After the Altar Call
By David R Smith Posted on December 05 2012
The youth leader just finished giving a powerful message about the necessity of teenagers turning from their sin and following Jesus. As the altar call is given, several students in the audience are compelled to act on the invitation.
But too many times, at this crucial point, perfectly normal worship services turn into The Phantom of the Opera.
For the last 15 years, I’ve traveled the country speaking at churches, camps, and other events. Because I’m an evangelist at heart, I’ve shared the Gospel in just about every situation imaginable, with just about every type of crowd imaginable. Nothing amps me up like seeing young people respond to God during an altar call and commit their lives to following Jesus.
Consequently, there is nothing more frustrating to me than seeing one of those students fall between the cracks at such a pivotal moment because of missed opportunities and careless mistakes.
Unfortunately, there are many potential mistakes that can ruin an altar call and negatively affect a teenager’s decision to follow Christ. And though all of us have made these errors from time to time, the good news is, we don’t have to ever again! Here are the seven biggest mistakes youth ministry leaders make during altar calls…and a few simple ways to correct them.
Mistake #1: Let students stay in their seats.
I know this is going to sound old fashioned, but the first way to ruin an altar call is to let students remain in their seats during the time of commitment. Sure, we might ask them to “pray in their seats,” but what we’re really doing is allowing them to remain anonymous. If we don’t make them move, we can’t counsel them, pray with them, or follow up with them.
That’s not good.
Looking at Scripture, it appears as though Jesus’s version of an altar call was to say, “Follow Me.” Peter and Andrew weren’t allowed to stay in their fishing boats, nor was Matthew allowed to stay in his tax collecting booth. Jesus made His would-be followers actually move. We need to do the same. We can’t let them stay in their seats.
By the way, if they’re honest, some youth leaders will admit they don’t ask their students to actually move because they’re afraid no one will. They want to avoid the embarrassment of having no one respond, so they remove accountability. What these youth leaders really need to remove is their ego. Then they can preach boldly and biblically, trusting God for transformation.
Now that we’ve addressed the first way to ruin an altar call – not making people move – let’s look at the second best way to ruin an altar call: making people move to the wrong place.
Mistake #2: Make students do business with God in front of everybody.
As adults, we conduct financial business with our banker, privately. We do health checkups with our doctor, privately. (Thank God!) So why do we insist on making young people do their spiritual business with a youth leader, publically? This is the most important decision students will ever make, so why force them do it in front of a crowd.
Just because we ask young people to move from their seats doesn’t mean we have to make them stand in front of the entire youth ministry as they process their emotions, their sin, and God’s call. If we want them to make an informed decision about following Jesus – and we do, don’t we? – then we need to give them the proper time and place to do so. At the front youth room, with dozens of eyes on them, with the band playing the fourth verse of I Surrender All, may not be the best place.
Instead of making young people carry on such an important conversation in such a distracting environment, consider having them meet with counselors in the youth pastor’s office, or an adjacent room, or some other designated meeting space that can adequately handle the task of impacting eternity.
Speaking of counselors….
Mistake #3: Only have a few counselors available.
It’s happened way too many times. The youth leader gives an invitation to follow Jesus, a group of students move to the designated area…and two counselors bravely wade into the sea of sinners. The youth pastor is then forced to say, “Alright, all you guys go with Bill. All you ladies go with Margaret.”
Those poor counselors are as outnumbered as King Leonidas at Thermopylae!
Why do so many youth ministries have so few counselors? Do they not understand the importance of well-trained counselors? Do they not expect God to actually stir young people’s hearts to repentance?
Regardless of their reasons, the results of having too few counselors are terrible. Young people won’t get the attention and help they need. Further, they’re forced to choose between being honest about their sin in front of the counselor and several other young people…or not sharing anything at all.
Guess which one they usually pick.
This mistake is so easy to avoid. Prayerfully select enough men and women from your church so that students can have a meaningful, one-on-one conversation with someone of their same gender.
But you’re not out of the woods yet. There are other counselor-related mistakes that can ruin an altar call.
Mistake #4: Use untrained and unprepared counselors.
In trying to avoid mistake #3, some youth leaders use anybody they can get their hands on to counsel others. Any leader can do counseling, right? After all, they’ve sat through hundreds of altars calls. Plus, they even went through this experience once themselves! They should know the ropes by now…right?
That’s a big assumption, and it carries big risks with it.
Of all the mistakes that ruin an altar call, the use of untrained and unprepared counselors may be the most frequent. Teachers must be trained in order to lead a class. Military personnel must be trained in order to lead their troops. Why shouldn’t a counselor be trained to lead a person to Christ!? Here are just a few of the important points on which your counselors need to be crystal clear
1. Do the counselors know where to stand, when to approach teenagers, and where to take them?
2. Do the counselors know what to say (and not say)? Can they clearly explain God’s plan of salvation?
3. Do the counselors know the importance of confidentiality? Likewise, do they know when to refer a student to a professional?
4. Do the counselors have the necessary tools for the task? Counselors will need their Bibles, of course, but it wouldn’t hurt to have extra copies of God’s Word to give to kids who do not have one. Counselors will also need forms to collect contact information for follow up purposes. Further, they should provide young people with information about the youth ministry (and church), including a way to contact the counselor and the youth pastor. And it doesn’t hurt for counselors to have breath mints, too!
By the way, the best tactic for training a counselor is to partner him/her with someone who’s already a great counselor. Let the counselor-in-training silently observe the mentor as he/she counsels young people after an altar call. Just make sure the mentoring counselor gets a chance to debrief the situation with the counselor-in-training after everything is said and done.
