I have been deeply suspicious of the typical use of “altar calls” since I was a young child. First, every time I heard one as a five-year old kid I wanted to run forward, not walk. Who didn’t want to come to Jesus again and again? And if the word “rededication” was used then I knew I wanted to go forward. By the age of seven I wondered to myself: “What is this thing we’ve made so much out of every single Sunday morning and evening in church?” By ten I was just suspicious. All my friends had “walked the aisle” but few of them seemed all that changed. By my teen years I watched my peers who walked and wept and grew downright tired of it all. As a Baptist pastor, at age 22, I had to give an altar call every Sunday for one year. I couldn’t stand it. I am sure it showed. By the time I planted a new church, in 1972, I gave my last such appeal. I have never regretted it, not once.
Later I studied the history and theology of this type of appeal and realized the human origins lay in the 19th century and were simply not a part of anything biblical or historically helpful to the well-being of the church. The altar call arose in a time of revivalism and went through many changes and refinements of various sorts. We had a “mourner’s bench” and “an altar” for sinners. Then in my lifetime I watched this whole process become manipulative and dangerous. I went through a time when I opposed all altar calls.
After all these years my thinking hasn’t changed much. I still do not like altar calls. I do, however, recognize that God uses some of them for good and some people use them about as well as humanly possible. So it is not a matter of abuse in every instance. (Billy Graham comes to mind here. His use of the altar call was always the best I saw over the years.)
While I was writing this blog Anita reminded me of our favorite altar call experience. Our first miniature dachshund came forward during a televised evangelistic event in 1971. Our beloved Huck was watching TV with us and when the preacher said, "I want you to come, right now from wherever you are, come." Huck got up, jumped off our sofa and went to the TV. He then sat up and pumped his paws. I am not making this up I promise you. When Huck died more than ten years later my best friend leaned over to me, in another city where I had been called with the bad news, and said, "John, at such times you can at least be grateful that Huck made a decision!" (The only problem was that Huck showed varying degrees of evidence regarding sanctification over the years.)
Now, can you handle a little more humor about the altar call? This You Tube clip is priceless. It is satire so prepare to take it in that way. If you do not laugh you are probably too serious in all the wrong ways, thinking you are above it all. You may feel you either have to defend the altar call out of deep human attachment to a man-made formula or you simply can’t laugh at the silliness of what we Christians say and do. The really sad part is that people are misled in some cases. This is certainly serious.