I've read a number of Christian blogs where the tradition of the "invitation" or "altar call" has been criticized. The typical arguments are that this is a new practice, that it is not supported by scripture, and that the tradition is abused by evangelistic preachers - causing them to guilt non-believers into making a non-genuine decision for Christ.
History: Invitations to accept Christ are not new, but the specific form of invitation known as an "altar call" is a relatively new practice. It started with the evangelist Charles Finney, back in the 1830's. Other well known evangelists who have popularized the practice include D.L Moody, Billy Sunday, Corrie ten Boom, and Billy Graham.
Should we discontinue the practice of the altar call because it is new? No! Innovations in worship are often helpful, and should be welcomed if they conform to scripture. In fact Isaiah 43 says to not dwell on the past, because God is doing a new thing. To reject something simply because it is new is legalistic. Church today should not be identical to the way it was in 1829. In 1829 no church had electric lighting or indoor plumbing, but you don't hear Christians complaining about those innovations!
Altar calls are really a new type of liturgy – something instituted as a tradition in some evangelical circles. Liturgies in and of themselves are neutral. They can be used by the Spirit, or they can be empty. It depends how we use the liturgy.
Scriptural Support: Another complaint about the altar call is that the practice is not mentioned in scripture. While altar calls are not specifically mentioned, public invitations to accept Christ were frequently made by many of the disciples including Peter and Paul. That's what an altar call is, a public invitation to accept Christ. The altar call is used in a manner that strongly affirms scripture.
Altar calls are used to proclaim the good news of Jesus. In Mark 16:15 Jesus said to "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation."
Altar calls are used by preachers to exhort repentance. In Acts 17 Paul makes a public invitation to the Athenians to accept Christ. In Acts 17:30 Paul said that "...(God) commands all people everywhere to repent."
Altar calls are used by new believers to publicly acknowledge God. Jesus called for his disciples to follow him publicly. Matthew 10:32-33 states that "Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven."
Altar calls are used for confession. An altar is a place where we can confess our sins. 1 John 1:9 states that "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."
Altars calls are used for the laying on of hands, for healing, for anointing by the elders of the church, and for the forgiveness of sins. James 5:13-16 states: "Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective."
Altars are a place where the non-believer can be overwhelmed, convicted of sin, and worship God. 1 Corinthians 14:24-25 states that: "...if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, "God is really among you!"
Even though altar calls are not specifically mentioned in scripture, invitations are, and altar calls are a type of invitation. They are clearly used in a way that is at the heart of scripture.
Decisional Regeneration: Does God "save" someone who makes a trip to the altar? He certainly desires to, but justification is dependent first on the grace of God and then on the heart of person at the altar. In Luke 18:9-15 Jesus describes two types of people who went to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and one was a tax collector. The Pharisee prayed “thanks that I’m not like this tax collector.” The tax collector prayed “God have mercy on me a sinner.” Jesus said that the tax collector was the one who went home justified. So it is with going to the altar. Some will be justified, some will not be. It depends if the person has the heart of a Pharisee or a tax collector.
Abusive Practice? Can evangelists and preachers abuse the practice of altar calls? Certainly they can. Altar calls can be coercive, they can appeal to emotion instead of scripture, they can be overused. I have been to such services and revivals. But many church practices can be abused - including tithing, exorcism, baptism, confession, and others. Abuse in and of itself is not a legitimate reason to discard a practice. We should instead use altar calls only in ways that affirm scripture.
The bottom line is that there is a need for the good news of Jesus to be preached. Altar calls are used for that purpose.
Conclusion: By their fruit you will recognize them. Who can deny that God has used men such as Billy Graham to preach the gospel and call men to repentance? The altar call has definitely been used by the Spirit. It has been used by men of God in Godly ways. It has been used in ways that conform to scripture. Many of those who have gone to the altar have become believers, and lives have been changed.