I just spoke at a teen camp where one of the campers asked me if I would be having a “sad chapel.” When I asked what she meant she said, “Well… you know… when you ask us to think about our lives and stuff and then we come up to the front and everyone’s crying and everything.” Interesting request, don’t you think?
A few years ago I was at a different youth camp where some of the middle school girls enjoyed gathering together to talk about various life issues. The issues usually had to do with boys–more specifically breaking up with boys–and without fail they would end up crying together. One day they invited my wife, Joy, to one of their sessions. One of the younger ones was frustrated. “I can’t cry. What’s wrong with me?” Though Joy assured her nothing was wrong, she went with the suggestion of one of her friends: to go outside and try to hurt herself. I promise you I am not making this up. Her attempt consisted of throwing herself to the ground, but this only added to her frustration. She wanted so bad to join in the festivities but just couldn’t get the dang faucet to turn on!
At that camp, the teens were lining the “altars” (there weren’t any, they just crowded around the front of the chapel) for any and every reason. The director thanked me after one particular chapel time and noted it was a “powerful service.” I really didn’t remember the message being all that emotional. In fact, I believe I spoke on anger. But this is what they wanted. And this was what the teen camper in our first story was looking for too. Should I have obliged?
From what I remember about church history, even though altars have been around for mellenia, the altar call started during the spiritual revivals of the 18 century Great Awakenings. Charles Finney (whom I affectionately refer to as Chuckleberry Finn) used them a lot, though often it was for getting people to respond to the abolitionist movement (Side note: once again we have a tradition of the church that is rooted in social action and has become something completely different today… sigh!). Today, altar calls are usually a challenge by a preacher to his/her listeners to take action in their spiritual lives. The preacher will ask if anyone would like to “come forward” and “take that step of faith” to either give one’s life to Christ, rededicate one’s life to Christ, promise to go on a missions trip, tell their neighbour about Jesus, stop lying, start giving, renounce Ozzy Osbourne, or some such thing. Whatever it may be, usually all the above are also mentioned as tag-alongs so that everyone knows they can go to the altar for any reason at all. After all, it is every preacher’s hope and dream that the altars will be jam packed with worshippers, preferably of the weeping variety.
I hate to admit this, but that really is every preacher’s desire. It’s like a measure of success for us. It shouldn’t be, and though we all would deny this, there’s something deep down that wants to see it happen. Of course, if we are not successful in this, we’re quick to say, “Oh it’s not about the emotions!” But the moment we strike gold, we are enraptured and not wanting the moment to end. This is why after just about every sermon preached in protestant churches everywhere the worship team or band are “invited back up” to play a song.
But should we be doing this? I’m not just questioning its effectiveness, I’m wondering if it is even ethically right. Let me state right away that I am not referring to the act of praying at an altar. That is something that should always be in the church. But this “call to come forward” is something I get less and less comfortable with as I get older. I may be off the mark, but consider the following arguments for not using them anymore (or at least not near as often):
1. It is so easily abused. Since every preacher hopes to be considered a “powerful speaker,” sometimes this ritual becomes a manipulative tool. Many of us can remember sitting through hour-long altar calls because of a preacher who couldn’t handle the fact that no one was responding to his call. I think the only time I ever felt suicidal was after hearing a preacher suggest we sing “I Surrender All” just one more time for the seventeenth time. The song has five verses, but at the right speed it can feel like miles longer.
2. It seems so… so… Benny Hinn-ish. Maybe even Jim Jones-ish. If you watch it happening and pretend it’s something you’re not accustomed to, it looks like a kind of mix between a Barry Manilow performance and something from the Home Shopping Network. Speaking of what it looks like, it should be mentioned here the strangeness of having people kneel at an altar that faces a stage (Yes, my Catholic and Orthodox friends, we don’t have an apse or a worship space… we protestants use a stage) where there is either the preacher standing or a band playing, or both. Does this image bother anyone?
