I would like to offer a word of challenge to preachers on both sides of the theological spectrum regarding the “altar call.” Some of you come from a tradition that feels a sermon is not a sermon without an altar call. I do not want to diminish this in any way, but I do want to say that the unchurched sometimes perceive this as every sermon being the same salvation message with a different scripture text and different illustrations. Some unchurched are turned off by what they perceive to be a kind of manipulation in the invitation itself. It may be worth rethinking the concept of the altar call and asking the question: “How and when in a sermon series would an altar call be most effective?”
One time I went shopping for a car. I just wanted to kick a few tires—I wasn’t really ready to buy yet, just seeking more information. I did test-drive a couple of cars. At one dealership I was confronted by a very pushy salesperson. He told me that the special financing was going to expire “anytime” and that I really ought to buy the car “today.” He asked, “What do I have to do to get you to sign on the dotted line today?” The more he pushed, the more I was certain I would not be buying my new car from this man. Sometimes the unchurched perceive preachers and their altar calls in this same way.
Some of you likely do not ever have altar calls—they are seen as something of an anachronism in many mainline churches. We have viewed with critical eyes the use of this form of invitation in more conservative churches and, unfortunately, we have “thrown out the baby with the bathwater.” We have often assumed that people will simply become Christians by osmosis if they sit under our teaching long enough. We take comfort in the fact that we ask certain vows at membership that sound like a Christian commitment, but if the truth be told, many of those who accept our membership vows have not yet really made a Christian commitment. And many of those who are ready to make a Christian commitment are not yet convinced they need the church or church membership.
Returning to our car salesman metaphor, I visited another car dealer that same Saturday morning who was so “laid-back,” I had to pry information from her. My wife told me she had been to the same dealership a month before, very interested in a certain car, and the woman didn’t ask if she wanted a test drive, nor did she offer more information—not even her business card. She called us a few days after our visit but still did not ever try to convince us that her vehicle was the right car, or that she could offer us a good deal. Needless to say, we did not buy our car from her, though she was much more relaxed than the first salesman.
It is important for preachers to help people actually make a commitment to Christ. At times we all need a clear invitation with a simple plan for acting upon our commitment. This is the value of the altar call. It is a call for action and commitment. At Church of the Resurrection we seldom ask people to come forward for an altar call. Instead, about once every four to six weeks I extend an invitation at the end of my sermon. I invite people to bow their heads and close their eyes. I then say something like this: “You may be here today and feel moved by this service—perhaps you’ve never actually told Jesus Christ that you would like to be one of his disciples. Maybe you’re in need of his forgiveness and grace today, and you would like to be made clean and whole. The first step in the Christian life is simply to acknowledge your desire to belong to Christ, and your acceptance of what he has done for you. If you would like to take that step today, to commit your life to him, join me in saying this prayer—you may use your own words, or say quietly under your breath those I am about to pray …” And then I lead them, line by line and very slowly, in a prayer that sounds something like this: “Dear Lord, I would like to be one of your disciples. I would like to follow you. I accept the forgiveness and mercy you offer me. Wash me clean and make me new. Help me to follow you as I commit myself to you. I pray this to you, and in your name, Jesus. Amen.”
I vary this prayer depending on the sermon content. One thing I have discovered is that many people need someone to actually lead them in a prayer like this. Once a sixty-five-year-old man told me he had been attending church his whole life, but only on that day did he finally feel he had committed his life to Christ and experienced Christ’s presence. He may have been a follower of Christ for years, but something happened to him as he finally made the commitment official.
We do not require people to raise their hands or to come forward. They are welcome to do this after the service. In our new building we will have a small prayer chapel where those who would like to pray with a pastor following a worship service may gather for prayer. We believe this prayer can happen simply as one prays quietly in their seat.
There are two other ways in which we invite people to make this commitment. We offer the Eucharist every Monday evening at a special service and then the first weekend of the month. As a part of our communion liturgy we explain that receiving the bread and wine is a tangible way to invite Christ into one’s life, and then I help persons understand how they might pray, following the reception of the elements, in order to commit their lives to Christ. We invite our congregation to come forward to receive communion, and thus the opportunity is present for persons to kneel at the altar railings for prayer as they make their commitment to Christ.
Finally, we invite persons who are interested in joining the church to attend a “Coffee with the Pastor”. As part of our joining service, at the end of the coffee we invite persons to commit their lives to Christ by joining first in the Apostles’ Creed, and then we lead them in a prayer of commitment.
I am persuaded that it is important to give people an opportunity to make a specific response to Christ’s invitation to “come and follow me.” At the same time, I believe many churches who routinely offer “altar calls” do so in a way that alienates some of the very people they wish to reach. I’ve outlined our solution to this twofold dilemma at the Church of the Resurrection. You will no doubt find your own way.
This article is adapted from Unleashing the Word by Adam Hamilton, Copyright © 2003 by Abingdon Press.