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April 23, 2011


Thanks, TIM!
I've struggled with this since I went to Junior High church camp in Oregon. I really felt manipulated by the speaker and eventually, I rebelled against the demand for "all heads bowed, all eyes closed" and I watched the speaker as he often exaggerated his acknowledgment of respondents.

More valuable to me, then, and even this day, is the leader who challenges and instills (as you describe)a more permanent and realistic idea of Who Jesus is, and who we are called to be as His followers.

I hope more camp speakers and worship leaders follow your example.

Thank you, again!

It's not easy to say this in an evangelical culture, but it is important. I have thought about this very thing for so many years. I'm not sure an altar call is right for any age group, but, as you so aptly stated, especially not for teens.

I'm glad you get to do a camp this year, though!

Wow. So very well articulated. I've never felt at ease with Altar Calls. Now I don't feel like such a bad person for second guessing them. This kind of goes along with some of the things I've been reading about teaching.

this sounds like the pinnacle of many a lecture :)

I recently heard a message by a pastor that suggested that evangelizing with a tract is like giving them half of the Gospel. I also say that they, as well as altar calls, usually forget to mention the full John 10:10 life that God has for us after we pray "the prayer". I feel that the Church will soon start (if it hasn't already) to change the way we do and market evangelism. we need to share the whole story!

I have a hard time seeing flocks and flocks of students raise their hand or go up to the stage whenever an altar call is given. not that I'm saying that it's not a genuine valid choice or anything, but its exactly what you said, it's the desire to please. in the back of my head I hear my mom, "If everyone were to jump off a bridge, would you?!"

Good observations, all. I'd add that the "altar call" might be an over-amplification of the prescription of believing with your heart and confessing with your mouth, confessing before people, etc.

How many times has our very natural and fallen psychological process of social influence been mistakenly called "the Spirit's urging"? Granted, the Holy Spirit could use this "vessel", but why take the risk of something else using it?

Tim, I took a 3 day symposium at Fuller Youth Institute. The symposium was about Sticky Faith. Chap Clark was one of the speakers

Thanks for the comments, everyone. Just to clarify, I'm not giving up on a call to commitment. I just think the method needs to be thought through biblically. There are MANY ways that people initiated a commitment to Christ in the New Testament, but the altar call simply isn't there. In fact, it's less than a couple of hundred years old and is entirely American. The revivalist would visit the town schoolhouse holding church meetings at which he would call the drunkards forward to repent.

The young adolescent mind simply has not developed to a place where he or she can process such abstract thinking, thus, the gospel must be presented in concrete concepts such as friendship, relationship, rescue, and safety, all in the context of following Christ. For a horrible abuse of the the altar call as a means of indoctrination and brainwashing see Jesus Camp: http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi2947481881.

My goal is to get kids talking to God about whatever it is that the Spirit is prompting them to consider. I want them to move closer to God of their own volition, not by my persuasion. But I'll always be around to point them in the right direction! I love doing that. I plan on calling them to a time of prayer and pushing them back to their youth pastors and counselors for quality time and conversation.

Hmmm, I recall many an altar call during my time with TMI. I concur with your postion 100%. I wonder if our TMI background might have had any bearing on your thoughts?

Great thought, Jeff. I hadn't actually been thinking in that direction, but I'll bet there is something from that era that has influenced how I view altar calls. There was quite a bit of pressure to respond during those tent meetings. Thanks.

Tim, you make a good point about altar calls that can be manipulative, especially those that present the gospel as little more than saying a prayer to be sure one gets into heaven when they die. I know I’ve experienced some of those, but many others that are more like what I describe below. And I think you are generalizing a bit and selling kids short about how ready they are to understand the issues of faith and the benefits of following Jesus. Many that I know are much more ready than you seems to give them credit for.