3. It results in a lot of decisions made based on emotion. This is especially true with youth. We ask them countless times to commit to something during a time of identity searching and provide little follow-up. Of course, who can blame us for the lack of follow-up? It’s near impossible considering how many challenges to commitments are pitched… er, preached. So all of these decisions that were made in the heat of the moment easily become forgotten or a good source of undeserved guilt.
4. It gives the church a false sense of legitimacy. We hear things like, “Last Sunday forty-three people came to the altar and rededicated their lives to Christ,” and we are excited. We can’t wait to report this to denominational leaders. This is not what legitimizes the church. Yes, we should share the gospel with people and yes, it’s understandable to be excited when they respond to it positively. But considering the point made previously (#3), it seems to me that something much more substantive needs to be given such energy and celebration.
5. For young people, it can become something very different from what we’re intending them to be. The words of the young girl referred to at the beginning of this article speaks perfectly to this. She was hoping for those goose bump feelings and physical encounters. At youth camps, altar calls can be a teenage boy’s dream: a place to freely hug as many girls as you want. In fact, you can go up to one, throw your arm around her and sit/kneel cheek to cheek for an extended period of time. This leads many speakers/pastors to ask the worshippers to please pray with people of the same sex. Funny, isn’t it? Taking precautions to avoid inappropriate behaviour during a time of worship.
6. Is it really accomplishing anything? Perhaps we can remember times in our lives when we made important decisions during an altar call. But would these events have had no chance of taking place without the call to come forward? Couldn’t they have happened in a small group of praying believers or in a one-to-one spiritual mentorship meeting?
Now I must admit at this point that many people have made significant decisions to turn their lives around for the good during altar calls. So should this outweigh all of the points made above? I’m reminded of my friend in high school who said his dad found Christ after watching Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker in the early 1980’s. Most of us would agree that the ministry done by these two not only lacked ethical integrity, but was downright deceptive. So perhaps we should forget all of that and say, “Hey, many people made significant spiritual decisions as a result of the PTL TV broadcast. Let the show continue!” Or perhaps we should take a lesson from what happened in that circus and take steps to avoid such thing ever happening again. I like to think we did that with Jim and Tammy Faye. Maybe we should do that with our altar calls?
The alternative? I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some suggestions. I hope you can add to this list:
1. More sermons need to end with questions. Tough questions. Questions that aren’t accompanied with step-by-step answers. Questions that make them think a little more and feel a little less.
2. Why not have altars placed at the side of the sanctuary/chapel/room rather than at the front? This makes more room and avoids the Koresh-esque look of our prayer times. It would also allow for the public proclamation element while helping diminish attention-seeking motives for going to them.
3. Let’s be satisfied more often with a sermon simply proclaiming the good news and allowing that good news to do its own work. This is neither lazy nor negligent. In fact, it is quite an act of faith. The good news doesn’t need a strong sell. It is compelling and wonderful just the way it is. Besides, think of the amount of times you’ve heard a preacher ask people to make a decision “right now.” It’s the biggest decision of one’s life next to marriage and career choice. Would you ask someone to get married “right now” or would you recommend they think about it long and hard?
4. We should try to be more creative with the application of our messages. We do not need to ask for commitments after every sermon. We can give practical advice on what to do with what is learned and we can think of creative ways to do this.
5. Let’s try not having the band/worship team come back up to the platform as often. Usually when they do it is one of the more popular ballad-like that are sung. It used to be “I Surrender All” (shudder). “Refiner’s Fire” and “Shout to the Lord” had their day. Today it seems that “In Christ Alone” and anything by Chris Tomlin is what we hear Sunday after Sunday (Note: “Our God is Greater” is white hot right now!). Isn’t this a bit overkill? Let’s not sacrifice meaning for schmaltz.
I think if we change and allow this practice to die out (at least the practice as we know it) Chuckleberry Finn would more than understand. The girl at the camp last week may not, however.