Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Syncretism in the Evangelical Church: The Consumerism of the Altar Calland the Sinner's Prayer

altar call
Originally uploaded by jemica02.
A couple weeks ago a group of us from The Gathering served at a Wealth and Real Estate Expo in Boston. Donald Trump, Tony Robbins, George Foreman, Marshall Sylvar (the Millionaire Maker Hypnotist), and a number of other famous millionaire/billionaires were there to present their ideas, and sell their millionaire making programs. You could make millions on commercial or residential real estate, e-bay, stocks, tax liens, or government grants. Each millionaire maker would describe his product, present testimonials, give out a few secret techniques, promise more information, and finish with the push to buy their seminar, tape, or video program for the special seminar price of $1,999 - or more.

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


cindy said...

I agree with your assessment. I blogged about a recent encounter I had a day ago with a zealous old fart who wanted me to prove I was a christian....

Felt strange to be on the other side.

Steve Hayes said...

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

I think some techniques that were developed by evangelical Christians for propagating the good news of Jesus Christ have been adopted and adapted by the evangelists of Mammon. But they feed off each other, and what disturbs me is not so much the techniques themselves as the values and assumptions behind them.

An altar call at the end of an evangelistic meeting is not a bad thing. Having one at the end of every service is questionable. I've been to services at Pentecostal churches where only the faithful have been present, and yet the preacher has still issued an altar call, and people have still gone forward, as they did the week before and the week before that. This seems to be laying again the foundation.

In the Orthodox Church the problem is somewhat different. It's more like a ladder with the bottom four rungs missing. We are not good at helping beginners. But I'm not sure that climbing the first four rungs and going back to start again every week, as happens at the weekly altar call, is spiritually healthy either. Perhaps that's what makes the Orthodox Church seem attractive to some Pentecostals.

But that is more a kind of ghetto culture than syncretism. In spite of what Marshall McLuhan said about the medium and the message, I think the real danger of syncretism kicks in when people start believing that greed is not just OK, but laudable, and that anyone who doubts its value is not merely antisocial, but unpatriotic.

Pastor Phil said...

Cindy, read your story. This is an experience so many of us struggle with - a serious disconnect from those who should be our brethren. And I suppose our answer to that struggle is found in your observation - better kind than right. Thanks.

Steve, Good post.

The altar call developed initially in the brush arbor and revivalist meetings of westward moving pioneering America.

I am not sure I would categorize this as a chicken or egg question myself. These things developed together. The culture of the pioneers was rugged Christian based, individualist capitalism, and the evangelism adapted to that rugged individualism with a Hell Fire personal response style call to repentance. The survival of the salesman developed in tandem with the ministry of the circuit rider. This began as a wonderful cultural adaptation of the Gospel which had great impact on early America.

As this was occuring the sleazier side of the culture created stereotypes which also grew in tandem: The snake oil salesman, and the huckster evangelist. Today the stereotypes have only slightly changed, and we speak of the used car salesman, and the T.V. evangelist with the same disdain.

The rugged individualism of America has changed. Yet in many evangelical circles the methods of evangelism have not. They have become cemented into the theology of the churches, and are now part of the warp and woof of the fabric of Pentecostalism, and other revivalist Christianity.

I might see it as 'ghetto culture' (which term itself I am uncomfortable with as it is based in a capitalistic evaluation of poverty class as less valuable than richer folk), but it is just part of the culture if the there is a felt need to respond to the altar call every week. Once there is a demanded use of the altar call by the clergy, and an understanding by the congregants that this is what true Christianity is, it seems that old fashioned rugged individualistic capitalism has seamlessly merged into the church, and we have syncretism.

I wholly agree as noted in the article that I believe the altar call is not bad, and it is not good. It is a style of ministry which still has benefits to many today. I am not one of those many, and I think the many are dwindling in number. I am not sure that enough of the evangelical church will adapt to this change. The degree of syncretism will be seen when those who should adapt can not.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this Phil, as an evangelist I was taught to use the altar callas a tool- but more and more I step away from it- more often if I am preaching I'll invite people into a dialogue- too often we cheapen the steps folk are making and the hard sell of an altar call may fool some and put off others...
t is simply a tool perhaps the key is to consider very carefully where and when it is appropriate to use it!!!

