Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Syncretism in the Evangelical Church: The Consumerism of the Altar Calland the Sinner's Prayer
Tony Robbins had the crowd on their feet for most of his 3 hour message, and had them reciting his mantras, and screaming in excitment. The sales pitch at the end of each speaker's message had the fervor of an evangelistic campaign. Except for George Foreman (who sold nothing), and James Smith (of the "no money down" fame) mention of God was nearly non-existant, and that was the only thing separating the experience from a high-powered evangelistic crusade.
I am a fan of the ministry of Charles Finney. Not as much for his theology (which was probably a precursor to today's Open Theism, and that's not terrible to me as it is for some of you), but because of his theories of revival, and his ability to identify the emotional, and mental mindset of his generation in respect to the Gospel response. He helped popularize the Altar Call. It was his way of separating the interested, the "convicted," and the repentant from the crowd. Between the revivalism of the 18th and 19th century, and the ministry of Charles Finney the Altar Call eventually became the staple of evangelicalism.
Today the Altar Call is the standard practice of much of evangelical Christianity. It is recommended by many preachers to be placed at the conclusion of every service. Some evangelical Christian leaders demand the Altar Call as the only appropriate ending to a worship gathering. For a ritual not clearly found in the Bible narrative, and as new to our faith as 170 years ago, I find it strange that it has become the standard practice, and a part of our evangelical dogma. So I wonder to what degree it shows how American Christianity has adopted the culture of our Capitalistic/Consumeristic society. Is this the syncretism of the American Church with our American Consumerism?
I am not opposed to the Altar Call. I am sure that there are people who identify with a sales pitch culture. Just a couple weeks ago I served 14,000 such people at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. They laughed, they screamed, they stood in line at the altar of American consumerism to purchase life-changing courses which would direct their future toward prosperity. There must be thousands more people who identify with a sales pitch ending to a church service, but I am not one.
If the phone rings, I answer, and I hear that tale-tell sign of a short delay of silence followed by background noise of many voices in a busy room I quickly hang up. I know a teIemarketer is calling. I do not want to be bothered with the sales pitch. Once stuck with the forceful telemarketer I feel rude hanging up on them.
How many people have felt the same tension during a long winded sermon, or standing in front of a monologuing Christian?
Altar Calls and Sinner's Prayers come with salesman-like terminology. We call it "closing the deal." Like the salesman attempting to make the moment of magic work, we tell people that the deal may not be available for much longer, "Today is the day of salvation," we say, "you could die in a car accident on the way home."
This style of evangelism has been called Decisional Regeneration by its opponents, with a hint of reference to the doctrine of Baptismal Regeneration. Dangers have been suggested such as confusing a profession of faith for saving faith, or the creation of a false sense of assurance. Yet these are not the issues I find alarming.
The Altar Call has evolved from the "mourner's bench" or kneeling log of the old Brush Arbor meetings, and has become a well honed sales pitch. The Boston Real Estate and Wealth Expo exemplified the Altar Call well, but the pitch was to sell classes, CDs, DVDs, and wealth building seminars. Could it be that our Jesus appears "for sale?"
With the McDonaldization of our culture have we adopted, and perfected the style of ministry which feeds our souls with quick service, and drive through spiritual satisfaction? Does the well-timed musical background behind the smooth compelling voice smack of hypnotic sales techniques used by ad agencies? Could it be that we have adopted a get-spiritual-quick scheme as the model of our religious experience in evangelicalism today? If so, we stand to lose the people who despise the sales pitch, and reject the pressure found in "closing the deal."
In 1972 the Academy Award for the Documentary of the Year went to "Marjoe." Marjoe Gortner's story was a cathartic confession of a life of huckster evangelistic crusades, which began when his parents forced him into the preaching business at the age of 4. Marjoe proves that preaching can be simply a sales job, and good people can be fooled by the show.
Some of the Witches and Neo-Pagans I know here in Salem feel that a pressure packed Altar Call, or a push to close the deal with a Sinner's Prayer is a form of malevolent magic. They feel pressured against their will. This certainly precludes their participation in typical evangelical Christian circles. Are we losing even larger numbers of people than we can imagine by adapting the culture of Consumer Capitalism into the ritual of the church?
There may have been 14,000 people at the Boston Convention Center who were excited at the rally for wealth, but there are undocumented millions who did not have the money, or the desire to attend the event. Evangelical Christianity modeled toward the consumer will continue to have relevance to people in our culture, but the number of people interested in it appears to be slowly dwindling. Could it be that our insistence to dogmatize what was once an evangelistic cultural adaptation will only marginalize Evangelical Christianity more than has already occurred.
I like Altar Calls, and perhaps to a lesser degree Sinner's Prayers - in their right place. The right place may not be in my church, and we may all need to ask ourselves whether it fits into the context of our own Christian experience.
That's what I think. How about you?
To leave a comment and join the dialogue go to the bottom of this post, and click on "comments"
For more reading on syncretism in the church follow the links below:
Sally's Journey on "Time out from Tinsel"
Matt Stone on Family Values
Steve Hayes with an interesting turn about on where we find syncretism!
Mike Crockett on Church and Culture: a double-edged sword
Carl Nystedt on Syncretism: Pros and Cons
Billy Calderwood - It's the Economy Stupid...
John Smulo's Blog
John Morehead's Musings
Mike's Musings - some positive experiences in the Mall