This article briefly reviews the origin and history of the altar call and the sinner’s prayer, reflects on misunderstandings that can occur when used among those with animistic worldviews, and suggests an alternative approach to helping people come to Christ. The reflection is based on Dahlfred’s experience in the context of Thai folk Buddhists who practice a combination of Theravada Buddhism and various local animistic beliefs. As animistic cultures around the world share similar worldviews and practices, the conclusions of this article should be broadly applicable to a variety of cultural contexts in diverse parts of the world where evangelical Christians are seeking to share the gospel with people influenced by animism.

Karl Dahlfred has served with OMF in Thailand since 2006. He has taught church history and missions at Bangkok Bible Seminary, assisted in the editing and translation of Thai Christian books at OMF Publishers Thailand, and engaged in church planting efforts in Central Thailand and Bangkok. Since 2017, he has been pursuing a PhD in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh. Karl and his wife Sun have three children. His blog and list of published works may be found at www.dahlfred.com.

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The Sinner’s Prayer in Animistic Cultures: Problems and Solutions

Mission Round Table Vol. 15 No. 1 (Jan-Apr 2020): 4-11

A number of years ago, my wife and I were designated to work with a small-town church in Thailand to do new church planting in a nearby village. Our very first Sunday at that church, a member who lived farther out gathered fifteen people from his village and brought them to church in the back of his pick-up truck. Over the course of two Sundays, an amazing thing happened. Nearly all of these people, who were folk Buddhists with little to no prior knowledge of the gospel, prayed to accept Christ as the pastor met with them after church and explained the gospel to them. Hallelujah! Our new church-planting efforts were off to a spectacular start! The pastor of the church and I began a small group for these new believers out in their village with the hope that this surprising ingathering of new believers would be the nucleus of a new church there. But an odd thing happened. Over the course of the next two months, the numbers of these “new believers” coming to our new small group in the village dwindled to zero. Our faithful church member who had originally brought them to worship in town would drive around the village each Sunday to pick them up to go to church, but he always found more excuses than passengers. What had gone wrong? Had not these people decided to follow Christ? Had they not prayed to receive Christ as Lord and Savior and become born again? The great ingathering that had seemed too good to be true turned out to be just that.

This disappointing experience raised a host of important practical questions in my mind. Why had these people fallen away? Had they really been converted to begin with? Had they been led to faith prematurely? Were the reasons for their quick trip in the front door of the church and out the back door inscrutable, known only to God? Or could we have done something differently? Why did they pray to receive Christ anyway? Were there cultural factors involved? Can people from a completely non-Christian background understand enough of the gospel in just a couple Sundays to truly understand and embrace Christ? How did their animistic and Buddhist background influence their decisions? Did they agree to pray along with the pastor to prevent him from losing face? Was there perhaps something wrong with the way they were led to Christ? Is the practice of leading people to say the “sinner’s prayer” the best way to bring people into the kingdom of God? These questions and more set me on a quest to discover why people who seemingly pray to receive Christ often quickly fall away. Is there something that we could do differently to prevent this roller coaster of hopes raised and then dashed?

As I became more familiar with Christianity in Thailand and did more reading, it became clear to me that what I had observed in that small-town church was not unique. The “easy come, easy go” Christianity connected with the sinner’s prayer is endemic across much of evangelical Protestantism. But despite the popularity of inviting people to say the sinner’s prayer to become a Christian, and the associated practice of inviting people to profess faith in response to an altar call, these evangelistic methods have an amazingly short historical pedigree. The altar call has only been used since the first half of the nineteenth century and the sinner’s prayer’s prayer since the mid-twentieth century. Both of these methods were developed in the United States, a religious and cultural context far removed from the animistic cultures found in many parts of the world today. As an evangelical missionary concerned about biblically-faithful, culturally-appropriate evangelism, I came to have deep doubts about the validity and effectiveness of both the altar call and the sinner’s prayer, especially when used among animistic peoples, such as the Thai folk Buddhists with whom I work.

In this article, I will briefly explore the origin and history of the altar call and the sinner’s prayer, reflect on misunderstandings that can occur when used among those with animistic worldviews, and suggest an alternative approach to helping people come to Christ. My personal experience has largely been in the context of Thai folk Buddhists who practice a combination of Theravada Buddhism and various local animistic beliefs. However, animistic cultures around the world share similar worldviews and practices, as does trans-national evangelical Protestantism.[1] As such, the conclusions of this article should be broadly applicable to a variety of cultural contexts in diverse parts of the world where evangelical Christians are seeking to share the gospel with people influenced by animism.

