I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church, and altar calls ended every sermon. As the choir decked out in their robes sang “Just as I Am” the preacher would ask if anyone wanted to come forward and receive Jesus. If there was anyone, they would be encircled by the churches elders or deacons who would lay hands on them and lead them through the “Sinner’s prayer.” Hallelujah, they were saved!
Altar calls aren’t in the Bible, and the Sinner’s prayer isn’t there either. However, in many churches, if a preacher ends a sermon without an altar call, it’s considered a firing offense.
Altar calls are a peculiar invention of American Christians. Yippie, America! They began during the Second Great Awakening. (1790-1840) Revival preachers had what was known as the “anxious bench.” It sat in the front of the crowd near the preacher and people who felt the sermon had touched them and were anxious to receive some spiritual council would sit on the bench. Later the bench was known as the “mourner’s bench” for those who were mourning over their sins. Benches were used since many of the revivals happened in open fields or tents that didn’t have church altars. Later, as the revivalist movement entered churches, people were called forward to the altar.
Modern altar calls can be painful and tedious. In my Southern Baptist church, Sunday morning church services were full of saved, sanctified, and baptized believers. We didn’t get many visitors. God help you if you were a visitor because it meant that the altar call would go on until the newbie went forward.
Because the number of people coming forward in answer to an altar call is one metric to measure a pastor’s success, (and thus determine if he is going to keep his job) various guilt-inducing techniques have been created that are coupled with less public professions to increase numbers.
I’ve had to endure the “I know there is someone struggling in their heart right now and we will continue to pray for them until they come down to the altar” technique. In this method, the preacher proclaims that God had told him there is someone struggling in their heart. The service will not end until that struggling person makes the trek down the aisle.
“Don’t hold back” the preacher shouts.
“Who knows but that you might walk out of this church and be hit by a bus and have to give an answer for your sinful life?” he intones to twist a few arms.
“This may be your only chance to avoid an eternity of damnation.” he subtly threatens.
Often, one of the teens in the church will walk down the aisle. It’s not because he/she isn’t saved, (They’ve been saved since they prayed the sinner’s prayer at age three in Miss Eileen’s Sunday School class) they just want this church service to end. Their walk is often accompanied by claps, hallelujahs, and sighs of relief thanking God that we are going to get to the Sizzler’s before the Methodist take all the tables!
Later, to “help” people who might be too embarrassed to actually walk down the aisle, a new method was created. The preacher would invoke the “With every head bowed and every eye closed; I want anyone who is ready to accept Jesus as their Lord and savior right now to slip up their hand.” technique.
This is usually followed by the preacher saying, “Yes, yes, I see that hand, I see hands going up all over this building, yes, yes, just slip it up and put it right down again, yes, I see that hand.”
The rebellious teens in the crowd always peeked and knew there were no hands going up.
This was followed by the even more subtle, “With every head bowed and every eye closed, if you want to make a decision for Christ, just glance up at me.”
Now the preacher would intone, “Yes, yes I see you.”
For good measure, the revivalist preacher would encourage everyone to recite the sinner’s prayer out loud repeating it after him. After everyone had said it, this would be followed up with “If you said the sinner’s prayer and meant it, just stay behind so we can help you understand the momentous decision you have made.
Lately, I’ve noticed the altar call keep changing. No more is it a call to receive Christ; it’s a call to rededicate to Christ.
“If you have backslidden or lost the fire of your early faith, slip up that hand.”
It keeps getting more and more general to encourage more people to participate.
“If you have heard something in today’s sermon and can agree with me, slip up that hand.”
I’m wondering how long it will be until “If you are still awake, just look up at me? Anyone? Anyone? ” What was once a bold public proclamation of faith has been cheapened into a number for measuring “success.”
Now with every head bowed and every eye closed just enter your email and subscribe. If you haven’t been reading my daily blog, you can re-subscribe right now, or if you feel more comfortable, you can catch me vlogging over at Rev’s Reels on YouTube. Yes, yes, I see that click.