Childhood Memories Friday: Altar Calls

Childhood Memories Friday

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.

Rededications

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).

8 thoughts on “Childhood Memories Friday: Altar Calls

  1. My church, First Baptist in Seymour Indiana does altar calls and I am pleased we do. Our pastor handles it very well. When you attend church, you should be given an opportunity to go forward to accept Christ as your Savior. It is the most important decision you will ever make and determines your eternity. Dr. Silver was our pastor for maybe 26 years. His favorite invitation hymn was “Just As I Am.” Heaven only knows how many times I have played that one.

  2. I am tempted to say that the reason your church doesn’t do altar calls is because you no longer attend a Baptist church. Aside from the Baptists and Pentecostals, I’m not aware of churches that give altar calls, and for that I’m sorry. Going to church should not be done so that you can be a part of a social group. It’s so that you can react to the truth of what the pastor has just preached. Would more people get saved if they attended a church where an altar call was given? I believe they would.

  3. This is something I have wrestled with over the years. I have seen some invitations that were quite manipulative. We’ve had guest “revival” preachers that name just about everything under the sun that you could possibly need to come forward for (“Do you need to love the Lord more? Do you need to love others more?”) in what seemed like an effort to just get everyone to come down front, and you felt really unspiritual if you didn’t go. I don’t know their hearts, of course, but sometimes it seemed like it was done just so the preachers could see “results”. The manipulation, the seeming need to see the results (some preachers do this by handraising – “With heads bowed and eyes closed, if you’re convicted of this sin, raise your hand”) when we need to leave the results to God, and the fact that we don’t see altar calls like this in the bible all had me against them for a while. You do see calls for response in the Bible, but the closest thing to an altar call was in Moses’s time with, “Who is on the LORD’S side? let him come unto me” (Exodus 32:26). All of that led me to be against them for a while. I used to “go forward” for every little thing, and finally realized that if I was convicted about something, I could talk to the Lord about it right there in my seat. Some preachers would say, “You’re a testimony to others if you go forward. Some people will see you and be inspired to go forward themselves.” But we’re all supposed to have our heads bowed and eyes closed….so presumably most people wouldn’t even know. Some people have even confused “walking the aisle” or “raising a hand” with salvation, as if they became Christians by walking to the altar or raising their hand rather than by faith.

  4. (Continued from above – it wouldn’t let me post the whole comment. Sorry to be so wordy. 🙂 )

    On the other hand, when I was a young mom, especially, I appreciated those few quiet moments at the altar, or even, occasionally, an opportunity to talk to the pastor’s wife, and get counsel and pray over something before needing to get the kids from the nursery and go start lunch, and there wouldn’t be any quiet moments for hours.

    I like the way our current church does it now. We sing a couple of verses of a hymn and opportunity is given to come forward, but it isn’t pushed or presented like the only possible way you can get right is to come forward. Sometimes the pastor will say that if someone is not a Christian and wants to talk about it, or talk to about anything else, to see him or the assistant pastor after the service. Some people would respond to that more than an altar call.

  5. In my youth altar calls were made quite frequently in our United Brethren Church, which became the Evangelical United Brethren Church for several years. Altar calls were still familiar, but once we became United Methodists in the mid-1969s not so much. Even though Pleasant Chapel is the same church building that had my Grandfather Rupert’s name on the cornerstone, the style of worship changed enough that altar calls are not the norm anymore. Our current Pastor never makes them, and his predecessor’s were few and far between. Not even once a year in my recollection.
    My take on altar calls changed when an Evangelist from Ohio told the congregation that you don’t need to keep on “re-dedicating” yourself since once God forgives you of your sins there is no need for repeat performances. He made it sound like you didn’t have enough faith in God’s forgiveness if you walked the aisle more than once. That made such an impression on me, that I stayed put after that. I already knew that I was a Christian and that my sins had been forgiven. In fact, I accepted Jesus into my heart when I was only 8 years old. Yes, I DID listen to the sermons and was moved to become a Christian, even though many people thought that I was too young to understand what it all meant. I always was more adult than child from that day forward. And I do feel that some preachers and evangelists do “manipulate” people into very emotional responses. Looks better on their church records for the year to have some new converts. Please don’t take this as too cynical, because I am fine with altar calls whenever they are done. I simply stay back and pray rather than going forward.

  6. Oh boy, what a topic. At our church it was called the “Invitation Hymn.” I had never heard it called an altar call until recently. I was baptized at 10 after “coming forward” at the invitation hymn, but my sister and I also had gone through a class and talked to the minister beforehand.

Thanks for taking the time to comment. I enjoy hearing your thoughts.