The origin of the “sinner’s prayer”

Although the altar call and the sinner’s prayer are sometimes thought to be traditional forms of evangelism, these methods only originated within the past 200 years or so.[2] Though some people read these modern practices into Bible passages like Acts 2:37–38 and Romans 10:9–10, there is little evidence before the early nineteenth century of evangelists calling people forward at a meeting to publicly profess faith or to bow their heads and repeat a prayer to become Christians. While these methods are often associated with revival evangelism, the great preachers of the eighteenth-century Great Awakenings in the United States and Britain did not use them. Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and John Wesley are widely acknowledged as successful evangelists who saw many come to Christ, yet these practices were virtually unknown to them. These men preached about law and gospel, urged people to repent and turn to Christ, and counseled inquirers privately, but they left the results to God. They urged individuals to private reflection and prayer rather than immediate public profession of faith and assurance of salvation.[3] Evangelist and Methodist founder John Wesley, for instance, once met with a woman who had two outbursts in one of his evangelistic meetings and was under conviction of sin. After spending some time with her, “he did not seem to be concerned about leaving her to go on to his next port of call, apparently reasoning that if God was really working in the woman’s life He could bring it to fruition without Wesley’s further assistance.”[4] In a similar vein, Congregational evangelist Asahel Nettleton, who saw many revivals during his itinerant ministry throughout the eastern United States in the 1820s, urged listeners to immediate repentance but then finished his meetings without offering them assurance of salvation. He told them to go home quietly, be still, and seek the Lord. They should put their faith in Christ and look for evidences of regeneration in themselves. He often met with inquirers at home meetings the following day, urging them to direct themselves to Christ for salvation and not to concern themselves with how to answer the preacher. At this point, he was concerned to not say too much, lest he talk people into a false hope.[5] Some might wonder if such an approach could be really effective. If an evangelist does not invite people to pray to receive Christ, nor offer them assurance of salvation based on their prayer, how can they be saved? In Nettleton’s ministry, however, numerous conversions and changed lives were reported at the churches where he had led revival meetings, and even many years afterward very few of those converted through his ministry had abandoned the faith.[6]

Asahel Nettleton (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons. A It Is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art and is in the public domain in the country of origin, the United States, and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

Some of the first calls for public professions of faith in revival meetings occurred in 1801 during the Cane Ridge revival in Kentucky, on the American western frontier.[7] The popularization of such calls for immediate, public response, however, came through the work of Charles Finney.[8] Converted in 1821 and ordained for ministry in 1824, Finney led several revivals in western New York State in the 1820s and early 1830s. While the effect of the revivals under Finney brought him fame, his methodology in promoting these revivals brought him severe criticism from some quarters. Like his older contemporary Asahel Nettleton, Finney believed in calling for repentance in evangelistic meetings. Unlike Nettleton, however, Finney increasingly pressured his listeners to indicate repentance through outward physical signs during the meeting. Nettleton stressed the duty of immediate repentance but he was also afraid of emotionalism and self-deception, and would thus send his listeners home to wait upon the Spirit to change their hearts.[9] Finney had no such reservations.

Charles Finney (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons. It is faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art and are in the public domain in the country of origin, the United States, and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.

Finney’s first foray into calling for public response was in Evan Mills, New York in 1824. He asked for people to stand to indicate their acceptance of Christ. He understood the act of remaining seated as an indication of rejection of Christ. It seems that he did not make any provision for those who may have already been Christians. In using such methodology, Finney demonstrated that he considered the physical act to be a sign of spiritual conversion. Although this type of calling for physical response became a hallmark of his ministry, Finney did not consistently use these so-called “new measures” until 1830.[10] Finney was convinced that one does not need to wait for the Holy Spirit to change hearts but rather, salvation was a matter of changing one’s own will. Therefore, he expected results. Finney was convinced that revival was certain if the right methods were used. “A revival is not a miracle” wrote Finney, “nor dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means.”[11] Finney believed that the practice of publicly inviting people to show some physical indication of repentance was the method best suited in the present day to convince people to turn to Christ, and fulfilled the same purpose that baptism had served in the early church.[12] In the minds of many, Finney’s “new measures,” as they were called, were justified by their fruits. Numbers of conversions were reported in the newspapers and it seemed difficult to argue with results. As for those who questioned his evangelistic methods, Finney denounced them as “cold and dead, and the enemies of revivals.”[13] Critics were concerned that the high-pressure emotionalism of Finney’s methods led to spurious conversions. John Nevin, a German Reformed minister and contemporary of Finney, argued that Finney’s techniques were psychologically manipulative and confused “the outward form with the genuine article.”[14] Nevin reasoned that when a preacher expounds the gospel and presses it upon the souls of his listeners, the question before them is, “Will I submit to God?” This is the great struggle, which they must mull over in their minds. However, when the preacher invites his listeners to go forward, the question of “Will I go forward?” becomes uppermost in their minds, arresting reflection upon the more important question of submission to God.[15] The concerns of these critics were not unfounded as Finney’s associate James Boyle bore witness in an 1834 letter to Finney. When Boyle re-visited places where the two men had preached, he found that most converts from their revival meetings had disappeared into thin air.

