I have just returned home from speaking at another church camp. Since altar calls are a highlight of Pentecostal camps, during the week I reflected a number of times on their value.
While I appreciate the fact that some sermons don’t lend themselves to having an altar call, it seems to me (and others that I talk to) that altar calls are becoming less common in Pentecostal churches today (at least in North America). This is probably in large part because fewer churches have evening services these days (where altar calls were more common) and in morning services people seem to be more concerned with getting out of church in good time. At first less frequent altar calls might seem to be a problem, but is it?
Some concerns I have with an overemphasis on the place of altar calls include:
- Having regular altar calls might unintentionally make people think that all that they need to do to respond to the preaching they have heard is to go to the front and pray and, hence, such responses to altar calls might hinder people from integrating biblical teaching into their everyday lives.
- God is not limited to the front of the church. He can transform people who are sitting in their pew (or elsewhere) just as easily. If the altar is a sacred place of encountering God, then a person can (metaphorically speaking) set up an altar in their pew just as easily as at the front of a sanctuary—the whole church can serve as our “altar.”
- Whether or not people come forward in response to an altar call can give pastors (and their congregations!) an inaccurate means of judging the effectiveness of their sermons. I would think that the lasting impact would be a better way of judging this.
- There were no altar calls in the Bible (they seem to have started around 1800—see here). There were literal altars in the Old Testament, but this is not the same as our metaphorical use of the term “altar” today.
The above points can seem devastating to the idea of having an altar call. I joked with one of my students this past week that we need to be careful not to communicate some of the above points or people will stop responding to altar calls (in case you missed it, I said I was joking!).
This is certainly not to say that I think altar calls should be dispensed with. In fact, on the contrary, I actually wish more churches had altar calls more frequently. I can attest in my own life that I have had many powerful encounters with God while praying at an altar.
Some of the value I see in altar calls include:
- Altar calls remind people that the preaching of the Scripture demands a response.
- As people physically move forward to the front of the sanctuary they are symbolically saying to God that they want to “draw near to God” so that “God will draw near” to them (James 4:8).
- Here we take extra time to respond to God in prayer and hear God speak to us.
- Altar calls encourage people to also slow down and wait on God in their own personal time when they are not in a church service. In other words, the altar call is one way that churches can encourage personal intimacy with God.
- Altar calls give an opportunity for people to be prayed for or for pastoral counsel. The pastor and others might not know you want prayer and might not be able to reach you if you stay in your pew. Similarly, some churches invite people to meet for prayer in an adjacent room after a service.
- There might be some biblical support in the Old Testament for meeting God at an altar. See this article, which offers a typical Pentecostal defense of altar calls (personally I find the biblical arguments weak since in just about every instance mentioned the person literally builds an altar and often only after they have an encounter with God).
I probably have more reasons to be skeptical of the value of altar calls than I do for thinking altar calls are valuable. Therefore, I wonder if I’m being inconsistent in wishing we had more of them. Perhaps I’m just a traditional Pentecostal in this sense.
Regardless, I think I am primarily concerned because I wonder if less frequent altar calls in Pentecostal churches indicates that people are less intimate in their relationship with God both during church services but also (and most importantly) during the time when they are not in church.
What do you think?
For a more thorough and optimistic discussion of altar calls see also Daniel Tomberlin, “Encountering God at the Altar,” chapter 1 in his book Pentecostal Sacraments (Cleveland, TN: Center for Pentecostal Leadership and Care, 2010), pages 1-30.