In Luke 5, Jesus taught the Word of God to the lakeside crowds as He sat in a boat. The water carried His voice, and the short buffer between the shore and the boat kept Him from being pressed and trampled by the crowds. After finishing His sermon, Jesus told Peter to row to a deeper part of the lake. He wanted the fishermen (the verb “let down” is plural, indicating He was speaking to Andrew, too) to let down their nets.
“Master,” said Peter, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” Working hard doesn’t always produce lasting results, but they always come from doing what Jesus says.
As Peter and Andrew lowered the nets, fish from all across the Sea of Galilee converged into them. The nets became so filled with fish that the fishermen signaled nearby boats to help them. Jesus turned the miracle into a message—it was a symbolic harbinger for the ministry Peter and the Apostles would experience. “Don’t be afraid,” Jesus said, “from now on you will catch men.”
It’s important for us to always be thinking about the best way to “lower the nets.” In a local church ministry, what is the mechanism by which people receive the opportunity of becoming Christians? For many years, a lot of churches have used the Sunday invitation or altar call. At the end of the sermon, unsaved people are invited to come forward and receive Christ as Savior. I like this method as long as it’s only one of the approaches we use.
The altar call seems to be an American invention. The first great revival in North America was the Great Awakening during Colonial Days. The great evangelists of this era, chiefly George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, did not use an altar call, nor had they ever heard of such a thing. Nor did the Wesley brothers who were preaching in England at the same time.
Following the American Revolution, our young nation went into spiritual eclipse. But about 1800, another revival broke out which is usually called the Second Great Awakening. It began with Camp Meetings in Kentucky and with frontier evangelists like Peter Cartwright. They would invite sinners to stay after the meeting or to go to another area to be counseled after the service. Charles Finney, a lawyer-turned-preacher, widely used this method. Finney is credited as the one who popularized it. So the altar call has been a fixture in American Christianity for about 200 years. In my lifetime, it’s the primary way in which people came to Christ during the Billy Graham Crusades, for example.
But there are several weaknesses with the Altar Call. According to the Bible, the primary point in a person’s life in which they make an initial public profession of Christ is at their baptism. It’s not necessary to “go forward” to be saved, but it is important to publically profess Him as Savior at baptism. That is the moment when we must confess Him before men.
Second, some people are too timid to go forward at the time of conversion. They may be saved in their living rooms or while sitting in the pew. They might be saved in a coffee shop or in the front seat of the car. But for them it’s a personal moment and one to be made privately and in a non-rushed way. Though I’ve never kept records, I quite certain I’ve led more people to Christ in my office or in their living rooms than at the altar.
Third, not every preacher has the gift of extending the invitation. I once asked Ruth Bell Graham if people had always come forward whenever Billy gave the invitation. She said, as I recall, “Yes, he has a gift of giving the invitation. Even when he was first beginning to preach and he’d go out to little churches where the same people had been going to church for years, he’d preach and when he gave the invitation people would come forward to be saved.” As far as I can tell, I’m more of a Bible teacher than a mass evangelist, and I’ve never sensed a particular gift at extending the invitation. But that doesn’t mean I can’t do it; it just means that our church needs to supplement the altar call with additional methods of letting down the nets.
A fourth problem is altar calls is they easily become the basis for evaluating the success of a worship service. We feel the service is a success when someone comes forward; and that attitude is difficult on a pastor’s morale if and when no one does.
I’m not advocating abandoning the altar call. But let’s make sure we’re letting down the nets on all sides of the ship.
Since most people who come to Christ do so in childhood, the most important ministry in a church is devising methods and means for children to be saved. In our church, we have Young Disciple’s Classes using my material, Lola Mazola’s Happyland Adventure, and Knowing, Showing, and Growing. This provides periodic opportunities for children to be saved, often with their parents involved in the process. In the near future, we want to move outside of our church by sponsoring evangelistic Bible classes in the local public schools.
On Sunday mornings, we’ve moved many of our altar workers to the exits of the Celebration Center, and we’re seeing a heartening measure of success in using this as a method for keeping the nets in the water a little longer. It takes a few minutes at the end of every sermon and service to explain, but some people will ask a worker for literature in the back of the room when they would never think of stepping out and heading to the front on the room in full view of hundreds of eyes.
Most importantly, I want our people to understand that they are the primary inviters, and that every Christian should be a personal evangelist. We’re all to let down the nets. In some ways, pastors and church staff members are the least qualified in the church to lead people to Christ because we don’t work every day side-by-side with the unsaved. Our job is to equip and encourage those who do. But may God grant that both staff and members—all of us—with push out into the deep for a catch. And may He show us how our churches can effectively let down the nets.