Let us look over the fields where you and others and myself have labored as revival ministers, and what is now their moral state? What was their state within three months after we left them? I have visited and revisited many of these fields, and groaned in spirit to see the sad, frigid, carnal, contentious state into which the churches had fallen–and fallen very soon after our first departure from among them.[16]

George Wesley Bellows (American, 1882–1925), Billy Sunday, 1923, ink on paper, lithograph, 12-7/8 × 19 in. Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, acquired by exchange, 26.9.

Nevertheless, despite external criticisms and the sobering observations of his own co-worker, Finney persisted with the same methods. Finney’s book, Lectures on Revivals (1835), became immensely popular and led to systemic use of the public invitation system across many denominations in the United States during the nineteenth century.[17]

From the 1870s onward, evangelist Dwight L. Moody also regularly employed the invitation system, albeit Moody’s approach was kinder and gentler than that of Finney whose high-pressure tactics had startled many. Accompanied by musician Ira Sankey, Moody gave repeated calls to come to Christ as indicated by a move to the front of the meeting hall. Moody and other evangelists began to use “decision cards” to indicate conversion, a practice continued by early twentieth-century evangelist Billy Sunday. Sunday’s crusade revivals marked the introduction of entertainment and drama into evangelism, as well as the importance of “recruiting professional organizers and publicists to prepare the venue and the mood of his meetings,” an emphasis that influenced the ministry of Billy Graham.[18]

In the post-war period, the sinner’s prayer became prominent through the ministries of Billy Graham and Bill Bright, founder of the student ministry Campus Crusade for Christ. Both men not only led people to pray to receive Christ verbally, but also promoted use of such a prayer through their popular booklets, namely Graham’s Steps to Peace with God and Bright’s The Four Spiritual Laws. As international evangelicalism spread globally, so did approaches to evangelism that relied heavily on the altar call and the sinner’s prayer to gauge conversions.

Before we consider the results of these evangelistic methods, I want to briefly define “altar call” and “sinner’s prayer” so that we are clear on what we are talking about. In some churches today, altar calls are given for a variety of reasons, including re-dedication or financial pledges. What we are talking about in this article, however, is a public invitation to give some outward, physical expression of first-time belief in Christ in the context of a public meeting. The sinner’s prayer is not a single prayer with set words; many variations are used today. However, as David Bennett has observed in his book on this topic, a sinner’s prayer has three essential elements.

First, it must be an actual prayer addressed to God or Jesus Christ. Secondly, it must have the assumption clearly stated in the prayer or accompanying material that if it is meant or prayed sincerely it will be inevitably and immediately effective. Thirdly, it must speak of the sinner inviting, accepting, receiving or taking Christ into the sinner’s life or heart as an act of the human will. In other words, the initiative in Christian conversion appears to be with the one praying, not with God, thus making it seem more dependent on human decision than upon divine activity. Such prayers may also contain both or one of the following components: a reference to God’s forgiveness, and an expression of repentance.[19]

Does the sinner’s prayer “work”?

When people pray a “sinner’s prayer”, are their “decisions for Christ” an accurate measure of evangelistic success? Does praying such a prayer, raising a hand, or filling out a decision card mean that a person is born again? The first-hand testimony of Finney’s associate James Boyle would indicate that it is not necessarily so. Similarly, in The Altar Call: Its Origins and Present Usage, David Bennett analyzed claimed numbers of converts for Billy Sunday and Bill Bright, and found the statistics to be greatly exaggerated.[20] Though these men claimed incredible numbers of converts, many of these people never became disciples of Christ.

