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The altar call

In the previous article we looked at the importance of preaching the Gospel.

Where there is sin there is need for a saviour. We preach on sin, because acknowledging our sin is the gateway to accepting Christ’s salvation.

As such I believe that we should preach the Gospel and provide an opportunity for children to respond to it. This is our duty and our privilege.

In some circles people frown against the altar call as it points to a kind of fast-faith culture with no real depth. Whilst I acknowledge this is a potential danger, seeing it as the first important step in a discipleship journey is a healthy part of nurturing faith in young disciples.

In the light of this I want to share some thoughts, safeguards and good practice on inviting children to respond to the Gospel message.

1. Avoid undue pressure

The preacher calls children to lift their hands if they want to accept Jesus. He waits and speaks again. He counts down from ten. He calls out those who start to respond and calls for more. Before long every child is responding. Indeed, it would be possible to preach in a way that every child gets saved every week. This is surely not our aim, regardless of you theology of salvation. While it may look good for the salvation statistics of the church, it does not mean any of these children are actually choosing to accept Christ. Instead they are wanting to please us. When the Holy Spirit convicts people there is no need for undue pressure or atmosphere, hearts simply respond.

When Billy Graham preached in England the newspapers wrote about him that the emotional music was forcing people to respond to the altar call. For the next few nights Billy Graham told the musicians not to play during the altar call. The only sound in the auditorium was of chairs flipping up as people moved forward to respond in even greated numbers. Before long the newspapers were crying out – bring back the music, we can’t stand the silence. When God moves hearts, hearts are moved and nothing more is required.

2. See it as a first step

The critics of an altar call speak of it as a lift your hand to be saved rather than submit your life to be saved moment. This criticism would be valid if we did not plan to do anything further after a child responds.

What follow up plans do you have in place? Whilst this is beyond the scope of this article, I would recommend having something to put into the hands of the children there and then, but also know how you will support the children in their first week as a Christian, in their first month and in their first year. Where does water baptism and Holy Spirit baptism fit into this programme? Perhaps we will return to this at a later date to discuss it – let me know if this would be helpful.

3. Which way are they facing?

Imagine that salvation is a line on the ground. Children to the left of the line are not saved, children to the right of the line are saved and walking closer to God who is on the far right of the room. We can put a lot of focus on whether an individual child has ‘crossed the line’. From an eternal perspective this is of course the most important thing to know, but as minsters in this moment of time I don’t believe this should be our focus. Indeed, making it our focus can result in some children feeling exclude and ostracized and could potentially lead to some very bizarre types of ministry.

Let me explain why in more detail. Let’s for arguments sake say that once you are saved you will always be saved. (This is not a discussion for this article but representing this view in our illustration will help to make the point I am trying to make). When someone crosses over the line from left to right a brick wall will then appear behind them so that there is no way back.

My concern is not so much have they crossed the line, but which way are they facing now. If a child has ‘crossed the line’ and is still continuing to walk towards God, this is good. If a child has ‘crossed the line’ but now has their face pressed up against the brick wall that appeared with their back to God I am very concerned for this child even though they are saved. Indeed, I am more concerned for them than I am for a child who slowly walking from left to right, towards God, but has not yet crossed the line I know that they just have to keep going and they will get there. This concern for where their heart is at today will lead us to encourage all children to keep seeking and walking towards God. Of course, for many children under our care, the direction they face will invariably change over the months and years, this is where discipleship relationships come in, to encourage them on their journey with God.

4. The repeat responder

Some children will respond every week to an invitation to accept Jesus, not because they have been pressured into it, but because they still want Him in their lives. In the language from our previous point, they are still facing towards God. As such I am not concerned if children continue to respond to the Gospel message. There is a place to discuss with them why they keep responding (you never know what is going on in a child’s head until you actually talk with them) and this conversation can be a great time to assure them that God hasn’t changed his mind about them. This is an opportunity to discuss their discipleship as a follower of Christ, thinking about ways they can grow closer to Him.

5. Avoid weird words (but do explain spiritual language)

If you gather the children around you and ask them if they have been washed in the blood of the lamb, remember children have a concrete understanding of words and abstract imagery can go right over their head. Children know what a lamb is, they know what blood is and they know what washing is. The thought of washing is traumatic enough to some children, but the idea of being washed in the blood of the lamb is postitively abhorrent.

‘Have you been licked by the Lion of Judah?’

‘Umm, no thank you!’

Yet, by this I do not mean we should avoid all spiritual words. Simply that words that are foreign to them will need explaining.

  • ‘Sin’ is not simply ‘doing bad things.’

  • ‘Repentance’ is not just ‘saying sorry.’

  • ‘Salvation’ is not the same as ‘accepting Jesus as your friend.’

Let’s not cheapen the Gospel because children do not yet have the richness of language to describe what is happening. Instead let’s enrich their language so that their faith and understanding can grow.

6. Don’t lead children to Christ

If you have been tracking with this article so far and the previous one in this series, this point may surprise you. Let me take this a step further by explaining my aim in ministry. As much as is possible, as I travel around, I aim to preach the Gospel, give children the opportunity to respond and then not pray with them to lead them to Christ.

The reason – parents are the primary disciplers of children. I do not want to steal this immense privilege from them. We have had parents tear up as they realise we have left this step to them to do. Parents who are not yet Christians appreciate that we honour them in this way and wait for them to be present before leading their children to commit to Christ. Beyond this parents will know if this is their child’s first or fifth time of responding and are intimately involved in their child’s life for the long term. There are occasions where this is not practical (in Ghana we saw 1000 children give their life to Christ at one time). At these times we just pull in the net and lead the children in prayer.

In Conclusion

Children need Christ and we should give them an opportunity to actively respond to Him and to keep responding to Him. We should work in partnership with parents as much as is possible and we should do this with wisdom, with faith and with confidence that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation of souls.


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