Elliff pointed to this article yesterday on twitter and it is the perfect distillation of the problems inherent in the theology that started the altar call phenomenon a hundred and fifty years ago or so.
It is a provocative article beginning with the title “The Corrupt Root and Bitter Fruit of Altar Call Evangelism”. Give it a read and tell me what you think. Here is a tease:
Again, most proponents of the altar call would say that it is not absolutely essential for people to walk forward if they are to be saved. But actions speak much louder than words. In certain well-documented cases, some of the larger crusades have gone so far as to place counselors at various locations in the audience so that when the invitation is given, and when the counselors begin to walk forward from their various positions, others are more inclined to go forward themselves. It is easy to understand the psychological rationale behind this. The reluctant sinner sees the counselors going forward and presumes that they are ordinary people like himself who are availing themselves of the offer of Christ (which, of course, is what he has been intentionally led to believe the counselors are doing). He naturally thinks, “If all ofthem think this is a legitimate offer, and if they have the guts to go forward, I can do it too.” Now let’s be frank. If the gospel is truly thought to be a sufficient means of saving sinners by faith—if going forward like this is not thought to be an essential part of receiving Jesus—why would anyone resort to using such a ruse?
Many who would decry such a blatant use of psychological manipulation nevertheless place a similar emphasis on methodology themselves, at least in principle. The mood of their meetings is carefully orchestrated through the use of video, lighting, music, etc. so those in attendance will be emotionally primed to respond when the invitation is given. Traffic jams of responders in the isles are carefully avoided because statistics show that if people have to wait in line or stand too long while going forward, they are more likely to stay in their seats. And timing issues in the program are seen as critical because studies have also shown that if attendees get bored, or if too much time elapses between the message and the invitation, fewer will respond. None of these concerns result in overtly deceptive strategies. They do not startle the conscience as does the crusade strategy mentioned above. But the importance placed on addressing even these less-obvious methodological concerns proves that it is seen as tremendously important (one could almost say, essential) for people to get up and walk forward if they are to be saved.
He then goes on to talk about the historical root of altar call evangelism and the theology of the method’s founder. Give it all a close read.