More recently, in December 2009, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, together with major Thai church denominations, sponsored and promoted the “My Hope Thailand” evangelistic project. They produced an evangelistic TV program that aired several times on Thai national TV just before Christmas, and was distributed on VCD for private home viewing. The program featured testimonies and music videos from Thai pop stars who had become Christians, as well as preaching from Billy and Franklin Graham, dubbed into Thai. As a result of the program and associated church-based events, it was reported that nearly 12,000 people made “decisions for Christ.” Many in the Christian community (both in Thailand and abroad) were overjoyed by the number of “new Christians” produced by My Hope. A year later, researchers Dwight Martin and Marten Visser followed up the claimed results of “My Hope Thailand” to see “if the final results were as impressive as the first outcome indicated.” They discovered, however, that “there was no correlation whatsoever between the number of baptisms in a church and whether or not it had participated in this national campaign.” For all the time and money poured into the My Hope evangelistic campaign, it didn’t seem to make much of a difference in how many people became baptized church members. Martin and Visser concluded that the “evangelistic campaign might have [had] some effect, but no more than the activities it replace[d].”[21]

It is common for churches and parachurch organizations to talk about the number of people going forward for an altar call as if all those who go forward are converted. Yet, it is acknowledged that some people go forward for rededication, some out of curiosity, and some for no discernible reason.[22] The varied reasons for going forward are then apparently ignored in reporting by groups such as the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which believes that 2% of those going forward become Christians during the sermon, 48% in a counseling session, and 50% during follow-up.[23] This inconsistency calls into question what people are responding to and whether we are deceiving ourselves and mission supporters by reporting so-called “decisions” as if they are new Christians. Might we do better to adopt the older terminology of Nettleton and others, saying instead that a person has been “hopefully converted”, reserving our confidence until after they have shown some fruit and been baptized?

While criticisms of the altar call and sinner’s prayer are frequently rebuffed by citing the number of reported conversions, there are many indications that these methods don’t produce as many born again believers as many believe they do. Exaggerated numbers of converts give the impression that altar call evangelism and getting people to pray to receive Christ are much more effective, and therefore justified, than they really are.

But why are these methods often ineffective? Why don’t people who made “decisions” become disciples? Surely there are multiple factors, regardless of cultural context. Animistic cultures, however, present special factors for consideration. In the Americas and Europe, there is broad, superficial familiarity with Christianity. In Western cultures, a high value is placed on individualism, freedom of choice, scientific rationalism, and the division between secular and sacred spheres of life. In Western societies, the influence of Christianity is quickly fading yet even secular people are often aware of basic Christian concepts such as monotheism, heaven, hell, sin, judgement, and forgiveness. Granted, their understanding of these concepts is frequently fragmentary and confused, but nonetheless, they are present and such familiarity is often assumed by Western Christians sharing the gospel. However, the cultural values and background religious knowledge of Western societies cannot be assumed in animistic societies or in nations where the majority of people formally adhere to a non-Christian religion.[24] So what happens when a problematic evangelistic method developed in one cultural context is imported, largely unchanged, into an animistic society with different values and assumptions?

When animists encounter the sinner’s prayer

Though the sinner’s prayer is designed to help people become Christians, in many cases it has the opposite effect of confirming people in a fundamentally animistic worldview. In order to understand how this could happen, we need to understand animism. In Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts, missiologist Gailyn Van Rheenen defines animism as “the belief that personal spiritual beings and impersonal spiritual forces have power over human affairs and, consequently, that human beings must discover what beings and forces are influencing them in order to determine future action and, frequently, to manipulate their power.”[25] In other words, animism is the using of religious rituals and ceremonies to manipulate the spirit world into doing what the animist wants it to do, whether that be warding off evil or inviting blessing. There are both pure animists and folk animists, the later of which often identify with a major world religion such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, or Christianity while retaining additional beliefs that may or may not be consistent with their professed religious affiliation. Thai Buddhism, for example, is often a mix of “pure” Buddhism and local animistic beliefs in spirits, omens, relics, sacred objects, fortune telling, astrology, sorcery, and so on. This mix of spirit beliefs and Buddhism forms an important part of the worldview and belief system of most Thai people, and it is this understanding of spiritual reality that Thai people bring to the table when they come to an evangelistic rally or hear a gospel presentation.

Unlike genuine Christianity, animism is not a heart religion in which it is important that you really believe something from the depth of your being. Animism is not about devotion or love for a particular deity or spirit. Animism is not about conforming your life to some external moral standard which has come down from heaven. Animism does not require you to change your life or to repent of your sins. All it requires is the performance of some religious rituals in order to cause the spiritual powers that be to bring about the desired blessings in your life. It is all about external things that you do in order to get what you want. But the gospel of Jesus Christ is about a change in allegiance from self to God. It is a change of priorities from our own priorities to God’s priorities. It is about God’s plan for what my life should be like, not about using religious ceremonies to manipulate God into helping me accomplish my own ideas of what a happy life should be like. Animism at its core is pragmatic and utilitarian. Whatever gets the job done to help me achieve my idea of the good life is what I’ll do. Though animism is sometimes mitigated or modified by beliefs and practices from other worldviews—be that a major world religion or secular scientific humanism—an animistic approach to life still provides a functional framework for approaching life decisions in animistic cultures and needs to be kept in mind by anyone sharing the gospel with those influenced by it.

