Back in my college days, I was sitting through a sermon that had almost nothing to do with Jesus and everything to do with money. This is not to say that it was a bad lecture. The preacher (or wealth advisor) gave some pretty good advice about how to use your money to a crowd of people who would, in a few years, leave school with a massive amount of debt and no parents in the house to constantly warn them to pay off their loans quickly rather than buying the next Xbox.
Then he did a quick spiel about Jesus and asked if anyone wanted to give his/her life to God.
I have nothing against a sermon that is oriented toward financial advice (though, sermons with almost no biblical references do concern me), but tacking on an altar call to one seemed a little odd. I noticed international students in the crowd that night and wondered, if some of them had little knowledge of the Gospel, who they thought Jesus was after hearing that. “Oh, he must want to save us from financial hardship and provide us with wealth-bearing wisdom!”
Perhaps an altar call is not appropriate to every sermon. Some within the evangelical movement seems to think it has missed an opportunity if every sermon, Bible study, and potluck do not conclude with an altar call. The problem is that not everyone is familiar enough with the Gospel to understand a very brief call to discipleship. Sure, a lapsed Baptist, who went to Sunday school every week for twenty years, will probably understand all of the implications of becoming a disciple of Christ, but what about the international students I saw? Some of them may have little to no knowledge of Christianity. For that matter, in today’s society, not everyone in America understands the basic tenets of the Gospel.
The famous maxim of communication, “the message is the medium,” should give us pause. Sermons or functions that focus on very specific aspects of our lives (finances, marriage, etc.) may give those ignorant of the Gospel a false impression about the character of God. A sermon completely about finances, followed up with an altar call, could lead some to conclude that our religion is simply about money. Someone unfamiliar with our religion may have no reason to think otherwise. This, the only sermon they have every heard, focused entirely on money, and the preacher has now asked them to commit their life to a God whom they see as only being interested in this one subject.
The random altar call may have its place, particularly in a group of people who are familiar with the Gospel, but I want everyone who preaches or leads in church to consider their audience. Are we presenting the Gospel and asking them to follow that? Or, are we accidentally evangelizing with a truncated and distorted message?