Altar calls: does your church do them? While in church recently, I realized that for over half my life now, I’ve attended churches that don’t have altar calls. And this is kind of strange to me, since they were a big part of church services when I was growing up.
A little business first. What, exactly, is an altar call? Well, for the Baptist church where I grew up, it involved the final hymn at the end of the service. During that hymn, the pastor stood up front, but not up at the podium — down by the altar (hence the name?). Before the hymn began, he’d invite anyone in the audience who wanted to make “a decision for Christ” to come forward during that hymn. People walked down the aisle during the altar call to confess Christ as Savior, thereby becoming Christians and joining the church.
Since I spent a lot of time in church, I became a bit analytical about how these things worked. If the pastor had a really stirring sermon, I’d kind of calculate mentally how many might “come forward” during the “invitation” (another name for the altar call). If the sermon was more pedestrian, there might be an altar call with no takers. Of course, there was no accounting for how the Holy Spirit would move someone. Still, if the sermon had been a rousing one, and we’d sung through maybe three verses of the invitation hymn with nobody coming down to the altar, I’d feel bad for the pastor. Nobody coming down almost felt like a vote of no confidence. On occasions like this, the pastor would frequently motion to the organist and pianist to stop at the end of verse three. Then, he would give a little pep talk; “Oh beloved, are you sure of your salvation today? None of us are promised tomorrow. Don’t leave with that uncertainty in your heart.” On we’d go to verse four. Often, this was enough to bring someone down.
Not everyone responding to the altar call was seeking salvation. There were many who came down for “rededication.” A person could only become a Christian once, but human nature being what it is, we all can backslide a bit. If you’d done that, the altar call was a time to come down to the front to rededicate yourself to the Lord. Rededications were also more frequent after particularly moving sermons, and I noticed too that certain families in the church must have really been spiritual, because members of those families seemed to come forward to rededicate over and over.
Sometimes I was a little envious of those families. They seemed to have such a close relationship with the Holy Spirit! As an adult, with a bit more perspective, I now see that they were probably just more extroverted, demonstrative folks.
Although parts of altar calls strike me as being a bit emotionally manipulative, I have to say that overall I miss them. In my current church, especially when I first attended, it bothered me that there weren’t altar calls. What if you were moved by something during the service and wanted to accept Christ — it seemed there wasn’t a specific avenue for doing that. No, there aren’t altar calls in the Bible, but I just sort of liked the structure they gave to a service.
How about you and your church — altar calls or not?
If you enjoyed this post, you may want to read my memoir about growing up Baptist in Indiana in the 1970s — “I Love to Tell the Story” (aff. link).