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The United States Chaplain and Altar Calls

29 January 2008

imageDr. Richard Halverson served for twenty-three years as the preaching minister for Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, MD. (1958-1981)  It was a prominent church in the Washington D.C. area. In 1981, he was appointed Chaplain of the U.S. Senate.  His primary sponsor was Mark Hatfied, former senator from here in Oregon.  Senator Hatfield called him "a singing, a suffering, a praying, a preaching, a comforting and compassionate presence in the United States Senate."  He died in 1995.  

In the mid 80’s after serving as Senate Chaplain for a couple of years, he was interviewed by one of the Christianity Today magazines (Leadership?  Preaching Today?  Christianity Today? I don’t know).  But the audio of that interview was preserved.  In it, Dr. Halverson talks about altar calls.  Now, he was Presbyterian and my church tradition is a bit more revivalistic than his tradition.  But I found what he said to be very thought provoking. 

He is discussing his own inability to distinguish between preaching and teaching:

"I think I teach more than I preach.  That’s personally, and I think that’s the way people think of me.  My sermons were teaching.  As a matter of fact, I discovered that when I was just teaching the Word of God, that evangelism was happening all the time.  It was one of the marvelous discoveries that I made.  And I finally got to the point where I could not understand why you would make a distinction between preaching for decisions for Christ, and instructing the saints.   Because I found as I was teaching God’s Word, unsaved people were coming to Christ, as naturally almost, as naturally as childbirth. And it was…they were just coming to birth all the time, without any effort.  It became absolutely effortless.  Which taught me that whenever the truth is expounded, whether it is in the form of a sermon or a lesson, truth demands a verdict.  If it is the truth…if it is the Word of God, it demands a verdict. 

"But this is the way I was led: if I would give an altar call and they would not respond, the matter was kind of settled as they left the church, they hadn’t responded and that was the opportunity to and they didn’t, period.

"Whereas if we didn’t have an altar call in the conventional sense they could not escape. The Holy Spirit could hound them in the car, back home and when they were at the dinner table and when they were trying to sleep that night.  All next week at work. Because they hadn’t responded and they knew they should.  And because there wasn’t a specific time to do it, and they didn’t they couldn’t ignore it.  That kind of thing.  That was a deep conviction with me. And incidentally, there were all kinds sorts of things in my experience that confirmed that was the way for me and my ministry to go."

What do you think?  Do you offer an altar call each Sunday?  (I almost always do).  What is your reaction to Dr. Halverson’s thinking? 

I am not quite ready to accept it whole-cloth, but I think it has some merit.  It would still be essential, I believe, to make SOME avenue available by which people could respond.  How do they know what to do?

This week my sermon is designed evangelistically.  And while I will do an altar call for salvation, I also plan to put cards in the bulletins that people can hand to me or mail back or with my telephone number so they can call me to make an appointment to talk about their relationship with Christ.  Sometimes when I have done that it is tremendously effective.  Other times…not so much. 

Anyway, what is YOUR reaction to Dr. Halverson’s idea?

Evangelistic Preaching, Invitation

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