I imagine. An invitation from the front. A voice carries all the way to the back of the sanctuary and touches our ears. Courage. Heschel said it felt like his legs were praying. And me too. We stand with legs carrying us, congregation praising for us, and angels rejoicing above us. Accepting and receiving. Sacrificing and loving. We're prayed for and then instead of leaving the altar and returning to our seats, we walk out the door to serve and change the lives of others. Just as our lives have been changed.
Altar calls are holy, life-changing, potential-filled moments at the end of many Christian worship services. What if we re-imagined how we do them?
Imagine an altar call, where an invitation is presented to congregants and guests to do more -- to live the sermon, to apply what they have heard, to respond to a calling that may be stirring within. An invitation to not only accept Christ as their Savior, but to follow Him to the least of these. An invitation to not only join the church, but an invitation to turn right back around, walk back down the aisle and live the church outside of its four walls.
The Altar Call
It's a powerful moment. Full of potential and a holy discomfort. Courage and celebration. The altar call, the moment of decision, the invitation to Christian discipleship.
The act of inviting individuals to leave their seats and walk towards the front of the worship service as a sign of their public profession in Christ is a relatively new act in the history of the church. Many trace its origins to the late 18th and early 19th centuries when many Protestant preachers moved towards preaching sermons that challenged listeners to make a decision -- a personal decision -- to give their lives to Christ and accept Him as their Lord and as their Savior. It is from this invitation which would come at the end of the worship service that we get the phrase "moment (or hour) of decision."
The term "altar call" is an interesting one that has theological complexities that many of us make take for granted. On one level, it is simply a call or invitation to the front of the sanctuary where the altar is or would be. And yet, it also harkens back to the Jewish heritage of the Christian faith where sacrifices were made on the altar as an offering to the Living God -- sacrifices of thanksgiving, praise, as well as sacrifices atoning for the sins of God's people.
Today, in the Christian context, the role of the altar is complex. Within some Christian traditions, the altar is still a place of sacrifice, where a priest or pastor commemorates the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. The celebration of Communion or the Eucharist is interpreted by some as a sacrifice (or a commemoration of the sacrifice) on the altar. Many churches invite worshipers to literally come forward to the altar (an altar call in a sense), to bear witness to this sacrifice, and to connect ourselves to the Body of Christ by partaking in the bread and wine.
In some other Christian traditions, keeping with a strong Protestant and western theme, the emphasis is more on the individual and her or his personal response to sin, to the gospel, and to Jesus. The sacrifice of Christ is still for all believers, yet one must make their own choice as to how they will respond to this and if they will accept this sacrifice. Thus the altar call in many traditions is seen as a moment where a sinner may come and either offer themselves and their lives as an offering to God or, come to the altar to give thanks for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who died for our sins. Rather than the priest making the sacrifice at the altar, each individual believer is invited forward to make a sacrifice her or himself.
For many churches, particularly in most evangelical or charismatic churches (recognizing that there is a great diversity within those terms), an invitation is made and those desiring to convert, or to be saved, or even to join a different church, make their way to the front of the congregation, service, or meeting. In some churches, those at the front are led through some version of a "Sinner's prayer." Some congregations invite these new members (or soon to be members) of the Body of Christ to a different room so that they can share more information with them, give them some literature, plug them into a new member's class, or connect them to a small group.
While practices and opinions vary on this topic, altar calls are an important part of contemporary Christianity. Much of the church's growth is because of these courageous invitations to follow Christ.
And yet, might these invitations, these moments of decision that are so deeply personal, be somehow built upon to challenge, to invite new and old believers to not only give their lives to Christ, but to also give their lives to loving their neighbors?
What if we as a Body of Christ, or you as a minister or congregation, tried something new. Not at all because there is anything wrong with altar calls and not necessarily in place of them. But something new, say, in addition to what you are (or aren't!) doing. What I mean is, what if these altar calls were calls to service as well? Most pastors would say they are. I mean tangible, specific, community service. It might looks like this;
A pastor preaches a sermon on poverty or more specifically, hunger and homelessness drawing from the Gospel of John where we read about the miracle of Jesus feeding the 5,000. As the sermon draws to a close, the invitation is made to those who wish to invite Jesus into their hearts, because they (all of us really) are hungry for God to quench our thirst and address our spiritual hunger. He does so with Living Water and the Bread of Life.
And after, by God's grace, a few people come forward, another invitation is made, maybe moments later -- with a specific invitation to new and old believers to follow Christ by serving hungry and homeless individuals. The pastor says, "Maybe this story, this miracle has stirred something within you. Maybe The Holy Spirit is speaking to your heart about ways you might help those in need, those who are hungry, just like our Savior did. If you are ready or feel called to serve the poor in this way, come to the altar -- come to alter the lives of others."
As people come forward, they are prayed for and led to a space where they could be matched with a service provider, maybe a ministry of that church, maybe a local non-profit that works to alleviate the suffering of, partner with, or end homelessness in the area. Just as deacons or lay ministers help connect new believers with new member classes or a small group, in this latter case, individuals would assist those who came to the altar in discerning how and where they can best serve. Maybe it's volunteering at a shelter, or sponsoring a child, or working to raise funds for clean water, microlending, offering pro bono legal consulting, or teaching your children about the causes of homelessness, or maybe it's doing some type of activist work. Those who came forward have begun a new season of life of service and it all began with that moment of decision in the sanctuary. Praise God.
Similar altar calls could be done around abuse, violence (urban gun violence or global violence), elder care, caring for our children, working with differently abled individuals, and so much more.
A More Outwardly Focused Church
The point of this additional or re-imagined altar call is threefold. Firstly, it has the potential to enliven the faith of current believers. There is a sad misconception amongst many Christians who believe that the only moment of decision is the day we decide to follow Christ. Christians are confronted with a moment of decision each minute of their lives. "Will I choose to follow Christ right now, by forgiving those who've offended me, by loving those around me, by telling the truth, by choosing not to worry, etc." Preachers can present this call, this challenge weekly in their sermons, not with the intent of guilt, but with the intent of inspiration.
Secondly, it will introduce new believers to an active Christianity. This is what being a Christian should, and use to look like. Before it became a religion of the majority and of those in power, the early church made a name for itself by its good deeds, by its strong convictions, and by the courage of its members. It was an active faith that won souls by charitas.
Finally, these altar calls will, prayerfully help to foster a new more Christ-like ethos within the Church. There is a self-centric, me/us first culture within much of the Church today. It has emerged in spaces that have been lulled into a comfortable sleep by a communal contentment with moderation in worship and in service, by an imbalanced focus on building and endowment funds, and by sermons with an inappropriate priority on the comfort and prosperity of the congregation.
What About Congregations That Do Not Do Altar Calls?
Many do not have a verbalized invitation at the end of their service, perhaps for either theological reasons, safety reasons, or simply personal preference. What if those churches that presently do not do altar calls tried a service-based altar call just once a month? Once a year even. You might even wait until the dismissal and invite people to a more active and intentional coffee hour. Along with explaining why you use fair trade coffee, you could also present other opportunities for members to improve the lives of their neighbors around the world -- or even their neighbors around the neighborhood.
Imagine the force for good, for healing, for peace, for service, for love that the church could be. Imagine how many more people would be attracted to the Way of Christ if they saw serving and loving our neighbors as our primary work, not as a minor ministry of the youth and the retired in our congregations. And think about how we could bless our world! The doors of the church are open...for us to walk through and love our neighbors and our God in a new way.