My Relationship With Altar Calls

I admit that I have an uneasy relationship with the uniquely Southern, Protestant tradition of the “altar call”: the invitation for people to come forward at the end of the service to surrender their lives to Christ.

The source of my ambivalence? Well, on the one hand, I recall a conversation I had with a good church friend several years ago. And he asked me, “Why don’t you have an altar call every Sunday? After all, whenever our Lord spoke, he always had one.”

Really? When Jesus spoke, he always gave an altar call?

Well, no. I feel quite sure Jesus never even heard “Just As I Am.” The altar call is a modern development. Jesus’ public addresses followed no prescribed formula; they were designed simultaneously to comfort AND to infuriate. He did call for response, but not at an altar in a decisive moment of faith.

So the misinformation on the part of my friend contributed to my suspicion.

As does the reality that there are many creative ways to conclude a time of worship together . . . including those that make the message “stick” with the entire congregation, not just the ones who are weighing a faith decision in their minds.

Yet in contrast to my mixed emotions, consider what happened this past Sunday at Good Shepherd. At the conclusion of a message of personal boundaries as the basis for parental boundaries — “You can only give what you already have” — we opened up the altar.

We gave people whose lives are out of control the opportunity to place their lives under the Lordship of Jesus.

And at 11:30, people started coming. And coming. And coming. Young and old. Skeptic and seeker. Black, white, Hispanic, and Asian. We invited all kinds of people into a living relationship with a reigning Savior, and they responded.

So we’ve spent much of the week following up on those decisions made at our altar on Sunday morning.

I don’t want to confine God to a formula, so we’ll always be flexible when it comes to altar calls.

But I want to give the Spirit space to run in people’s lives and this kind of follow up this week . . . well, that’s what being a pastor is all about.

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