Pastor Phil said...

Sally - yes! yes! Inviting into dialogue to avoid cheapening the steps. Right on!

Unknown said...

Altar calls can be a waste of time if there aren't any unbelievers there that week.

Why not end every service with 5 minutes of training on how to take what you learned today and share it with a non-believer?

Or, why not end every service with 5 minutes of training how to share the truth of the gospel message?

That might actually result in more people coming to know Jesus personally than a prolonged invitation.

Pastor Phil said...

It is potentially possible for altar calls to be worse than a waste of time if you live in an area which adversely responds to a sales pitch approach to religious conversion.

Prolonging an altar call in a room full of believers is silly enough in itself. Using an altar call as a means to reach people who have felt that Christianity was filled with religious hucksters is worse than silly, it is potentially counter productive to the kingdom - not always mind you, but potentially.

At least that has been my experience and my opinion. ;-)

Thanks for popping in Dave, I love the idea of being a missionary to the US. We all should be who live here.

Unknown said...

the final altar was verticle and made of wood... and trickled down its icy trunk was the precious blood of Christ... never to be brought back up and in again into that body of his. Somewhere in the Universe walks a man with no blood in his veins. An embodied God who lives by another set of rules.

blood for all blood... as the writer of Hebrews put it to a generation of priests turning to Christ, "in your struggle against sin you have not suffered to the point of shedding your own blood."

There is a certain amount of corporate guilt Western Christianity bears when it comes to Capatalistic Democratic Ecclesiology. The democratic business model at every level of church government and function. Getting people to cross all kinds of lines. card carriers. donors. decision makers. volunteers. How deep does this rabbit hole go? Kansas went bye-bye a long long time ago!

Augustine saw all this coming (so he took 16 years to write City of God... in his limited neo-platonic fashion) and wrote about the end of Rome.

We are still mopping up after Roman Law and Institutions and the philosophical world-view of Athens which both had more to do with the formation of the Western Hemisphere than anything written in the Jewish Scripures - save the 10 commandments, which have been forced into a Greek ethical construct... making the 10 words more about do's and dont's (lines to cross and not cross) more so than about character and relationship. God wanted us to be like him, not act in line. Not do's and dont's; sinners prayers and decisions made; but rather, "This is what I am like as God. Be like me." So much more personal...

And about your former post on spiritual warfare (a post I couldn't comment on no matter how many times I tried):

Form and substance... Genesis model of creation. Created form filled with life. Our fight is down and out into all these gutters / high places... for the sake of many, for the sake of those who are becoming the people of God in that space/form/empty dark corner.

I've never gone hunting for spirits... but they have found me. And when they find me while I am doing my lowly work, no matter how big they are, I invoke Psalm 91... and hide myself in Shaddai's shadow. Hidden from view. Because the King of Kings has majesty and dominion above all that is seen and unseen.

The more we take the land, the more fruit there is, and the more giants there are...

Caleb walked in a different spirit.

I'd be careful speaking or writing out words. Measure everything you say or write. Your words and mine are just as eternal as God's... They create as His create. They can also kill and deform. You can't mix two wines.

bottom line: stubborn manipulation = witchcraft. The real problems start when we start deceiving ourselves.

Steve Hayes said...

Phil sais: I might see it as 'ghetto culture' (which term itself I am uncomfortable with as it is based in a capitalistic evaluation of poverty class as less valuable than richer folk), but it is just part of the culture if the there is a felt need to respond to the altar call every week.

The idea of "ghetto" being based on a capitalistic evaluation of a poverty class is new to me. I'd always thought of it as a religious or cultural group isolated from its neighbours, originally applied to Jews in Christian Europe, but in the sense I was using it, Christians building flood barriers against a secular sea.

I take your point about them growing up together, but in my experience altar-calls are often part of the Christian "in-group" experience, even when it is intended to be outreach.

Pastor Phil said...


Interesting and Creative post.

First - let me ask the technical question to anyone reading this. What happens when you can't comment? Word Verification problem? or something else? This has happened a few times today.

