ATLANTA (Christian Examiner) – "Before I pray with you, let me set the record straight. Raising your hand does not save you. Praying a prayer does not save you. Walking down an aisle does not save you."
It is a familiar refrain from Evangelist Rick Gage, repeated in hundreds of communities, describing how a person is "born again" and what it means to live a transformed life.
"You are saved by a Person. His name is Jesus. You're praying to Him. You're asking Him to forgive your sins and to change your life.
"The Bible says 'Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved,' and if you're willing to repent of your sin, turn away from your sin, and surrender your life to God – let Him live in and through you – you shall be saved.
"What gets a man to Heaven is what the Bible calls repentance, turning from your sins and surrendering your life, your whole life, to Him.
"If you're willing to come to God on His terms – not Rick Gage's terms, not Daddy's terms, not Mommy's terms -- and become a slave to God, a slave to righteousness, a partaker of God's divine nature tonight, then from your heart to God, with sincerity, if you're willing to repent and you're ready to surrender your life to Christ, then I want you to pray this prayer of repentance in your heart."
The altar is where hundreds of thousands of repenting sinners and saints have been confronted with the Truth of Jesus Christ just like this through his 26-year-plus years with GO TELL Ministries, based in Duluth, Georgia, in evangelistic crusades across small town America.
Some question altar calls, the validity of a sinner's prayer of repentance and even the viability of revivals.
But these are not soul winners, Ephesians 4:11 harvest evangelists like Billy Graham and Rick Gage.
It is not about flying in for four nights and then back out, Gage says, but investing in a community.
"It's hard work," Gage said, "and that's why there aren't more evangelistic crusades. It's hard work."
"They're right [critics] that there's nothing magical about altar calls and the sinner's prayer. It's about reaching people with the Gospel and bringing them to a point where they know they need Christ. There's no prayer you can pray that can save you if you don't have a believing heart and the courage to profess Jesus," he added. "A walk down the aisle isn't even good exercise without the right heart."
The altar call is the culmination of months of working with local congregations in training, conducting outreach events in communities, holding rallies to energize congregations, and prayer, prayer, prayer, Gage described. It also is the starting line for months and years of follow up.
"We start with a group of pastors and lay leaders who have been praying for revival. It all starts with prayer. We don't try to force a revival in an area where we know it's not ready. But we look for a group of people who are truly broken-hearted for their churches and their community," he said. "It may be only a handful in some places. But it's evident they've been praying long and hard for the Holy Spirit to do something among them."
Unity among Believers is one of the signs of a community that is humbled and ready to do something beyond themselves, Gage said, referencing 2 Chronicles 7:14. Humbleness to pray with a brother or sister who might not be from the same denomination or same size church, or even the same color of skin, he said, is a sign of biblical unity.
"We ask churches to agree on two points of doctrine," Gage said. "That you can place your trust in Jesus Christ, and that you can trust His Word."
Gage asks churches to hold off teaching any other doctrines until a new Believer is handed off to their congregation for the follow up that takes place after the crusade. This lets people from many different opinions about baptism, the working of the Holy Spirit and other teachings to come together with likeminded-ness, an attitude that continues long after the crusade in many cases and those are the communities where revival and awakening continues when the crusade is over, he said.
Revival is a refreshing of the spirit of church members, he explained, while awakening is for the spiritually dead, the lost among neighbors, friends, family and coworkers.
Gage's team comes in during a 9-month period or so to organize and train local teams in outreach, prayer, decision counseling, usher duties, youth events, even stewardship procedures to help meet the local budget.
His crusades are structured like Billy Graham's in terms of organizing, training and resourcing local team leaders to continue growing their respective groups of volunteers after initial instruction from GO TELL.
Counseling training is a big emphasis, and the focus is on the Billy Graham model.
Even when hundreds of counselors are trained there are never enough, Gage reflected. Moreover, he said it's important for churches to have trained counselors for what it does to help grow existing congregations.
"People who are trained in leading others to Christ want to lead others to Christ," Gage offered. "It infuses a church with soul winners."
Likewise, he said prayer walking in communities trains church members to care about their neighbors, and, going door-to-door and handing out Gospel tracts and other information in WalMart parking lots makes them bold in sharing their faith.
All of this effort is to bring lost people to hear a Gospel message and to lead them to a point of decision-making that takes place in the grandstands of a local high school football stadium.
Then the hard work continues, Gage insists. "This is just the launching point for missions and ministry.
"We've coached churches to set up follow up teams and classes for new Believers. We've talked to them about plugging new people immediately into ministries," he said. "We've prepared them to start long term mentoring for the spiritual health and growth of new Believers who come forward during the crusade."
One of those great success stories is Cooper, Texas, he said.
A town of about 1,900 residents -- during pre-crusade and crusade events, combined, in 2013 -- had 466 residents, about 25 percent of the town, make some type of commitment to Christ, including 245 salvation decisions, around 12 percent of the population, according to GO TELL's records.
Moreover, leaders in Cooper were aggressive in enrolling new Believers in classes, Gage said. "One pastor told us he had baptized more people through this crusade than in the last five years, and, the last report we received from the churches was that 100 percent of the people they enrolled after that 2013 crusade are still active members of a local church today!"
During the last two years, GO TELL Ministries has held ten crusades, including two in Mexico. Almost 8,000 people repented for salvation and another 12,000 repented for restoration during these outreach campaigns, according to Gage, and churches were changed.
All from altar calls, during crusades, where sinners made pleas for forgiveness while surrendering their hearts to Christ.
"We're on your team," Gage encourages a crowd that has formed in front of the platform erected on the football field.
"We've been in your homes, in your schools, in the community to get you here tonight to hear the solution for those temporary problems we've talked about – the Gospel is the only message that can change your lives."
"We love you. We want God's best for you. And I want to see you become giants for God. Let's shake this town upside down for the glory of God.
"All right. I want everyone to look to my left, your right. I want everyone to walk that way to the end zone. Let me tell you why. We're going to give you a book, some materials, and we're going to get some information so we can follow up.
"We have some godly men and women in this end zone who want to explain what it means to live for Jesus and to live a godly life. If you're going to make a difference for God, you've got to start spending time with God on a regular basis. You start by reading His Word. Develop some disciplines, just like athletes discipline their bodies.
"Athletes work out every day so they can become stronger, faster and more agile.
"Every day get into the Word. Pray to God daily. Be a witness for Christ. Live a holy life. Live a godly life. Live a clean life. Live a pure life.
"Don't be a fake. Don't be a fraud. Be a man and a woman for God. We're going to be praying for you and trust God is going to do great things through your lives!"