Revivals and Altar-calls
In the "Alive-85" campaign featuring Rev. John Guest, sponsored by local churches including many of our own, those churches found themselves participants in the kind of "revival" project that has characterized much of Christianity in America since colonial days. Although such revivals have long been accepted by many churches, they come as a relative novelty to many of ours. Since the campaign some of our churches are said to be introducing "altar-calls," the appeals for immediate, public response, into their services. (Another series of such meetings at Calvin College this week may further encourage this trend.) Since such meetings raise some important questions, this appears to be an appropriate time to give attention to them.
Forty-seven years ago, when my wife and I were introduced to pastoral life in the south-eastern corner of Texas, we were surrounded by churches that often relied for growth and sometimes even for staying alive on such annual special meetings. In an October 25, 1940 Banner article about these "revivals" I observed that, while "older and more conservatively-bent minds" among us would dismiss such practices as un-Reformed, others were attracted by the warmth, enthusiasm and emotionalism of such meetings or argued practically, "If other churches can grow by these methods ... why should we not copy them?" We see the same diverse reactions today. How should we evaluate these "revivals" and their characteristic "altar-calls?"
- We ought to welcome the growing concern about an evangelistic outreach into our church communities.
- Although some have criticized appeals to come to Christ as inherently "Arminian" and "un-Reformed," God's Word does not support such a sweeping criticism. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church (2 Corinthians 5:19f.) "God ... has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ's behalf, be reconciled to God." And in Athens he announced to the pagan philosophers, that "God ... now commands all men everywhere to repent." Acts 17:30
Thus he echoed our Lord's own "Come unto me."
- Paul wrote to the Philippian church that although some preached Christ faultily, "from envy and strife, in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; in this I rejoice ... and will rejoice" (Philippians 1:18). Therefore it appears that we ought to appreciate efforts to bring the gospel in our communities, even though some of the methods used may be open to criticism.
Does this mean that we ought to join in sponsoring and working in such mass revival programs? It does not. We ought to consider more carefully than many do what is involved in our taking over these methods.
Conversions: Psychological or Spiritual?
Almost 30 years ago in 1957 Dr. William Sargant, a well-known British practicing psychiatrist, published a book, Battle for the Mind, with the sub-title "A physiology of conversion and brainwashing."
Although he paid respect to his Methodist "religious upbringing," his preface stated that his concern was "not with the immortal soul, which is the province of the theologian, nor even with the mind ... which is the province of the philosopher, but with the brain and nervous system, which man shares with the dog and other animals."
Relying rather heavily on Pavlov and his experiments with dogs, he attempted to explain the mechanism of conversion. He said that he chose "Wesley for special study in the technique of religious conversion," "even if the hell-fire doctrine he preached may seem outmoded" and that he would discuss "only those physical or psychological stimuli, rather than intellectual arguments, which seem to help to produce conversion by causing alterations in the subject's brain function."
Because he considered this influential book "extremely dangerous," the famous London evangelical pastor, Dr. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones responded to it in a 1959 booklet issued by Intervarsity, entitled, Conversions: Psychological and Spiritual. In direct opposition to Sargant who tried to explain conversions by his mechanistic psychology, Lloyd-Jones showed how radically different real conversions, worked by God's Word and Spirit, were from the crude psychological manipulation Sargant made them out to be. Sargant had alluded to the American evangelist, Charles Finney who had tried to reduce revivals to a system of techniques for producing them, but Lloyd-Jones showed how wrong Finney, too, had been. Finney "(after his period as an evangelist and when he had become a professor of Theology)" had to admit, "The converts of my revivals are a disgrace to Christianity...," suggesting that "the tremendous pressure which this evangelist's methods brought to bear upon the will and emotions, produced only temporary results."
Dr. Lloyd-Jones goes on to warn that we by our use of faulty, unscriptural methods must not encourage the kind of merely psychological "conversions" Sargant highlighted. He cites the Apostle Paul's insistence that the methods of bringing the gospel must conform to the message of the gospel (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). "We are to 'beseech,' but we are never to browbeat." Our emphasis and dependence must be on God's Word and Spirit not on psychological and sales techniques.
A little familiarity with the methods and products of revivals underscores Lloyd-Jones' criticism. I recall how one evening our friend, a pastor in whose church a meeting was being held, during the appeal shouldered three young men, one by one, marching them to the front. A fourth refused to go. What most impressed us as observers was that the man who did not go forward was the only one who had been awake during the sermon! And I recall the navy officer who told of having gone forward in such an evangelistic service. When returning home, he asked his mother what he should do next, she suggested that if he decided he meant what he had done, he should join that church; if he decided that he didn't, he should never go there again – and he never did!
Such methods, however well-intended, may hinder rather than help the work of the gospel. The revival system has tended to be an inadequate, quick substitute for the faithful, thorough covenant training of the children of the church in the Christian faith, which God's word commands. By filling church rolls and sometimes (for a little while) churches with unconverted, these methods have tended to break down rather than build up the morale and testimony of the churches, and they have tended to eliminate what there may be of the biblical practice of discipline.
Doing the Lord's Work in the Lord's Way
To my mind, the most convincing objection to the typical "altar-call" is the radical difference we noted long ago between it and our Lord's own teaching and example in Luke 14:25-35. The Lord had just said in the preceding parable, "compel them to come in" (v. 23) and with the "great multitudes" (v. 25) following him – an evangelist's dream – we would expect that this would be the opportune time for a most fervent appeal for converts. Amazingly, he takes this occasion to emphasize what conversion means – that to follow him we must "hate" father, mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even our own lives, and "bear a cross" – What is He trying to do? Scare people away? Note the explanations: Before building a tower one must consider its cost, rather than give up after laying a mere foundation. In beginning a war one must have the resources to fight rather than promptly make peace with the enemy. Isn't the trouble with the hasty revival-converts that most soon disappear, or make peace with the enemy? The Lord is certainly concerned about converts, but they have to be real. "Salt" that has no taste is good for nothing. We will never go far with new evangelistic techniques if we do not take the trouble to teach people – or even to find out what conversion means.
While we were still in seminary a well-known local evangelical minister told the student body of how he almost had a man talked into being saved when the devil made someone ring his doorbell and his prospect got away. Although we must try to "persuade men" (2 Corinthians 5:11) with the gospel, one who acknowledges with the apostle that only God changes hearts (1 Corinthians 3:6, 7; Acts 16:14) will have a different approach from one who assumes that he must in Arminian-style "talk people into being saved." Let's pray and do all that we can to spread the gospel, conscientiously trying to do the Lord's assigned work in the Lord's way. We can't improve on that.