I can't comment on the "line crossing" without specific examples. I tend to believe that in many cases line crossing occurs in the heart. Is it a sin to take a twenty minute offering? Impractical and weird yes, but it becomes a sin only when greed, or perhaps fear is the motivation.

As far as your point about our words being eternal and creative. That is something I disagree on. Lamantations 3 asks, "Who is he who speaks and it comes to pass, When the Lord has not commanded it?" The words of God are uniquely creative, and eternal, and many of our words are "vain." Vain as in empty or useless.

I'm not sure how the reference to stubborn manipulation fits in. Are you saying that altar calls are stubborn manipulation? I'm not sure I would want to make that judgment about a person. Or is this a reference to spiritual warfare?

Pastor Phil said...


You are correct in its classic, and proper usage. I should have read your intellectual depth into your use of the word.

The regular use of "ghetto" in the US often refers to poor, shabby, or broken. The term is derogatory when used about people often.

The Christian "in group" experience was birthed out of evangelism in every opportunity being the mode of church life. I am not sure what the evolution of the altar call was which brought it to a common Christian repentance/seek God weekly event. I would not be surprised to find that this was birthed out out of hyper-Armenianism, or the early Pentecostal "tarry for the Lord" movement.

In hyper-Armenianism people are getting saved every week potentially. In tarrying we have a different dynamic which brings people to seek God for any number of possible needs, and may not be evangelistically directed, but this is far less common than a salvation altar (as far as being a wide spread practice.)

The "seek God for your needs" altar call is blessing to many people, and they treat it as a way to end the service on a high note of devotion. This is another topic, and perhaps an interesting one at that.

Jenelle said...

Interesting end to these comments, because the "seek God for your needs" altar call is one that I've been missing the most. In my house church community it happened naturally around the dinner table and fireplace, but now that I'm in a different geographic location I'm trying to learn how to foster community in a larger building. I spent some time at IHOP in Kansas City, and was really blessed by their (many and often) tarry-for-the-Lord altar calls. It was like water on my dry ground.

On another note, you said:
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.
And I thought, "yes." I think Rick Joyner taught me in one of his wild books that manipulation is simply a form of (seemingly white) witchcraft.

Pastor Phil said...


Thanks for popping in. You've caught me at my most challenging moment - that is challenging the conventions of my own faith.

Quite a journey toward authenticity (or whatever catch word of the moment fits) it is.

Steve Hayes said...


"ghetto" --American usage must be different from ours. Here in South Africa the defining element is not poverty but isolation. I once lived in a suburb (US English = neighborhood) that I described as a middle-class suburban ghetto - it was bounded by the sea on the was, a river on the south, a ridge on the west, and on the north shaded into richer communities. Beyond the ridge and the river were the "downmarket" areas.

Ghettoes closer to the original sense are becoming more common - gated communities for the well-off, the rich and the very rich. Like the original ghettoes they are walled around, with only one entrance. The difference is that the inhabitants choose to live there, rather than being forced to do so by surrounding society.

Concerning altar calls: In many churches I've seen variations, where, realising that there are few or no people present who are about top make a first-time commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, invite people to come up for prayer and laying on of hands for any needs, such as healing. This could include commitment or recommitment to Christ. Is this the "seek God for your needs" thing you refer to?

Pastor Phil said...


The altar calls you describe here may actually be the kind which I find most ridiculous. When there are no unbelieving, we stilll maintain the altar call, and the same people come forward for recommittment week after week. Some will actually come forward for salvation repeatedly. Pastors continue to make these altar calls because it is expected of them, or because they do not have another model by which to encourage people into deeper life in Christ.

This is a bit different than some other altar calls which offer a time to seek God more deeply, or to receive prayer for specific needs. The difference may appear minimal, but I believe that the ramifications could be significant.

One is a get spiritual quick pitch, and the other is part of our ongoing walk with Christ.

Unknown said...

Sorry, been a while since I checked in here.... you've been busy posting since then and I havn't caught up!

Back to this word thing.

I think it was Byron who said something about words being things, and a small drop of ink falling like dew upon a thought and producing that which makes thousands, even millions, think.

We all craft words of eternal life "or" death... Bruce Waltke taught me that in the Proverbs. That all our words are eternal.

