Altar Calls: are they any good?

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.

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About troycarruthers

I am a franchise owner/technician specializing in mobile auto paint and tire rim repair. I live in New Brunswick, Canada, with my wife and children whom I love even more than movies.
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12 Responses to Altar Calls: are they any good?

  1. ddgunter says:

    Troy, this was one of your best posts yet. And I agree. Success measured by a 1 hour emotional experience one day a week seems cheap. Real life gets lived during the other 7×24-1 hours in the week.
    I honestly never thought of the fact that alters are usually “at the feet” of the worship team. I’m guessing most people haven’t either. But the irony is cutting. Putting them at the side is a great idea.
    Thanks for the thought provoking words.

  2. I have often looked upon alter calls and thought the same things that you mentioned in this post. Have I gone up to one and gotten something out of it? Yes, I have. But, at the same time, if I don’t feel like the Holy Spirit is tugging on my heart-strings I can find myself getting distracted from people going up in front of everyone and kneeling at an alter of prayer. Popular questions (and general nosiness) of what they have going on in their life, and if I should go pray with them quickly make my own worship take the back burner.
    I have actually thought the same thing about worship bands, why do we worship towards them while they are up on a stage… someone coming in off the street that doesn’t know may look at this and wonder why we are worshiping our band.
    I don’t know… I know that one person can’t fix everything, but this post really hit me as it has been something that I have often thought about.

    Thanks 🙂

    • Laura Biggar says:

      Exellent observation. Having done both worship leading and entertainment for 20+ years my observation is this – entertainment works well on a stage. Worship doesn’t unless the crowd is fully focused on worshipping Christ. How about putting the worship musicians at the back of the room…or turning the chairs around…or having worship times in someone’s backyard or living room where everyone is encouraged to ‘lead’. Lets start calling corporate worship events what they are – worship concerts. That’s okay too.

      • pastortroyc says:

        Corporate worship events as concerts… I agree that that is ok and that we ought to just call them that. I just wonder why it’s always music. I keep hearing, “Oh it’s not ALL music. We pray, we take offering, we do responsive reading… etc.” But no one can deny that evangelical Christians mainly sing for worship. I would agree with someone saying that it’s effective and meaningful, but every once in a while I’d like some Thai food. Or maybe German. Meat and potatoes every night just gets bland after a while, you know?

        Good points on preaching btw. Pretty good article. I think there are some churches that try that idea of having others pitch in. I read about one of them in Jim and Casper go to church. Talk about a good, challenging book.

  3. Andy Scott says:

    Hey Troy this was a great post!

    I think the “Emotional” altar call needs to die. But calls to commitment need to continue to happen. What ever that looks like, teens need to be given a chance to publicly make a commitment. It was durring a call to commitment that God truly got a hold of me and my life started to take shape. I grew up as an altar call junkie but once I got a good youth pastor he challenged me. Whenever I went up he followed through and made sure I was keeping straight. And when I wasn’t he called me out on it.

    I totally agree with you, the emotional up front sobbing into each others arms is a pretty old and tired scene. But something more effective needs to take its place. What is it? I think it will take shape in different ways, dropping notes in a hat or writing letters to your youth pastor or maybe open a blog haha I don’t know but having teens make a public statement can be an important milestone in their lives, I know it was for me.

    GREAT blog!! lots to think about here!

  4. Well said, Troy. I really dislike taking my kids to events for this very reason. When they were younger, a few were getting “saved” on a yearly basis. Mind you, when I was younger, so did I. The altar experience caused me to now, as an adult, mistrust emotion’s role in connecting us with God and the things of God. It has made me skeptical and cynical of a lot of things.

  5. Blaine Hanna says:

    Excellent post. I have had similar thoughts and feelings about altar calls for a very long time. I somehow managed to avoid the whole “altar call experience” as a youth and didn’t really encounter them very often until I went to Bethany, and I really don’t think I’m any worse off for not having them while growing up.

    I am glad you have said what needs to be said. I also think it is significant that this comes from a youth leader such as yourself. I’m relieved to discover not all youth leaders believe the altar call is the only way to go.

    Thanks for the great post.

  6. Rob McD says:

    Good thoughts, I appreciate what you had to say. Now that I am a Lead pastor I have felt this way and have given altar calls at times, to appeal to “my base” so to speak but do struggle with them. I think one of the issues that we need to think through is when people make decisions or want to change what does it look like to get others involved? One of the few redeeming qualities is that it gives others a chance to know people’s decisions and be a support. Not that this is a reason to hold onto it but I think we need to think through ways that people do get to process there decisions in a community setting.

  7. Chris Stephens says:

    Great post! Last week I was leading worship at a camp in PA. One of the first conversations I had with the camp speaker and director was about altar calls. I made it clear that I wasn’t interested in having the band come up at the end of each message for many of the reasons you mentioned above. I affirm Rob’s comment about thinking through ways that people can respond in a community setting. Publicly testifying about what God is doing and or has done in your life is a great way to edify the body of Christ. Finally, your quote “Lets not sacrifice meaning for schmaltz” is a great reminder for all worship bands & speakers at camp. The last thing anybody needs is a “worship band” looking more like “band” needing their egos stroked. Same goes for a camp speaker. Lets keep Christ the focal point. Lets depend on the Holy Spirit to do the work. Thanks for the post Troy!

  8. Laura Biggar says:

    Good point and I agree. But here’s a question for you. What if we became less sermon-based and consider going right back to the inter-active organic meetings that the NT apostles planted – where EVERY member had something to say…not just the ‘pastor’. There is some evidence that the average person remembers more of what they hear themselves say than what is said by others, including preachers. Check out this article by a former missionary/pastor: http://www.edgenet.org.nz/ideasfromedge/problemwithpreachings.htm
    Just stirrin the pot. – Laura B

  9. danidunken says:

    “If your hunger could’be met the word being preached you could’ve had an encounter”-Cory Russell.
    I’m with you-Let’s not manipulate people to come forward or turn it into a habit. And amen! Let’s not measure our success by how many people fill the altar.
    But as for myself, in any service I attend I try and find some part of the message that I can respond to. Mostly I can, because I’m young and growing. I’ve found God welcomes me every time with open arms. Not trying to be better than everyone else, just obeying the command to be holy (1 Peter) and when I compare myself to the holiness of God…I run to the altar and weep.

  10. I give them four choices…1. Don’t do anything and enjoy the fact that you are already living for God and spend the time in reflection of God’s goodness. 2. I tell them they can go to the back and talk to a leader and accept Jesus for the first time. 3. I tell them they can go talk to a leader about anything they want to. 4. I tell them they can simply ignore everything that was said and make the decision to say “No” to Jesus. This is a clear call to make a decision. Even a “No” is making a decision. I want to be the type of speaker/pastor/teacher/preacher that is used by the Holy Spirit to help people know where they stand. And the BACK of the room is my preference 🙂

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