Monday, June 1, 2009

Altar Calls - Why?

While I was on paternity leave I had some guest preachers come in. We had a soon to graduate Divinity School student, a retired clergy, and our District Superintendent. I as heard from my 'spies' on how the service went they gave good reports on all of them. One ended 15 minutes early and one 15 minutes late. What struck me was one gave an altar at the end of the service. "Apparently he had some deep Baptist roots," one of my 'spies' told me. During the course of that next week I ran into other parishioners and they all mentioned the altar call. It got me thinking...why don't I do altar calls.

I don't do them because they leave a bad taste in my mouth. Yes, it is seems to have a very Baptist connotations to it and I find my self trying to define myself as non-baptist here in NC. One of my professors in Divinity School said, "There's more Baptists than people in North Carolina." I am not talking bad about Baptists, don't get me wrong, I am merely expressing that being United Methodist is not the same as Southern Baptist.

I have been to some congregations, Baptist, Pentecostal and Non-denominational where altar calls have been given and I have often thought, "Did they really think there sermon was that good?" Or it seems shallow and an attempt to manipulate emotions, especially when youth are involved.

I do feel that there are times when altar calls are important and useful. On youth retreats there are plenty of non-churched people and a call to take following Jesus seriously is a good idea. An offering to accept the gift of salvation is great. But, once again, when it is done out of an authentic place and lead by the Spirit, not the ego of the speaker. I turned a youth retreat into a revival one summer just because I was yawning, but that is another post for another time.

Getting back to the point, why don't I do altar calls? That question has haunted me for a while and then I remembered what we ask our members at the time we welcome them into full membership through profession of faith. We ask them, do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races? Then we ask the congregation, do you, as Christ's body, the church, reaffirm both your rejection of sin and your commitment to Christ?

Why, when I ask these questions, do I need to do altar calls? I have done calls to prayers for certain things but never to 'raise your hand if you accept Jesus.' I don't because even if a visitor is in my congregation, my hope is that person will be welcomed into the body of Christ and when that person is, they will answer these questions and profess that Jesus Christ is their Savior. If they were members of other churches than when others join they will be asked to reaffirm their belief and commitment to Christ.

If I were to continually call people to be 'saved' then wouldn't I be negating what we, as United Methodists, profess before we join the Body of Christ? Would that wash away our membership vows and make them an oath we say before joining a social club?

I stand by the questions I ask and the answers that are given.

8 comments:

Steven Manskar said...

Thanks for your reflections on "altar calls."

We United Methodists who value the Wesleyan tradition need to always be reminded that the Wesleyan "altar call" is the invitation to the Lord's table.

Carl Thomas said...

How many people answered to the altar call? If a good number of people responded then I would say your current system, though logically sound, is flawed in practice.

Jim said...

Steven, thank you very much for the reminder. And actually that is when the majority of people pray at the prayer rail (or what people refer to as the altar) is after receiving the elements.

Carl, no one came forward, so I guess I'm safe.

Carl Thomas said...

Then keep up the good work!

TH said...

I guess this post makes sense if almost all people in your pews are members and there are few guests or regular visitors. Even so, what are your thoughts on those who joined the church as a child, with a spouse, etc. who just said the vows but didn't understand what they meant in their hearts? I think there is no harm in articulating the message and invitation of the Gospel each week as it is powerful each time we are reminded of it.

Jim said...

TH, I understand where you are coming from but who are we to judge the heart of a person. That is really between them and God. I believe faith is a journey and not just a spot in time. I think to re-invite the same people (and yes, in my small congregations we do not have a ton of visitors each week, maybe one or two a month, which is another issue for another time. Even if we averaged 50 a week, my thoughts would be the same). Yes, justifying grace, the grace God does IN us, is hugely important but it doesn’t stop there. We then encounter sanctifying grace, the grace God does THROUGH us. Faith is walking with Christ not just meeting him and so we need to move beyond that point of acceptance. As a person grows in their walk with Christ they need to be challenged in different areas of faith. And as a minister I need to provide opportunities for all people in all different places of their faith.

I hope I not rambling now, but the UMC has built in its polity places for the justifying grace to happen. For children it is during confirmation (around 6th grade) when they become full members of the church. When people join by profession of faith we go over the questions and discuss them. For those coming in on transfer, I trust and believe in the tradition/congregation/minister they came from and that they fed this person and helped them grown on their faith journey.

TH said...

"Who are we to judge the heart of a person?" I agree with this wholeheartedly.

The majority of Americans state they are Christians. Do we really believe this is true? We could assume it is and not share the Gospel of Christ and give them the opportunity to respond. Or, every once in a while, we could articulate it to them in the hope that God will move even in the midst of a member who had deceived himself for many years regarding what it is to be a Christian.

Jim said...

TH, I pray that the Gospel is preached every week in my sermons. I also attempt to place some type of invitation within my sermons as well, inviting people to move into a deeper relationship with God. These are not however invitations to 'raise your hand if you accept Jesus.' Instead they are invitations to realize God has given us everything we have; to reach out to our neighbors in love; to give generously; to understand God is with us always; to live into who God has created us to be. These are all Gospel messages. They are like Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler. The RYR was doing everything right but Jesus went deeper and challenged him. That is what I concentrate on with my congregation. If not we run the risk of being too shallow in our message.