An altar call is a fascinating thing. The congregation quietly sings the invitational from memory. The preacher softly compels saints and sinners alike to come to the altar for repentance or rededication. If he is like most pastors I have known, this is one of the high points of his week. It’s a complex fusion of genuine love, advanced public speaking, high pressure sales and a smidgen of drama class. As the minutes tick by, his plea transforms. Suddenly he becomes a rescuer in a life-boat. “Come on! Come and pray at this altar! This may be your last chance! You might wreck your car on the way home! Are you ready for eternity?”
The master of this complex choreography is a friend of mine. He is a scholar, educated at a premier university of the south. He is a preacher of rare depth, crystal clarity. But once the sermon is over, he moves stealthily into what must be one of his deepest passions. The music plays softly, but when the final verse is almost complete he holds up one finger, arm stretched above his tall frame. It means “one more verse, just one more.” And the congregation proceeds to sing one more verse, or one more hymn, as many times as it takes for him to feel satisfied with the service. He is an artist, and his medium is the human heart. I always feel a need to repent of something when he holds up that finger. But then, in the midst of my self-examination, my glancing up at the aisle to see how far it is to the altar, someone else steps out in front of me, and I hear something like this: “Just as I am, without one plea, but that this pastor set us free…” Of course, that little blasphemy is probably one of the reasons I should respond to invitations from time to time.
My friend isn’t the first pastor who has moved me to leave the pew and step to the front. Over the years, I’ve seen plenty of soul shaking, heart squeezing altar calls. My father is an old school United Methodist preacher in West Virginia. He learned his invitations during his upbringing, and at Asbury Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, where political correctness runs into the hard wall of old time religion. Even before he entered the ministry, I was raised on sermons that made me feel, like Jonathan Edwards’ parishioners, that hell was heating up just below the pews. I’ve stood for altar calls that seemed they might last till evening worship. My grandmother was Free Methodist, later Nazarene. My bride and in-laws from the Church of Christ. (Same invitation, no piano). I know whereof I speak.
I’m a South Carolina Southern Baptist now. I still experience the range of emotions that comes with the invitation. But over the years, I have become just a bit impatient as I sing through multiple verses of “I surrender all”. Worse, I sometimes fear that C. S. Lewis’ demonic character Screwtape has made me cynical about the faithful few who consistently respond week after week. Fortunately I think I understand my emotions at last.
At this stage in my life, my impatience is pragmatic. It stems from parenting. Many a Sunday my wife and I sit in the pew with our four darling offspring, age seven years down to 18 months, as they fidget, illustrate hymnals, beg for candy or rifle through our pockets for loose change. Other Sundays, we can be found riding herd on 10 to 15 others in nursery or children’s service. When the second hand strikes 12, I’m ready to hand the little cherubs off to their biological guardians so that I can avoid having evil thoughts far worse than wanting the service to end.
Worse than impatience, however, has been my cynicism about the invitation. Or perhaps more accurately, my cynicism about my fellow church and their response to it. It took a long time for me to understand those parishioners who, for my entire life, have consistently gone to speak to the pastor, or kneel at the altar, at every service. As an impressionable youth I was certain that these folks were hands-down saints. Many were persons I had known for years, respectable and good. I felt less Godly when I sat in my pew while they courageously poured out their souls. I grew up and moved away, but I have become aware that the same thing happens in every church that has an invitation. Methodist, Nazarene or Baptist, it’s the same phenomenon. Sometimes they kneel, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they wipe away tears. Some cry every Sunday. I often thought that if I were a better Christian, I’d cry more too.
But then I figured it out, and my cynicism was largely cured. Living as I do in South Carolina, in a small town, in the land of sumptuous Sunday spreads made by mothers, grandmothers and family owned restaurants, the answer came to me like an epiphany. (No blasphemy intended there). The same people who go to the altar Sunday after Sunday are doing it for the rest of us. They’re leaning in and taking one for the team. They’re jumping on the grenade. Like me, they know that if someone doesn’t do something, the stove will catch fire, or the lines at the cafeteria will be swollen by succinct Presbyterians and practical Lutherans. Driven by a passionate love of fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, sweet potato casserole and sweet tea, these brave souls march down the aisle so that the pastor will have a tangible result on those Sundays when no one in the congregation has the desire, or the willingness, to be public about their soul’s inadequacies. On one level, it’s an act of respect toward a hard-working preacher, who might get discouraged if no one responded. More importantly, though, it’s an act of mercy toward all the brothers and sisters present.
I see them all differently now. The habitual confessors are an elite group, whose long practiced sincerity is an artistic match for the one finger held in the air for another verse. Perhaps, and I hope it’s true, they now believe in their hearts that they need that stroll, that shake, that embrace week after week. I’m sure that hundreds of preachers need them just as certainly.
Regardless of why or how they go about it, I’m grateful. Between wiggling toddlers, nursing babies, and my own growling stomach, something has to be done. I guess this week I’ll have to go down myself. I’ll have to confess my impatience and cynicism sometime.