We will give account for every last one of them.

Matt 12:33

"Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. 34You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. 35The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 36But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. 37For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned."

Pastor Phil said...

Hey Kirk,

Sorry it took so long to get back to this.

I see words as things in a similar manner that I see time as a thing. I am a believer in simple or A-time. Meaning that I believe that the past and the future are not things, only the present exists. The past, once gone is over, and is only in the memory. The future does not yet exist. When the present passes it ceases to be.

Words are things as long as we hear them, or read them, or think them. Once gone they may have effect only if we continue to be affected by thinking them, and responding to those thoughts. Then they are spoken words again - even if only spoken in thought.

Forgotten they are not things at all. I do not believe that they are hanging in eternity as literal things.

They will be rehearsed by God in judgment, and become things once again for that moment of justice.

I bellieve tht only God's Word somehow transcends that limited (but significant) power of words, and He does so by literally creating other things by His words.

At least that's my limited concept of words.

Unknown said...

I think my problem with the altar call is this: What is it's purpose? Is it to make converts? If so, then I have to ask: "Can a Christian really be made in a night?"

Last time I checked, we were called to "Go ye therefore into all the world and make DICIPLES of all nations." I didn't see anything about making converts. In my opinion, you don't become a Christian when you kneel down at an altar. You become a Christian when you get up from that altar and start doing your best to act like Christ.

Typically, evangelical preachers teach that becoming a Christian is as easy as ABC, Admit you are a sinner, Believe in Jesus Christ and Confess he is lord. But is it really that simple? Should we not live a changed life as well? Perhaps that is part of believing. But my point is this: Being a Christian is about living a life that has been Changed and Restored by Christ. This is not something that can be confined to an altar call.

Maybe we should be making Discipleship calls, not Altar calls.

Dennis Huxley said...

This blog post nearly moves me to tears. I'm starving for reality within the Body of Christ, and have to numb that intense desire in order not to be distressed all the time at how real life in Christ is so blatantly misrepresented. The Taoist, Chuang tzu, had this to say: "Whatsoever is not said in all sincerety, is wrongly said. And not to be able rid oneself of this vice is only to sink deeper toward perdition. Those who do evil in the open light of day--men will punish them. Those who do evil in secret--God will punish them. Who fears both man and God, he is fit to walk alone. Those who are devoted to the internal, in practice aquire no reputation. Those who are devoted to the external strive for preeminence among their fellows. Practice without reputation throws a halo around the meanest. But he who strives for preeminence among his fellows, he is as a huckster whose weariness all perceive though he himself puts on an air of gaiety".
Why do I think this is relevent? Because the altar call model coexists (I know not which, if any, is the chicken and which is the egg)with the desire to keep score, and relegates the need for true, loving relationship to a second so distant it's irrelevant, and within that model, there is no communion (or community). And where there's no communion (community), it is not possible to be the body of Christ (Please re-read I Cor. 11 :17&c. in the ASV in the light of community as opposed to traditional communion). I recently did street ministry with some folks, the goal being to simply care about people-nothing more. One of the teams reported getting "no professions of faith". They missed the point.
I've had this terrifying feeling for years that, at least in the area in which I live, and in many others, I'm sure, that the Body of Christ DOES NOT EXIST. And where it does exist, it does so in pockets. I am seeing this change, but the old, huckster mentality still infiltrates. I may be overstating things. And I know God is not wringing His hands over it. But I admit to being distressed over it.
I know this is long, but I'm full of words: You wondered, Phil, about how the modern worship music portion of the service contributes to this mentality, and this topic has been on my mind, and has recently become an issue in the church I've been attending. Having been a worship leader for most of the time I've been going to church, I think I know something about that form of worship. But for the last few years, I have been confused and uneasy about the worship services I've observed most of the time. I stopped being a worship leader because of this ominous feeling that I was only contributing to the things I cannot accept. Worship has, in many churches, become a ritual, a formula, a method, much like the altar call, and the intolerably nauseating monologue called the sermon.
None of these things have I ever witnessed at the Gathering. Makes it hard to not quit my job and move there, but God says no. Or maybe He's just saying not yet.
Thanks for the opportunity to vent.