“Altar Call – The Rebel Version”

As I have often written before, I am Southern born and Southern dead and when I die I will be Southern dead. I have also stated that there is much of the South and its traditions that I will not follow simply because they run counter to what I learned in church on Sunday mornings growing up in the South.

So, in part, this is a statement about what I learned about church worship growing up in the South. It is also a statement from the rebel in me that questions authority and the design of the present United Methodist order of worship. That may not be a good combination but the United Methodist church has reached a point in its journey where it must make a decision and it is a decision that will probably determine the balance of the history of the denomination.

In his post “Souls or churches?” John Meunier asks if pastors should be more concerned with saving souls or building churches? Are we more focused on the group of individuals who make up a particular United Methodist Church or are we interested in the individuals who make up the group?

One possible answer, provided by the bishops’ Call to Action is that we need to be building churches and vital congregations. As John points out,

It feels as if the central concern of the denomination these days is the second, the group. The Call to Action is explicit about this. The goal of our energy should be creating vital congregations. Pastors are called to build a strong, vibrant, sustainable organization. This is what I hear.

But you need people to have a strong, vibrant, sustainable organization and that means that you have to be interested in the individuals who make up the organization. And how do you bring the individuals into the church? What is the nature, the business of the church? Is it programs for the people in the church and the community or is it the presentation of the Word of God to the people from which they will draw their strength and courage to build programs that touch the lives of the people in the congregation and community?

I would suggest that it is the latter though I am afraid that a reading of the Call to Action would suggest that the people will come if you create programs (I thought that only worked for a ball field in Iowa). I wonder if this is not the beginning of another “faith versus works” debate.

But this is not what this is about; rather, this is about how we get the people to the church in order to even begin a “faith versus works” debate.

In an earlier piece last week, “Five Principles of Christian Worship”, John Meunier noted that Hoyt Hickman noted that there were five basic principles of worship:

  1. God’s Word is primary.
  2. Active congregation participation is crucial
  3. Spontaneity and order are both important.
  4. Worship should be relevant and inclusive
  5. Worship is communion.

Now, in response to John’s request for thoughts on this, I noted

I think that the key comes from what the congregation says after the service. Did the way the service went, its music, its words, the message, the environment, speak to that people in such a way that they came to know God just a little bit better.

In response to a comment that I believed supported my comment I added that the thought that we needed to change the order of worship and get away from the model, printed in the Book of Worship that has the offering following the sermon.

Taylor Burton-Edwards pointed that

The order in the hymnal without communion includes a call to discipleship following the sermon, then prayers and acts if thanksgiving including an offering, then a robust act of sending. So the offering is not intended to be the immediate response to the sermon nor the final act of worship before dismissal.

But I wasn’t thinking nor did I believe that I was writing about a call to discipleship. Rather I was speaking or at least thinking of that call that was so much a part of my Southern heritage, the call by the pastor to come to the altar to accept Jesus Christ as one’s personal Savior.

I wrote

I will admit that I missed that section of the order of worship. Admittedly I am more comfortable with services that end with the sermon, in part because of how I was raised and in part because, in my own mind, I see the call as the beginning of the ministry. If I were not doing communion, I do not want anything to distract from that call.

Now, having said that, I wonder how many pastors know how to make an altar call as opposed to an invitation to discipleship. I know that when I am scheduled to go somewhere as a lay speaker I have never seen such an invitation in their order of worship.

Also, as I look at the section in the Book of Worship that deals with the response to the word, I don’t read the Invitation to Christian Discipleship as an altar call.

And this leads me back to what I said at the beginning – if you make a call to the people to come to the altar and accept Christ and then you do something else, you totally ruin the moment. I have seen a United Methodist pastor do just that, make an altar call, complete with the appropriate music, and then totally ruin the moment because he had to deal with the offering.

If worship is to bring us to God, then we have to think about the path we take.

John Meunier responded

Tony, my experience as well is that it is hard to (do) the Word and Table order of worship well when you do not have the table (Communion) that day. I’ve had members of congregations say exactly what you have said here about the offering being the last thing they do before they head out the doors.

When the service is built around two big tent poles (Word and Table) and one of those is missing, the service does kind of sag at one end.

Taylor Burton-Edwards responded

Don’t let poor practice by others deter you from better practice yourself!

You’d be exactly right about the possibility of ruining the flow if you went from “altar call” (or however a call to discipleship may be embodied) to offering. Huge mistake.

So the question becomes, what DOES make sense in terms of flow after a sermon-altar call sequence? Prayers of the people might make a lot of sense just then. Then from those prayers, a time of thanksgiving. Then from that time of thanksgiving, including thanksgiving for the work the Spirit is doing in the lives of those who responded and offering integrated into this as a sign of our thanksgiving. And then sending.