With the realities of animism in mind, what are the potential pitfalls of asking an animist to respond to an altar call or to pray the sinner’s prayer? Why might animists with limited exposure to the Christian faith agree to pray to receive Christ? And why does the sinner’s prayer, as commonly practiced, fail to bring about understanding and conversion among many animistic believers?

1. The sinner’s prayer is just another religious ritual that might help you get what you want

For animists hearing an invitation to say the sinner’s prayer, it is not improbable that their reasoning, conscious or unconscious, often goes something like this: “That trip to the spirit medium didn’t solve my problem, and the astrologer didn’t give much help either. I tried wearing the sacred relic that my aunt gave to me but haven’t seen anything change. Getting a magic tattoo might be expensive. Perhaps this Christian ceremony will help. What’s to lose? Why not say this prayer that the Christian teacher seems so eager to have me pray? There might be something to this foreign religion after all. I can try out this foreign Jesus religion for a while and see if it really has the amazing power that the Christians are claiming. If it works, great. But, if Jesus doesn’t work, I’ll just move on and try something else. Nothing lost, nothing gained.”

2. The sinner’s prayer is viewed as a magical incantation

In animism, it is often not important to understand the actual words said in a prayer or spell since the power of the prayer is in the sacredness of the words themselves, not in understanding them. Chanting at Thai Buddhist temples, for example, is in the ancient language of Pali that the common person does not understand. However, as long as they hear the monks chanting or say the words themselves, merit is gained. So, when asked to say the sinner’s prayer, an animist may think that the words of the sinner’s prayer itself are powerful magical words that will bring about blessings. What the words mean are largely secondary and inconsequential. Going through the motions is all that matters. Christian evangelists, however, often fail to recognize this worldview assumption, and take it for granted that people who pray to receive Christ have understood what they have prayed and thus reassure the new convert that if they sincerely or genuinely meant what they said, then they are saved. Yet it is entirely possible to be sincere and genuine in one’s prayers without having a clue as to what the words just prayed actually mean. Yet to genuinely receive Christ, one must have a true understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ, at least on a basic level.

3. The words in the sinner’s prayer are automatically redefined by the listener to fit their animistic worldview

Christian evangelists often use words like “God”, “sin”, “heaven”, “hell”, and “eternal life” with the assumption that their listeners will pour into those words the same meaning that the Christian is pouring into them. But when the listeners are coming from a radically different worldview and belief system, that is a poor assumption. Although the words of the sinner’s prayer indicate—in the mind of the evangelist—commitment to Christ, an animist hears and interprets those words based on what he has been taught at home, at school, and at the local shrine or temple. The thinking might go something like this: “There could be some kind of god out there, and maybe he can help me. Sure, I am a sinner, who isn’t? I want to go to heaven (regardless of whether it really exists or is just a happy life on this earth). I don’t want to go to hell, if there is such a place. At the very least, maybe this Jesus can help lessen the suffering in my life, which is hell on earth. I can invite Jesus to be my Savior to deliver me from my problems and difficulties; I’ve asked all sorts of other spirits to help me, so why not this one?” Some evangelists do a better job of explaining the gospel and anticipating misunderstandings than others, and some animists have had longer exposure to biblical truths and categories than others. But when evangelism only goes skin deep, it leaves all the misunderstandings of the gospel untouched and any conversion that happens is superficial. Building a sufficient understanding of Christ and the gospel normally takes a lot more time than a twenty-minute gospel presentation or a couple of Sundays attending church.

Solutions: If not the sinner’s prayer, then what?

If you’ve read this far in the article, it should come as no surprise that I am not in favor of giving altar calls or leading people in the sinner’s prayer. “But,” you may ask, “if we don’t do those things, how are we supposed to lead people to Christ? What’s the alternative?” In the final section of this article, I would like to conclude with some suggestions on how we can help people understand the person and work of Christ and embrace him as Lord and Savior without relying on altar calls or assuring them that if they’ve said a certain prayer, then they are saved. And since the church grew and expanded for more than 1800 years before these methods became popular, there are a lot of precedents to draw from, both historical and contemporary.

