Altar calls. The very phrase takes me back to my grandfather’s Buick where we’d pile in on summer Sunday morning’s in the sleepy town of Roanoke, Virginia and journey to their African Methodist Episcopal church. Sitting on those hard pews in my stuffy three piece suit, I’d always wondered why the pastor preached about such a big God who could do incredible things, but when it came time to get saved they only put two chairs out.
Two? Is that all you were expecting.
Half the time they wouldn’t even fill half of what they were believing this big God for.
When I went off to Bible college and started to get “grown” in my faith this relic of my past took on a moth-ball kind of texture. Reading a few books about God’s sovereignty, and getting acquainted with the likes of Calvin and his theological progeny made me really believe altar calls were my grandfather’s Buick- a car now acquainted with old men who wore Old Spice, sat in barbershops all day playing checkers.
My sophisticated and hip perspective was jolted in the mid nineties when I served on staff at a church that did them regularly. I couldn’t believe what I saw every Sunday I served:
About a hundred came to the altar every week.
The average age of the church was around 28.
It was in the heart of Los Angeles, not the Bible belt.
And no they weren’t responding to emotional manipulation, or some hip sermon that was rooted more in the New York Times or latest movie. They were reacting to what a thoroughly exposited text had just exposed, and the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
My wife was one of those who came down to get saved. Almost nineteen years later I can tell you what happened at that altar on that December day was no emotional fluke.
You won’t see the phrase in the Bible, but if by those two words you mean people publicly pledging their allegiance to Jesus it’s all through the New Testament.
Jesus called people to follow him, and most times he did so publicly.
The book of Acts is riddled with the disciples making appeals for people to publicly follow Jesus.
The Day of Pentecost.
The Gentile Pentecost of Acts 10.
I recently took over a church where I inherited their tradition of altar calls. Sure, I’ve got a growing list of things I’d love to change at our church, but these two words aren’t on that list, and I’m not sure they ever will be. Relax. I’m not saying altar calls are a have to. But, and I think this is the most important reason why I’m going to hold onto this rich tradition, altar calls are a glorious, visible, corporate demonstration of the power of the Holy Spirit moving among the people.
I think I’ll say that again:
Altar calls are a glorious, visible, corporate demonstration of the power of the Holy Spirit moving among the people.
I think the reason why the church in Acts exploded is because there was this visible, corporate, glorious sense that something was happening there. You saw people get saved. You saw people repent and burn their books. You saw the Spirit at work. This sensory experience created a buzz. Something was happening here.
In our individualized Western culture, we rob people of the blessing of seeing the Spirit move corporately when we privatize His work in order to not put anyone on the spot.
Of course people can get saved without walking the aisle. See Nicodemus.
And it’s also important to know that the response to the altar call is not the Nielson Ratings on the pastors sermon and how well or poor it was. So we pastors have to get our egos out of the way.
Beyond those two words see the principle. Pastors, our people have a need to see and know the Holy Spirit is at work not just in them, but in His church. Christianity is not individual, it’s communal as well. What venue at your church affords this opportunity for people to see and sense and celebrate the march of the Holy Spirit among the people?
Bryan Loritts Lead Pastor, Abundant Life Author, Saving the Saved President, Kainos Movement