These efforts will ensure that when teens decide to give their lives to God, they can have access to well-trained counselors.
Mistake #5: Use counselors who talk too much.
Humans have two ears and one mouth, but hardly anyone uses them proportionately…including many counselors. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve observed counselors preaching to the people sitting in front of them after an altar call.
Didn’t they just hear a sermon? Do they really need another one so soon?
Some counselors think it’s important to share every passage of Scripture on the topic of salvation with kids who don’t even understand the concept yet. I hear them say, “Now let’s turn to Ephesians 2:8-9,” but the poor teenager is still looking for Romans 1:16, the last passage referenced.
Other counselors feel it’s crucial to communicate every theological thought they have in their mental database. I’ve overheard counselors lecturing young people about various atonement theories, the cosmological argument for the existence of God, and even the Levitical system of animal sacrifice! (Ummm…sadly, that’s not a joke.) Meanwhile, the young person who wants to accept Christ just sits there with a confused look on their face.
Yes, counselors need to be able to articulate biblical truth. But they must remember that truth is meant to be life-changing, not overwhelming! Instead of talking so much, counselors should be trained to ask really good questions that lead to the Gospel. Here are the questions I always tell my counselors to ask:
1. What’s your name? (Yep, this is a big one! Young people are usually reluctant to take advice from someone who doesn’t even know their name, so take the time to ask this important question.
2. What made you respond to the message?
3. What is your biggest struggle right now?
4. Can I share something with you that will be a big help?
Question number four brings you to the Gospel, which helps counselors avoid this next mistake…
Mistake #6: Focus on the symptom instead of the Savior.
I saw it happen just last week in a church I was speaking at up North. One of the young men that had responded to the message I preached from Psalm 20 was partnered with a (young) counselor. The two of them were engaged in a serious conversation in the counseling room when I walked in a few minutes later. I quietly sat down beside them, and silently listened as the counselor tried to help the young man with his addiction to pornography.
The counselor talked on and on about the best ways to overcome this destructive addiction: get accountability, download filtering software, read the Bible, ask for God’s help, etc. All of it was good advice. Then the counselor stood up to leave; he’d said all that could be said about porn.
But he’d said nothing about the Savior!!!
Acting quickly, I asked if I could pose a few questions to the young man. I was given his permission, so I cut right to the chase and asked him about his relationship with Jesus. Did he have one? How did he know? What was the quality of that relationship? How was the sin of pornography affecting that relationship? What was his plan in dealing with that sin?
Sadly, it was the first time this young man had been asked about Jesus. I spent a few minutes asking him more questions about Jesus, and then prayed with him. When he left the room a little while later, fully assured of his relationship with Jesus, I nonchalantly held the young counselor back
I gently pointed out to him that he focused only on pornography and never once got around to offering Jesus’ forgiveness of that sin. I reminded him that the young man’s ultimate problem wasn’t pornography; it was his sinful nature! “Think about it,” I said. “Suppose he actually breaks the chains of bondage that porn has him in. Terrific! But he’s still in debt to God for his lust, not to mention his various acts of sexual immorality. He’ll still be guilty before God. That’s the reality we must focus on first!”
Too often, counselors start off their conversations by focusing on the symptoms instead of the Savior. They discuss every form of sinfulness – anger, lust, lying, gossip, unforgiveness – but run out of time (or breath) before talking about the Savior and His cure for our sin.
Don’t let your counselors get sidetracked from their main task of helping people respond to Jesus. Make sure they focus their conversations on the Savior, not the symptoms.
The four questions I provided above will help counselors not get stuck on the symptoms. Once they share why they came forward and what they’re struggling with, we need to introduce them to the one who can help them through these struggles.
Mistake #7: Pray FOR them instead of WITH them.
“Just repeat after me: Dear Jesus….”
I should probably state at this point that I vehemently hate the “sinner’s prayer.” I know that it’s been used for decades, but the practice has its drawbacks, nonetheless.
Tell me something. If Jesus truly wants a personal relationship with us, then why do we need someone else telling us what to say to Him? And given that so many Christians, counselors included, view the prayer as a formula for salvation, it’s no surprise that doubt ensues afterward over whether or not the right words were used.
When the time comes for a young person to pray to receive Christ, why not let them use their own words? (What a concept, huh?) You might have to guide them along a little bit, but if we pray with them instead of for them, they will never look back on their salvation moment and realize that it was someone else’s words they used instead of their own.
Some very simple guidance is usually sufficient; they need to confess their sins and ask for God’s forgiveness, committing to walk with Jesus for the rest of their lives. Then, after taking a moment to show them the confidence Jesus had in our Heavenly Father hearing our prayers (John 11:41-42), give them a chance to pray from THEIR hearts.
They may mess up words, but they can’t mess up heart.
Getting It Right
As youth leaders, we have lots of great reasons to correct these mistakes when it comes to giving an altar call. For starters, Jesus deserves our very best, and so do those that listen to us. Furthermore, these mistakes are too easy to fix, so there are no excuses for tolerating them. Finally, too much goes into our preaching and teaching to have it derailed at the last, and most important, moment.
Let’s remember that eternity is on the line. That alone is reason enough to get it right.
David R. Smith, co-author of Ministry by Teenagers, is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who writes for TheSource4YM.com and speaks across the country. David specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. He provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, DavidRSmith.org. David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Flo