Many Bible readers will be aware that in the book of Acts, the Apostle Paul and others often promptly baptized new converts, many of whom were Jews or God-fearing Gentiles who already had a foundation in the Scriptures. But as the gospel spread far beyond the reach of Judaism in the post-apostolic era of the early church, a prolonged catechesis process came to be required prior to baptism. Those who were interested in joining the church were brought to the church leaders by a sponsor, who was a current church member. If accepted to begin the catechesis process, these inquirers became catechumens. As a catechumen, a person was expected not only to hear the Word but to obey the Word in Christian living. To be accepted for the next, more intensive, phase of catechesis the person had to demonstrate both right understanding and right living of the faith and be verified by the testimony of others. At the end of the entire process, catechumens were baptized and allowed to partake of the Lord’s Supper. The whole process could take months or years but was seen as necessary for converts coming from a completely non-Christian background.[26] And the church grew. Churches in majority non-Christian cultures today might do well to emulate the approach of the post-apostolic church in bringing people into the Christian community.

Understanding that leads to true faith takes time, a reality acknowledged by the early church and also by many evangelists and ministers today. Tissa Weerasingha, a pastor working among folk Buddhists in Sri Lanka, has observed that conversion often takes place in stages. The initial stage is turning away from idols, but it is only regular exposure to the Word of God and the wooing of the Holy Spirit that can bring a person from a folk-religionist background to a real knowledge of the forgiveness of Christ. In Weerasingha’s experience, it is impossible for people to make “instant decisions” for Christ. Such decisions “often mean nothing to them because at the initial stages they have no comprehension of the real implications of the gospel.”[27]

The alternative to using altar calls and inviting people to pray after us to receive Christ is to read the Bible with them, invite them into the fellowship of the church and broader Christian community, and to wait for the Holy Spirit to change their hearts. It is often difficult to know how and when the Holy Spirit is working in a person’s heart (John 3:8). That’s why we need to wait for true faith to express itself in due time. When people profess faith prematurely at the prompting of an eager evangelist, before they have been born again, it is much more difficult for them to ask questions and express doubts that would be normal for someone who has not professed faith. If we truly trust the Holy Spirit to work in his time and his way, and if we believe that it is his power of transformation (and not our ability to persuade) that births true faith in a person, then we can share the gospel with people, study the Word with them, and urge them to repent and trust in Christ without feeling like we need to get them to say a particular prayer. If the Holy Spirit is changing someone’s heart, it will be impossible to hide that change. The person will want to express their newfound faith and to grow as a follower of Christ. When that faith shows itself, it should be baptism, not the sinner’s prayer, that constitutes a public declaration this person now belongs to Christ.

What can we do, however, if we are in a ministry context where it is common for possibly unconverted people to attend our church or fellowship group, having “prayed the prayer” and been declared to be Christians? Thai pastor Wan Petchsongkram once gave some practical advice on this matter. In a series of Lectures on Buddhism for Thai-speaking Christians, Petchsongkram stated:

Out of all the people who become Christians in 1 year, about 80% of those disappear. Have you seen this? People who become Christians and then disappear. We need to understand why this is so. I feel like this is a real problem for Christians in Thailand. When Thai people become Christians, they do so with certain reasons and because of certain factors and they remain Christians because of those reasons and factors so long as those reasons and factors still apply. But when those reasons are no longer there, they stop being Christians. Because of this, when they are still Christians and we know they are Christians because these reasons are still in effect, you should jump on the opportunity to teach them, no holds barred. If you don’t hurry up and teach them while these other reasons are still in play, then when those reasons are gone, they will stop being Christians.[28]

In other words, many Thai folk Buddhists (and other types of animists) make professions of faith in Christ not because they are convinced of the truth of the gospel, want forgiveness of sin, or have had their hearts regenerated by the Holy Spirit. They make professions of faith because they are hoping that becoming a Christian will fix or solve their currently unsolvable problem. The way to help these unconverted “Christians” is not to analyze whether they truly meant it when they prayed to receive Christ and urge them to do it again and to really mean it this time. Rather, as long as they are in church and willing to listen, we should take advantage of the opportunity to teach the Word of God and to love them, in hope that they will be truly converted. Evangelistic methods in the areas where we work are not going to change overnight so we need to make the best of non-ideal situations.

But let’s say that you and the people in your church have seen the problems associated with giving altar calls and urging people to pray to receive Christ. Does the alternative that I have outlined above really work? Lest some think that the idea of people being saved without the sinner’s prayer is merely theoretical, and the weight of all of church history prior to 1800 is not enough, I want to give two brief examples of conversion without the sinner’s prayer, one modern and one historical.