I think there are plenty of biblical examples of people who made a decision to follow Jesus with very limited understanding, the real meaning of following Jesus unfolding as time went on . . . Jesus’ own disciples for example. So in my mind there is plenty of support for calling people to make a decision. Jesus did that when he stood on a beach and said, “follow me and I’ll make you fisher’s of men.” One could say that was manipulative, as these guys had absolutely no idea what they were in for at the time they dropped their nets. Nevertheless, Jesus called the question, rather than just hanging out with them and hoping that they might someday “get it” enough actually give up their lives for the sake of the gospel. Their salvation was indeed a process as you describe Tim. But Jesus knew what was ahead for them, and He also knew that remembering back to the day they made “life crossroad decision” would be necessary when they faced choice after choice. This doesn’t diminish the importance of His 3 years of “hanging out” with them in order to help them understand the decision he had earlier called them to make.

I think our fear of manipulating could have the potential immobilize us, keep us from ever calling the question, and that can lead to Christians who are never “all out” – in a Romans 12:1 sort of way – because they never decided to follow Jesus.

Tim, I agree with your points about the danger of manipulation and false conversions. As someone who has called people to a relationship to Christ in walking neighborhoods in Mexico, with children using altar calls at church or as a counselor at Spirit West Coast, it is often troubling to me that those responding positively are not truly being converted. I am guilty personally of pride in "winning" people to the Lord in numbers and this has lead to use an altar call approach at times.

However, I do think Wendi is right and one needs to be careful. While I am not a student of church history, it seems clear that Peter's sermon in Acts 2 concludes with what looks quite like a contemporary altar call. 3,000 people responded to his call and were "added to their number that day." Paul's various forays into foreign communities also suggest this was the case for him as well.

For me the entire "manipulation" issue warrants careful attention in any context. A good argument could be made that the camp environment itself, highlighted by a caring relationship with a youth counselor, is in and of itself, manipulative. Any use of persuasion with emotion in presenting the gospel could be deemed manipulative. For me this calls for a very strong dose of apologetics as part of a gospel presentation.

The other concern for me is that I am not so sure that every camper relates well to their own counselor or that all counselors are adequately equipped in regards to evangelism. The important thing is that the campers are introduced to the gospel, that they see it work in commmunity at camp and have a chance to respond. And far more critical, is what happens in the community back home.

From a historically Anabaptist perspective, discipleship to Jesus involves making an adult decision, having counted the cost, to exchange one's earthly kingdom alliances for citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. Such an exchange is signified by public confession of faith, water baptism, and faith-community affiliation. Unless we are prepared to baptize campers and confer church membership upon them as part of their altar call experiences, those of us with Anabaptist roots (and others) are denying our own faith tradition (not to put too fine a point on it ;).

While I am not opposed, in notion or practice, to "come to Jesus" moments, I'm with you Tim on the typically hype-oriented altar call, especially for emotionally vulnerable youth. I suspect that the practice tends to foster a thin understanding of discipleship and kingdom citizenship, as well as the impulsive experience driven church-shopping that plagues the U.S. church today.

We can do better.

I wish more camps would take your advice. I am a Catholic who recently sent my kids to a Salvation Army camp. Although our traditions and theology differs, younger children tend to be given primarily the basics we agree upon, and I usually have no problem with allowing our children participate in the youth programs of other Christian faith traditions.

However, I was unaware of the practice of altar calls at children’s summer camps, and was positively horrified to find that anyone would do this. I am generally puzzled by outreach to children beyond simple education if it doesn’t include and draw in the parents as well. What result is likely to come of it? I’ve even seen altar calls at event such as Easter egg hunts. Does it really mean anything at all if a five year old looking for candy says he accepts Jesus?

I think summer camp needs to be particularly singled out however, because of how particularly vulnerable a child is at this point in time. You have young children who have been separated from their parents for an entire week, many for the first times in their lives. By their nature, summer camps tend to keep kids too busy to even think (helps with homesickness), and many kids don’t sleep well due to unfamiliar surroundings, uncomfortable beds, noise, and excitement. So by the end of the week you have a child who is a little scared, lonely, sleep deprived, physically exhausted, excited, and primed to do things as a group. The camp has them participate in a very emotional service, and subject them to pressure, peer pressure if not more direct forms, to make a lifelong commitment with no input or council from their parents, and no one even to make sure they understand what it means. I know it is not the intent, but this sounds like an instruction manual for brainwashing, and what is gained by it? Is it a sincere commitment? Even if it is, are they likely to be able to keep it without parental support?

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Tim Neufeld

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