We Need to Rethink the Altar Call

As I have previously written, the altar call is the climax of the Pentecostal worship service. But many Pentecostal churches no longer have altar calls. I think its time to rethink the altar call.

As a child in Pentecostal church we knew that the service wasn’t over when the preacher finished his sermon. He always gave an altar call and the altar would be filled with worshipers seeking salvation, healing, and Spirit-baptism. The altar service would be noisy, chaotic, even entertaining. It could also be a time of weeping with a “holy hush.” It might last 15 minutes or even an hour, but church wasn’t complete without the altar service.

I wrote in Pentecostal Sacraments that the altar call is relatively new feature in Christian worship with its beginnings in the revivals of the 18th & 19th centuries. Even so, I’m beginning to rethink that somewhat. In fact, the Church has always had an altar call – the call to come to the Table to receive the Eucharist – the Lord’s Supper. For centuries believers responded to the preached word by coming to the  altar – the Table – to repent, to be blessed, to receive Jesus in the Eucharistic bread and wine.

In my travels I’ve made it a point to visit many renewal churches and it seems they have something in common – no altar call. In these churches the preacher concludes his message with a benediction, a final song, and a few announcements, then the congregation is dismissed. When I first experienced this I left the church feeling like we weren’t finished. The service was anti-climatic.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that we try to manage or manipulate an altar call that resembles the Pentecostalism of the early 20th century. In fact, I strongly resist such efforts. The Holy Spirit moves as the Spirit wills, not as we seek to manufacture enthusiasm or emotionalism. But, church worship should allow a sacred moment in which the people of God respond to the preached word. The altar call gives an opportunity for response.

The altar call should be a time when the people of God gather to pray, and to pray for each other. Those who desire to be anointed with oil should be given that opportunity. Those who need to weep at the altar, should be given the space to weep. Worshipers need to respond to the presence of the Holy Spirit. There are many ways that can be done in a proper and orderly manner (1 Corinthians 14:40), without the chaos. Maybe we should reconsider the weekly celebration of the Table of the Lord as an altar call.

There are only a few things really necessary for a Christian worship service – psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, the preaching/teaching of the Word of God, an opportunity to give, fellowship, the Eucharist, and prayer (Acts 2:42; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16) . Without prayer the worship service is incomplete. We need to rethink the altar call as a sacred space where the people of God can respond to God’s call, where they can have a sacred conversation in which they cry out to God, and listen for God’s response to their cries.