It’s important as we consider the altar call, however, to remember that Wesley’s altar calls were designed to lead people to join a trial class meeting. Why? Because “there is no religion but social religion, no holiness but social holiness.” Whatever was begun in the “crisis of decision” is likely to be stillborn or experience “spiritual infant mortality” if these persons are not immediately connected to a community that will sustain and challenge what has been begun to continue. See my piece on this, here: http://emergingumc.blogspot.com/2010/11/end-spiritual-infant-mortality.html

It was Burton-Edwards’ first comment that got me to thinking about writing this piece. It is the balance of his last comment that perhaps leads me to the next part.

First, you have to understand how I have come to my concept of the worship experience. I have been developing and designing worship services of some sort since I began working on my God and Country award in 1964. I know that I received guidance from my pastor at 1st EUB but the logistics and mechanisms were mine.

When I began lay speaking in 1991 I followed the practice of my pastor and used the order of worship that he had developed. I do not know when the present order of worship was first presented to the United Methodist Church; I encountered it in 1995 when I began serving three churches of the Chataqua Parish in southeast Kansas.

But it wasn’t explained to me as the United Methodist recommended order of worship. Rather, I got the impression that it was developed as a way for the pastor to get from the 1st and 2nd churches on Sunday morning to the 2nd and 3rd churches. The lay leaders at both the 1st and 2nd church both told me that it would be okay for me to leave during the offering as that is what the pastor before me had done. But 1) I was supposed to provide leadership for the whole service and 2) I had 30 minutes to travel the fifteen miles between churches so I declined the offer and stayed.

For as long as I can remember, the order of worship in churches where I was a member had the sermon last and perhaps a moment where the pastor made that call to the people to come forward and accept Christ.

I know that when I was sorting out my own thoughts about Christ and His place in my life, altar calls and especially the persistent ones (where the pastor tells the organist to play another verse of “Jesus is tenderly calling” or a similar hymn) turned me off to the whole notion. In fact they still do but that’s for another time.

When I took on the Walker Valley assignment in 1999 I was faced with the challenge of turning a church around and I didn’t see how I could do it without having some sort of question at the end of the message/sermon that perhaps would result in an altar call, a response from the people.

Now, let me say at this point that I recognize that when a service includes communion, communion is the response of the people and I don’t fiddle or change the order of worship.

I also recognize that I am in the minority on this. But I don’t understand, even with the thoughts that Taylor Burton-Edwards put in his comment how you can even think of responding with anything but the altar call. Thoughtful consideration and the inclusion of the prayers of the people aside, the last thing the people have in their mind when they leave is that they were asked for hearing the message.

For me an altar call is spontaneous; you can make plans for one but you don’t know how it is going to go until you get to it. Having anything after that totally ruins the moment.

My wife was a teenager in the 50s and she still remembers watching the Billy Graham Crusade on television and the emotion that swept over her when, in that wonderful baritone voice of his, he would make the call for the people to come to altar and accept Christ. How can one even begin to think of doing anything after that?

What bothers me the most, I suppose, is Burton-Edwards’ comment about not letting the poor practices of others prevent me from better practices myself. I hope that I haven’t done this but I also know that I have never seen any pastor up here make any sort of altar call in the space between the sermon and the offering.

Nowadays, as a certified lay speaker/servant, when I responsd to a request to cover a service for a pastor I am often told that the order of worship is fixed and that it cannot be changed. For the most part I get to pick the hymns and prayers and they put them into the service in the appropriate places.

I would think that most United Methodist pastors today, thought they may be aware of the section in the Book of Worship that deals with the call to discipleship, skip it when doing their worship planning. I would be willing to bet (but don’t because I am a Methodist) that most pastors today don’t even know how to do an altar call. I am still working on it myself and I am pretty sure that if the pastors don’t know how to do it, lay speakers called upon to fill the pulpit for one or two Sundays don’t know how to do it.

I might add that unless something has changed in the past year that I am not aware of, there is nothing in the lay speaker/servant training that covers this area.

So I am faced with the dilemma of trying to do what I feel called to do while having to deal with a process that does not allow me to answer my own calling.

And we are back to how to get the people into the church? If we cannot call the people to Christ after the message, how then will we ever answer the “Call to Action”?

I will agree with Taylor Burton-Edwards that any individual who responses to an altar call must be immediately connected to a community or the moment is lost. But again, if the altar call is not at the end of the service, the moment is very easily lost in the prayers and offerings that follow. This suggests that there must be a plan in place as a matter of response.

But before you have a plan of response, you have to get the people to respond. And it goes back to preaching the Word and presenting the Word.

2 thoughts on ““Altar Call – The Rebel Version”

  1. The Call to Discipleship described in the hymnal and in greater detail in the Book of Worship can be an altar call. Help me understand why miving from this to prayer is not a logical extension or next step. I have seen it done, and I have done it, and it seems to work well.

    • Perhaps it isn’t so much that a prayer follows as much as it that you then do the offering. I understand that the offering can and should be part of our response to the word but I also think that if one does a true altar call, following that with anything else spoils the moment. At least that is the way I feel about it.

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