Altar calls: Come on down!

by K.W. Leslie, 24 October
ALTAR 'ɔl.tər noun. A table or block used as the focus for a religious ritual, particularly offerings or ritual sacrifices to a deity.
2. In Christianity, the table used to hold the elements for holy communion.
3. In some churches, the stage, the steps to the stage, or the space in front of the stage, where people go as a sign of commitment.

During our worship services, sometimes Christians are invited to leave our seats and come forward to the stage. It’s called an altar call.

Thing is, we’re not sure how the term originated. ’Cause the stage, or the front of the stage, wasn’t called an altar back then. The altar was the communion table. My guess is people were originally instructed to gather by the communion table. In a lot of churches, that altar is front and center; in the church I went to as a child, it was right in front of the preacher’s podium.

But when evangelists held rallies, whether at a concert hall, sports arena, outdoor stadium, theater, high school gym, or grade school cafeteria, or any venue where there is no communion table, they’d say “Come to the altar” anyway. Force of habit, I guess. So people came forward… and assumed something around there was the altar. The stage, perhaps.

You realize when we don’t clearly define things for the people of our churches, people just guess. And guess wrong. It’s why so many Christians don’t know what a soul is. Hence many new Christians have guessed the stage is the altar, so the word has evolved to mean a stage too. As if the people on stage are our ritual sacrifice to God. (Considering how some of them mangle the scriptures, some butchering is apparently still part of our services. But I’ll stop the ranting there.)

Anyway, altar calls used to generally be for people who wished to become Christian. The evangelist would invite ’em forward, and a pastor or elder would lead ’em in the sinner’s prayer. In many churches this is still true; it’s the only reason they have altar calls. “Come lay down your life at the altar,” is the idea: Submit to God, accept his salvation, let Jesus be your Lord, and let him make your life more abundant.

The altar call began as a dramatic way for people to visibly demonstrate they repented and were turning to God. They didn’t do altar calls in the bible though. John the baptist and the first Christians preferred baptism. But nowadays, churches expect you to go through some sort of baptism class first, so the altar call became an acceptable Evangelical substitute: Wanna give your life to Jesus? Come forward. One of our prayer team will pray with you.

Not every church does it, of course. In really large churches it’s not practical to move masses of people to the front of the auditorium. Some churches don’t approve of the public display. Show-offs will act like they’re publicly repenting, and really they’re just trying to get attention. Certain emotionally unstable people will come forward to every altar call, and go through the whole ritual time and again: They’ll repent, they’ll get prayed over, they’ll have a nice cathartic cry… and they’ll come back next week and do it all over again. Do they ever actually repent? Maybe. But really they’re there for the emotional release.

So if they don’t do altar calls, they do something like it: “If you haven’t yet received Jesus, meet us in the fellowship hall after the service,” or “Come talk to me about it later.” It’s a lot less emotional… which they prefer, ’cause it means people put some thought into turning to Jesus, instead of letting their emotions sway them. Speaking for myself, I don’t care whether it’s an emotional or thoughtful response; either can take. Likewise people can rethink, then turn their back on, either response. The important thing is we have some venue where people can turn to Jesus.

Altar calls for any and every reason.

Once I became Pentecostal, the churches I attended would have altar calls for anything and everything. “Who’s going through a tough time and needs prayer? Come to the altar. Who knows someone who’s going through a tough time and needs prayer? Come on forward.” And so on. Until not a single person was sitting in the seats anymore: The preacher had found a reason for everyone to come forward, and so they had.

The first Pentecostal church I joined: The pastors loved to get people to come forward. Likely so they could brag, “We had an altar call, and a hundred people came forward!” Well of course they did: The call was, “Anybody who wants more joy in their life, come on forward!” Well, assuming you’re not off your meds, who doesn’t want more joy? Everybody’s coming forward—especially when they’re used to always coming forward.

