Learn the basics to a powerful altar call.
Learn the basics to a powerful altar call. (Pixabay)

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Do you struggle to see people come to Christ in your church?

Maybe your church is part of the nine out of 10 churches that aren't leading people to Jesus.

Would you like to be in the 10 percent of churches that are seeing growth by salvations?

If so, one of the most important skills you must master as a pastor is how to give a clear, compelling invitation to receive Christ.

We have seen over 19,000 people come to Christ since we started the church almost 25 years ago, counting our outreaches to Mexico and our daughter churches. It's mind-boggling.

If your heart, Pastor, is to see people come to Christ in your church, then reading this post today is no accident. Take a minute to ask God to lead you as you read on.

8 Steps to Preach a Powerful Altar Call

It starts before you step onto the stage.

1. Acknowledge that God gives the increase and pray like crazy beforehand.

We know that God does not want anyone to perish (2 Pet. 3:9), that he gives the increase (1 Cor. 3:6) and that he wants us to preach the gospel (Mark 16:15). As I approach an invitation, I am eminently aware that no one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws them (John 6:44). We don't dare think that in our strength we are leading people to Jesus.

Instead, humbly, rely completely on the power and goodness of Jesus to bring people to himself in your church. Pray every day leading up to your altar call and ask the warriors in your church to pray with you.

2. Get some unchurched people in the seats.

It doesn't do any good to preach a great gospel message and altar call if you're preaching to the choir. You need people who aren't yet in a relationship with Jesus in the service.

Holidays like Easter, Mother's Day and Christmas are great times to lead people to Christ because infrequently-churched people bring themselves or are invited/dragged in by their family members. But equip your congregation to invite their family, friends and co-workers beyond those holidays. Have Wow weekends, church campaigns and other attractional reasons for unchurched people to come to your church.

3. Don't alienate them from Christ by being cliquish, sloppy or boorish.

You can't update your church facility or clean up your church culture by Sunday, but you can take a look at what happens in the service from the perspective of an outsider. Do you see insider language, political statements that would alienate the other half or inattention to excellence?

Look at your service from an outsider's perspective and ask a few trusted others from different demographics to do the same. Then tweak how you talk to remove barriers that would put off unchurched visitors.

4. Make it normal to interact and respond during the service.

It isn't reasonable to expect people who have sat passively through the sermon to suddenly feel comfortable raising their hand, or coming forward or even praying in their seat to receive Christ.

Instead, give the congregation opportunities to meet the people around them, to repeat key words in the message, to say something to their neighbor and to raise their hand in response to your poll-style questions. They will be more engaged. They will learn better. And they will be more ready to respond to Jesus when the time comes.

5. Forecast the opportunity to receive Christ throughout your sermon.

I want people to have a chance to think about it rather than respond emotionally, so on the weekends I'm giving an invitation, I try to forecast that it's coming two or three times during the sermon. I tie the sermon message to the gospel message and start talking personally to the unsaved in the room.

I'll say something about salvation or the benefits of being part of God's family and follow with, "And I hope some of you will experience this today." Or "And I'm wondering, if I were to invite you to come into God's family today, would this be the day you cross the line of faith?" There are a hundred ways to hint that the opportunity is coming.

In my experience, this is a moment when the Holy Spirit begins to work overtime, and heart rates start elevating because eternity is in the balance.

I also try to take away the social barriers that would keep people from responding, and one of these is "Will I be the only crazy to raise my hand?" So throughout my message, I say things like: "I'm guessing several of you would like to do this," to help those who are thinking about it to realize they won't be the only one. I affirm that what we are about to do is normal—hundreds of others in the room have done it as well.

People won't be ready to respond if you spring it on them at the end, but if you mention it early and mitigate their concerns in your message, the Holy Spirit has time to help them think that today is a good day to make a life-changing decision to receive Christ.

6. Present the gospel.

An example can be worth a thousand explanations, so let me show you what I did recently and I'll dissect it for you.

I was preaching out of Ephesians 2:4, about the God who is rich in mercy. I told stories about various ways God has been rich in mercy to me, and then I said

And this God wants to be rich in mercy to you, too. I'm wondering how many of you have never formally invited God to be merciful to you. In a room like this, I'm guessing that there are several of you who'd like to do that for the first time today.

It might surprise you to know that God has been waiting all your life for you to ask him to be merciful to you, to be in relationship with you. This is why Jesus came, died on Good Friday, and rose from the dead. His death paid the price for your sins and mine, so that if we would only ask, God would extend mercy to us.

