I experienced three different altar calls this past weekend, each of which took place in very different surroundings with varying degrees of impact.
For those of you not familiar with the tradition, an altar call is a distinctively evangelical and predominantly Southern custom in which a church or preacher issues an invitation for congregants to make a decisive commitment to faith in Christ at the conclusion of the worship gathering.
Though historians trace the roots of the altar call to Charles Finney in the 18th century, Billy Graham raised its profile by employing it to great effect at the conclusion of his crusades. I’ve personally seen crowds come pouring onto the field of what is now Bank Of America Stadium while George Beverly Shea sang Just As I Am in the background — all in response to Dr. Graham’s “altar call” invitation.
Altar calls are unknown in more liturgical churches and dismissed by our Calvinist friends who warn against confusing emotionalism with saving faith.
But back to this weekend.
The first altar call of the weekend — actually an urgent appeal for conversion without a invitation to “come forward” for prayer and confession — took place at a memorial service I attended on Saturday afternoon. (Ironically, as I posted on Friday, I had just that morning taught a class at Gordon-Conwell Seminary on . . . funeral ministries!).
I have to admit I did not respond favorably to that invitation in that particular setting. I have strong objections to using funerals and memorials services as calls for conversion. In my thinking, it deprives the family of an opportunity to celebrate memories of the one who has died as well as denying them the space they need to grieve the loss. Whatever evangelism I bring to funerals & memorials is much more subtle.
The second altar call of the weekend — actually, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th — took place in our Sunday services. We employ such invitations periodically rather than each week. Yet given the fact that this past Sunday was called Life After Death, we felt the time was right. We had good though not overwhelming response. The best part of the morning came when we asked the 8:30 and 10 crowds to be in prayer for the services and invitations that would follow later that morning. People were glad to be part of something bigger than themselves.
The third — and most impactful — altar call of the weekend came at Sunday’s night’s BigHouse Student Ministry. My friend Mike Paolicelli spoke to our teens and at his conclusion issued one of the boldest, most decisive invitations I’ve ever seen. He did not ask students to respond quietly or anonymously. Instead, he asked any wishing to make faith commitments to stand publicly and state it verbally. Teenagers! The most embarrassment-averse population we have! And yet several had the courage and the newfound faith to stand out from the crowd. I left the evening deeply grateful for Mike’s boldness, the students’ bravery, and God’s grace.