I went to a Pentecostal college, and we’d have daily chapel services, and a lot of guest preachers who pulled this stunt. Nearly every one of ’em wanted to be able to say, “I preached at my alma mater last week, and the entire student body came forward when I was done.” Supposedly because their sermons were so rousing and Spirit-filled. But let’s be honest: Not all were. (Not even close.) So they’d settle for the same stunt my pastors enjoyed: “Come forward if you’re stressed.” Yep, that’d describe everybody. “And come forward if you’re tired” would get any stragglers who were too tired to notice they were stressed.

No, these altar calls didn’t always do us good. Although some of us thought it did. As you recall, I was going to a church which’d get us to come forward every Sunday, so now I was just coming forward for every chapel service. I was repenting right and left.

Till one day when I went forward and had this conversation with God:

HOLY SPIRIT. “What’re you doing here?”
ME. “Repenting.”
HOLY SPIRIT. “No you’re not. You repented of this already.”
ME. “I’m repenting again.”
HOLY SPIRIT. “Go sit back down.”
ME. “Yes sir.”
HOLY SPIRIT. “Don’t come back up till I tell you to.”
ME. “Yes sir.”

He didn’t tell me to for two years.

I got so many dirty looks from chapel speakers for the next two years. Y’see, I had the bad habit of sitting in the first few rows. (For pragmatic reasons; it helped keep me awake. No this isn’t a slam on their speaking ability; it’s from regularly only getting six hours’ sleep.) The speakers wanted everybody to come forward—and here I was, sitting two rows away from them, not budging ’cause the Boss hadn’t given me the go-ahead. They must’ve thought I was the least repentant sinner imaginable.

Of course, in so doing, the Spirit taught me what a sham these any-reason altar calls can become.

Oh, I’m not saying there aren’t plenty of times where we oughta come forward for prayer. Or to publicly repent, or to make public commitments. There are many situations where we absolutely should. But if your preachers are trying to make you get out of your seat for an altar call every single week, they’re overdoing it. The only people who need to come forward that often are brand-new Christians still trying to get the hang of following Jesus. Longtime Christians who still have to come forward to repent all the time? Either they suck as Christians, or their pastors are narcissists who get off on how easily they can sway their congregations.

Or, to be fair to the pastors, they might be naïve and not realize they shouldn’t be doing this. But if they’ve been doing this for years, they’re should definitely know better by now.

Resisting the altar calls.

Now, I was resisting the altar calls ’cause God told me. Other people refuse to come forward for all sorts of other reasons. Usually pride. They think altar calls are stupid, and they’d feel stupid if they gave in to one of them.

And sometimes the reason a preacher tries to get everyone to come forward, is because of these holdouts. See, if everyone comes forward, and you’re the only person left in the seats, you’re gonna feel awkward. (Trust me; I know from experience.) Peer pressure is a powerful motivator when you’re trying to get people to do as they ought.

Of course this begs the obvious question, “What if people don’t mean it?” We all know stories of people who were peer-pressured to give their lives to Jesus but didn’t mean it. The reason they went through the motions was because people simply wouldn’t let up on the pressure; wouldn’t take no for an answer; nagged ’em into saying the sinner’s prayer. Of course nagging someone into repentance never makes them repentant: It makes ’em fake it. It produces hypocrites. Yet we still do it—foolishly. We want people to be saved so bad, we lose sight of the difference between how we break someone’s will, and how the Holy Spirit softens a heart.

Whenever I ask people to come forward to accept Jesus, I ask once. Not twice. I deliberately keep it short. Why? Because if they hesitate, and miss the opportunity, I want them to regret the missed opportunity. I want it to bother ’em. Not as punishment; not as passive-aggressive torture; not at all. I want it to work on their minds like a wool sweater on bare skin: They’re so chafed about missing their chance, they won’t make that mistake twice. Next altar call, next week, they’ll demand a chance. They’ll go out of their way to find someone to help lead ’em to Jesus. Or they’ll pray a sinner’s prayer on their own. Or they’ll otherwise do something. I want people to fight their way into the kingdom. I shouldn’t have to hound them into it.

A crowd of repentant sinners encircling me is not a mark of my success. If someone resists altar calls, fine. Let ’em be. They can repent on their own. Or seek Jesus on their own. So long that they eventually get to and follow Jesus, it’s all good.