On Jan. 20, 1971, I asked Jesus to be merciful to me, and his mercy from that day to this has been almost overwhelming to me. [Here I referred back to some of the stories I'd just preached.]

If we passed a microphone around the room, you'd hear hundreds of stories of others who have experienced more mercy than they ever imagined because they asked Christ into their lives.

Then I gave clear instructions of what would happen next. I even gave them a chance to hear and read the prayer, so there would be no surprises and no bait and switch.

So in just a minute, I'm going to ask you all to close your eyes, so we can have a private moment. But first, look up here at the screens. In just a moment, I'm going to invite you to pray this prayer with me. You can pray it quietly, under your breath, or you can sort of repeat my words to God in your mind. Or you could just say in your heart, "God, that's what I'm praying right now."

Here's the prayer: Lord Jesus, I want to experience your mercy today. I believe that Jesus died on the cross to pay the price for my sins. I admit I'm a sinner in need of a Savior, and I'm inviting you to be mine right now. Come into my life. Forgive my sin. Live in me as my Leader from now on. I believe you are a God who is rich in mercy.

Then we closed our eyes, which made the moment sacred and gave a sense of privacy, and I prayed the prayer out loud.

Okay. Bow your head with me, and pray this along with me. [I then prayed the prayer through again, and the words were up on the wall.]

Do you see what I did there?

  • I explained the essence of the gospel. ("God has been waiting, we're all sinners, Jesus died, etc.")
  • I followed this with my personal example, so they could see that I had done what I was inviting them to do, that coming to Christ involves a specific time and place, and that I had benefited from the decision.
  • Often, I take some time to spell out the benefits of salvation: eternity with Christ, forgiveness, peace, purpose, a new family and so on. I didn't need to do this that day because I'd illustrated so many benefits of his mercy during the message.
  • I told them specifically what to do to receive Christ.

7. Walk them through what happens next.

I went on to say:

If you prayed that prayer with me, I'd like to rejoice with you about it and give you some things that will help you live with Jesus and experience his mercy every day. So if you prayed that prayer, would you raise your hand for just a minute?

Great! I see your hand, and your hand and your hand. If you'd leave them up for just a minute, I have a friend who has a packet for you that will really help. So keep your hand up until you receive one.

Once all had received packets, I closed the prayer, gave assurance of salvation (and some celebration), and added further instructions on what to do next.

Super! Let's conclude the prayer. [At which point I thanked God for those who had come to faith, asked him for mercy for everyone in the room, etc.] In Jesus' name, amen.

If you prayed that prayer, your entire eternity has changed. The Bible says that all things have become new for you, and that the angels are throwing a party for you right now up in heaven.

If you prayed that prayer, please do two things for me. One is, on the back side of your Connection Card, there is a box that says, "I made a decision today to receive Christ." Would you check that box for me and put it in the offering when it comes around?

And if you received a packet, please stay in your seat for two minutes after the service, and someone will come walk you through it. If you didn't receive a packet, please come up after the offering, and we'll give you one.

On that particular day, 19 people raised their hands!

8. Don't be uncomfortable.

You may feel some angst about doing an altar call in your service. Get over it so you don't hinder the gospel with any awkwardness.

Here are two times to guard against making people feel uncomfortable:

  • If no one raises their hand. Bummer, but don't belabor it. Don't "give them one more minute." Just close in prayer: "Thank you, Jesus, for ... ."
  • If anyone raises their hand. You're excited, but be cool. If you make the new believer feel uncomfortable, others will be reluctant to raise their hands.

How to overcome awkwardness:

  • Practice. Preach the gospel at home, and some weekend in a church service, before the big day when you will have all the visitors in the room.
  • Listen to other preachers who lead churches who see people come to Christ regularly to learn how they do it. The more exposure you get, and the more you practice, the more comfortable you will be.
  • Get passionate about seeing people come to Christ. This isn't just a technique to grow your church. This is the central reason the church exists.

Now What?

What is the most important thing you can do this week to prepare to preach a powerful altar call? Put it on your to-do list.

Next time I'll tell you more about what the Next Steps team does following the altar call, how to keep new believers from slipping through the cracks and how to follow up with them in the first week after their decision.

Hal Seed is the founding and lead pastor of New Song Community Church in Oceanside, California. He mentors pastors who want to lead healthy, growing churches with resources at pastormentor.com.

This article originally appeared at pastormentor.com.

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