This is part of an ongoing series of articles that dives into the comparison of the church as a religious machine or a living organism.
The gospel presentation is one of the staples of the modern American Evangelical Church. The old-school process was called an altar call and the pastor would invite people to come forward to accept Jesus at an altar in front of the pulpit. While this practice is still prevalent in some more Pentecostal and Fundamental movements, it’s largely been replaced with a time of quiet and focused congregational prayer. It looks similar across many denominational environments as the pastor will end their message with some intentional opportunity for people to respond by accepting Jesus.
One of the things I find fascinating about this process is that it is usually more focused on the simple steps to accept Jesus than what Jesus did to make a relationship with Him possible. What is commonly called a gospel call or gospel presentation is really a misnomer. It’s actually more a salvation opportunity than a gospel presentation, but I digress.
It’s typically done under the cover of prayer, with the common prompting of something like “every eye closed and head bowed” so that no one is looking around. During this time an opportunity to accept salvation will be presented and people will usually be asked to raise their hands in a response of acceptance. People respond, the pastor acknowledges them, then prays for them, and then the congregation claps in celebration after the final Amen. Depending on the flare of the individual congregation, it may be a weekly occurrence, once a month, or at the end of each sermon series culminating in this intentionally developed poignant moment.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the years as a “salvation spotter”. That is the staff member who watches for hands to be raised during prayer time at the end of a gospel presentation. I kept my eyes open while the rest of the congregation is prompted to have their eyes closed and their heads bowed in a time of reflection. I used to love this part of my job. It was really cool to see hands go up across the auditorium in response to people hearing a simple presentation of the steps to accepting Jesus. The first few times I did it, I was moved to tears seeing the response. However, over time some parts of this practice began to create some significant tensions within me.
In a few of my staff roles I regularly counted these raised hands in the same areas of the auditorium and noticed quickly that there were many repeat repenters – people that would raise their hands every time the opportunity was presented. I’ve been told that they should be part of the “official count” still because even if it was misplaced, it was a sign of God doing something in that individual’s life to prompt them towards salvation. Even if that’s the best pragmatic response, I couldn’t help but have lingering questions… What was happening within them to create a sense of ongoing guilt or shame in these people’s lives? Were their last responses not genuine? Either their responses were temporary and largely motivated by personal guilt or they had not fully grasped the breadth and depth of the forgiveness available to them in Jesus. Regardless, there was a breakdown in the process of effectively leading people to become followers of Jesus in this system of response to the concept of salvation.
Over the years I have witnessed some huge responses to the presentation of the Gospel – literally hundreds of people raising their hands to indicate their decision to accept Jesus in a single weekend.
One of the biggest challenges of this model of response is that it’s very difficult to identify and follow up with people that have raised their hands. Because it’s a response done in the secrecy of prayer, many individuals won’t acknowledge their actions past the moment of prayer. I’m not sure if it’s buyers’ remorse or just an intensely personal response for some, but I’ve personally experienced this occurrence.
An individual that I knew was not a believer had been attending church for quite a while but never showed any movement towards faith. Their family, friends, and even some staff members had been actively praying for this person. During a time of gospel response, I clearly saw this person raise their hand. Not an accidental arm shift or inerrant head scratch, no it was a hand straight up in the air. I approached them afterward and gave them a hug telling them congratulations! I was so excited for them! When I pulled away from the hug, they looked at me like I had two heads and said they didn’t know what I was talking about. Talk about an awkward moment for a pastor. I not only directly identified a congregant as a nonbeliever but also mistakenly identified them as a new convert. They don’t teach you recovery skills for gaffs like that in seminary.
How do you begin discipling an anonymously raised hand in a moment of congregational prayer? Beyond the accounting of numbers and metrics of responses, it creates significant challenges to actually helping these individuals as baby Christians take intentional steps forward in growth. This could literally be the biggest decision and turning point of their life and yet they’re left to largely navigate it on their own.
Hopefully, they learn to pray. Hopefully, they get baptized. Hopefully, they get a bible in their hands if they don’t already have one. Hopefully, they grow up in their faith, but unless they willingly somehow self identify, there is little opportunity for faith development or personal discipleship.
I have now painfully uncomfortable memories of conversations I observed behind the scenes in with preachers about the tricks of the trade for gospel presentations. Pastors would share with one another their techniques for getting a greater number of hands raised. I must admit, it seemed normal and even skillful at the moment but now feels a little too slick for my conscience.
There’s a line between spirit prompting and manipulation – sometimes a fine line and sometimes a wide margin.
These conversations included suggestions like calling out each individual hand that’s raised. “Make sure you ‘prime-the-pump’ in the beginning if the response isn’t enough. Simple observations like – ‘I see you’, ‘Thank you in the left-back corner’, ‘I see you in the front row. Thank you’.” This practice pushes people on the edge of responding by letting them know they’re not alone. On the other end of the spectrum if the response is great at the beginning then it’s important to acknowledge it quickly. “Try saying things like – ‘Wow, so many hands I can’t keep up or count them all!’, ‘look at all God’s doing!’, ‘Don’t miss out on this movement of God!’.” This triggers a greater response as well. It plays right into the FOMO (fear of missing out) of people that might be considering a response – clearly, God’s doing something at this moment and I want to be a part of it! These conversations were almost always accompanied by a conversation about the gift of evangelism and prayers for a powerful response to the message. I’m not so sure that these kinds of best practices are really what God had in mind when He references the gift of evangelism in scripture.
Another common practice in these moments is to quote Matthew 10:32-33: “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” The contextual application of this verse as a veiled threat at the moment of a gospel presentation is a stretch to what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 10.
Does Jesus say it? Yes.
Is He presenting it as a direct ultimatum to an individual response? No.
Congregations give significant trust to their spiritual leaders to interpret and apply scripture well from both biblical contexts and also modern applications. Stretching the faithful interpretation of scripture in this way is misleading to the congregation in both theology and practice. It gives them a slightly skewed perspective on the teachings of Jesus and the character of God. It also gives them an unhealthy example to wield scripture in similar ways that aren’t fully accurate to the context and purpose of the proof-texted passages.
The simple message of the Gospel of Jesus is compelling enough for those who are ready to hear it. They need no manipulation, feel no FOMO, and have no challenge of acknowledging Jesus.
When we move towards techniques and best practices for getting the greatest response from a gospel call, we have shifted to manufacturing religious results instead of harvesting spiritual fruit.
Part 2 of this post – The Gospel Presentation VS Presenting the Gospel coming soon.