Nearly twenty years ago, a young university student showed up at the door of our church in central Thailand asking to be discipled. Before I met him, he had been seeking out the answers to his pressing questions about life. During that time, he started studying English with some missionaries and attended a Christian camp (which he didn’t particularly like, at the time). He never said the sinner’s prayer with anyone nor did he respond to an altar call. But as he was walking down the street one day, he realized that all that he had learned about God was true. God switched on the lights and this man has been following hard after the Lord ever since.

Many years earlier, in 1869, a former Buddhist abbot by the name of Nan Inta was studying the Bible and the Westminster Shorter Catechism with missionary Daniel McGilvary in Northern Thailand. He was constantly comparing the claims of the gospel and the claims of his folk Buddhist faith, mulling them over in his mind. After McGilvary’s prediction of an eclipse seriously shook his inherited animistic belief that eclipses were caused by a monster eating the sun, he realized that what McGilvary had been teaching from the Bible was true as well. Nan Inta’s account of his conversion, as recorded by McGilvary, was that after the eclipse, when he was “walking in the fields and pondering the subject, it all became very plain to him. His doubts all vanished.” The following morning, he came to see McGilvary and declared “It’s true!”[29] And that’s how the first person in Northern Thailand came to Christ. When the Holy Spirit changes a person and creates true faith in Christ in them, that faith cannot and will not be hidden.

If we do not wait for the Holy Spirit to form faith in a person in his own time, the results can be disastrous. Not only do some people become nominal church goers, subsequently harming churches with unregenerate, ungodly behavior, but many more melt back into society thinking that they have tried Christianity and found it wanting. They have effectively been inoculated against the gospel by receiving a weakened, dead form of Christianity, yet thinking that they had the real thing. A lack of testimony about the gospel becomes a negative testimony about the gospel. This happened with a woman whom my wife and I knew in Central Thailand. We chatted with her regularly at her street-side food stall, sometimes talking about the gospel, though she did not seem overly interested in spiritual matters. But once when we were out of town, a church member called and told us that our vendor friend and her mother had prayed to receive Christ. Praise the Lord! Right? When we returned home and my wife began visiting this woman and her mother to study the Bible, it was like pulling teeth. She had little to no interest in learning about God. Studying the Bible was a hassle. She attended church a handful of times and then stopped coming, and stopped meeting with my wife. We still saw her at her food stall, but conversations about anything Christian were extremely strained. Eventually we heard through the grapevine that this woman was telling other people at the local market that she had been a Christian but there was nothing to it. Instead of being a witness for the gospel, she was now a witness against the gospel.

I am sure that the majority of Christians who give altar calls and lead people to say the sinner’s prayer are genuinely trying to help them. I don’t fault anyone’s motives or their love for Christ. But as servants of Christ and gospel messengers, don’t we owe it to our Lord to seek the best possible way to honor him and to guide people to Christ? Should we not seek out the “best practices” in evangelism, and not content ourselves with what is popular and familiar to us?

There is no denying that an altar call and a sinner’s prayer have been the part of the conversion experience of many people who are truly born again and walking with the Lord, both today and in the past. I imagine that number includes some who are reading this article, as well. But if there had not been an altar call or no one encouraged you to pray after them, would you have still come to faith? The Bible says that all those whom God has predestined for salvation will surely come to Christ (John 6:37–39; Rom 8:28–30). All those who belong to Christ will surely come to him, if not through the altar call and sinner’s prayer, then certainly some other way. God is much bigger than a particular methodology.

Nonetheless, using a particular method just because it “works” sometimes is not sufficient reason to continue using it. Giving altar calls and assuring people that they are Christians because they have said a particular prayer often causes more confusion than clarity, especially when our listeners’ exposure to the gospel has been very brief. It takes a long time for people, especially those from animistic cultures, to understand the true nature of the gospel and to come to a point when they can truly put their faith in Christ. We are not saved by how much we know. Even so, there is a certain amount of knowledge about God, the world, and self that needs to be in place for someone to truly trust in Christ as Savior and Lord.

The Bible assures us that all whom God the Father has chosen for salvation will surely come to Jesus (John 6:37), with or without someone leading them in a sinner’s prayer. Choosing to not give altar calls or lead people in the sinner’s prayer is not barring the way to salvation for people. It is honoring God by allowing the Holy Spirit to work in his time and his way in bringing people to faith as we share the Word, pray, and love those who do not yet know Christ.

[1] For a detailed history of twentieth century evangelicalism, see Brian Stanley, The Global Diffusion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Billy Graham and John Stott, A History of Evangelicalism (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013). For more on animism, see Gailyn Van Rheenen, Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts (Pasadena: William Carey, 2013).

[2] The altar call and the sinner’s prayer are different but related evangelistic methods; yet for the sake of brevity, I will focus on the sinner’s prayer in this article. For detailed histories of these evangelistic methods, see David Bennett, The Altar Call: Its Origins and Present Usage (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000); The Sinners Prayer: Its Origins and Dangers (Capalaba, QLD: Even Before, 2011).

[3] Bennett, Altar Call, 21–22. There is one recorded instance of George Whitfield calling people to profess faith publicly in a meeting but this was not his regular practice. See Thomas Kidd, “A Brief History of the Altar Call,” The Gospel Coalition, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/evangelical-history/a-brief-history-of-the-altar-call/ (accessed 16 January 2020).

[4] Bennett, Altar Call, 9.

[5] Bennet Tyler and Andrew Bonar, Asahel Nettleton: Life and Labours (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1996), 118–20, 135, 145–47, 164, 171, 243, 256, 300–309.

[6] Tyler and Bonar, Asahel Nettleton, 316–17, 323–24. It was claimed that 25,000 people came to faith over the course of Nettleton’s ministry. David Bennett, The Altar Call: Its Origins and Present Usage (Brisbane: Camp Hill, 2000), 165.

[7] Iain H. Murray, Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism, 17501858 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), 171.

[8] For a detailed account of Finney’s theology and evangelistic methods, see Karl Dahlfred, Theology Drives Methodology: Conversion in the Theology of Charles Finney and John Nevin (Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013).

[9] Tyler and Bonar, Asahel Nettleton, 118–19.

[10] Tyler and Bonar, Asahel Nettleton, 106–7.

[11] Charles G. Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion (Virginia Beach, VA: CBN University Press, 1978), 4. Cf. David Aikman, Billy Graham: His Life and Influence, Kindle ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 19.

[12] “The Church has always felt it necessary to have something of the kind to answer this very purpose. In the days of the apostles baptism answered this purpose. The Gospel was preached to the people, and then all those who were willing to be on the side of Christ were called on to be baptized. It held the precise place that the anxious seat does now, as a public manifestation of a determination to be a Christian.” Finney, Lectures, 282.

[13] Tyler and Bonar, Asahel Nettleton, 340.

[14] D. G. Hart, John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2005), 91–4.

[15] John Williamson Nevin, The Anxious Bench (Second Edition), Antichrist, and the Sermon Catholic Unity, reprint ed. (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2000), 35–9.

[16] James Boyle to Charles Finney, 25 December 1834, Finney Papers, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, cited in James Johnson, “The Life of Charles Grandison Finney” (PhD diss., Syracuse University, 1959), 400.

[17] Bennett, Altar Call, 112.

[18] Aikman, Billy Graham, 21.

[19] For a more detailed definition and samples of the sinner’s prayer, see chapter 1 in Bennett, Sinners Prayer, Kindle Locations 135–368.

[20] Bennett, The Altar Call (Australian edition), 165–72.

[21] Dwight Martin and Marten Visser, “Sense and Nonsense of Large-Scale Evangelism,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 48, no. 2 (April 2012): 136–7. Also available online at https://missionexus.org/sense-and-nonsense-of-large-scale-evangelism/ (accessed 30 January 2020).

[22] Bennett, Altar Call, 169.

[23] Bennett, Altar Call, 195.

[24] It is said that approximately 40% of the world’s population hold worldviews influenced by animism, but this may be a low estimate considering the fact that animism is often concealed underneath other religious identities. Van Rheenen, Communicating Christ, 25.

[25] Van Rheenen, Communicating Christ, 20.

[26] J. I. Packer and Gary Parrett, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way, Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), Kindle Locations 984–1058.

[27] Tissa Weerasingha, “Karma and Christ: Opening Our Eyes to the Buddhist World,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 10, no. 3 (July 1993): 103–4.

[28] Wan Petchsongkram, Lectures on Buddhism given at the (OMF) Lopburi Learning Centre, Lopburi, Thailand, 2009, author’s translation. Cf. Karl Dahlfred, “Moving Beyond Felt Needs,” Gleanings from the Field, 16 December 2009, https://www.dahlfred.com/blogs/gleanings-from-the-field/290-moving-beyond-felt-needs (accessed 16 January 2020).

[29] Daniel McGilvary, A Half Century among the Siamese and the Lao: An Autobiography, ed. Cornelius Beach Bradley (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1912), 98.

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