The Anatomy Of The Altar Call; Anonymity Is Key
There is an art to most modern evangelical altar calls today. While this is no means a detailed vivisection of the entire process, it does highlight one key element that seems to be crucial to sustaining the entire process and practice. Hopefully the sheer familiarity and shared experience of such encounters will serve to prove the point.
In most Churches today, after the sermon is over, after the lights are sufficiently dimmed and after the pastor nods to the piano player to start playing gentle music, the ritual of the altar begins. It almost invariably starts with “With every head bowed, every eye closed, nobody looking around….no one watching you…eyes closed…..head bowed….no one looking” [repeat as much as necessary-wait as long as necessary]. The pastor consistently uses those terms- spoken in warm, soothing tones, and when he feels there is appropriate anonymity, and when the dizzying crescendo of the droning piano had reached its zenith, he would continue;
“If something said here tonight resonated in your heart: that is the Holy Spirit, and tonight is your opportunity to meet with God. If you would like to give your heart and life to Jesus tonight, every head bowed, every eye closed, nobody looking around, then I would like to just invite you to raise your hand where you are sitting and say a prayer after me. If you don’t feel comfortable praying out loud, or raising your hand, you don’t have to. God can find you right there in your seat. From where you’re sitting, just repeat these words after me in your heart”
Generally speaking there is no standing up, no walking to the front of the aisle, but rather a simple request for the raising of the hand. This continues for a few minutes accompanied by some music and “Thank you brother. Yes, I see that hand right there. You’ve entered the kingdom tonight sister…” Once there are no more raised hands to acknowledge, the pastor leads these people in prayer, congratulates them for their decisions for Jesus, and exhorts the whole congregation to “give them all a big hand”. The congregation then claps their hands and shout “amen”, even though their not exactly sure who they’re clapping for, and everyone disperses.
[Now this is where I have to confess something; I rarely had my head bowed or my eyes closed. There were more than a few occasions where looking around would leave one to wonder exactly who the pastor was thanking. It wouldn’t take long to see that he was thanking more people than could be noticed with every head bowed, every eye closed, and nobody looking around! Sometimes when I peeked I could not see a single person as my eyes scanned sanctuary, and yet invariably I would hear “I see that hand. Yes… thank you. Yes I see that one too. Amen…Yes, I see that one in the back”. This was probably to encourage the congregation in some way, and yet while we would get a dozen “I see those hands” per month, the church never seemed to grow…]
That last point could be discussed ad nauseum, but what it’s important to focus on is the sheer anonymity that these pastors provide any potential convert. Everything is geared towards making the altar call as comfortable as possible, as socially un-awkward as possible, as individualistically-oriented, and as emotionally stirring as possible. Its not enough that they don’t explain what repentance and faith and the forgiveness of sins means, but they barely even explain what the biblically foreign yet oh-so-popular maxim “asking Jesus into your heart” means. As part of the ritual however, there is always the desire to set the mood and make all variables and conditions as inoffensive and as conducive to this sort of tug-string conversion as they can. It certainly sets a precedent that the inception of ones spiritual birth was surrounded by an almost shame-like quality. Not something for the whole church to be aware of and celebrate and commit to keeping accountable, but rather a hidden, solitary affair. Its essentially a dirty little secret. No one looking at you. No one watching you. Cloaked in invisibility. When called, raise the tips of your fingers just past your head so that your neighbor won’t be startled by the rustling of your arm and your elbow locking as it fully extends, lest he be tempted to look at you and actually observe your confession of faith in your great God and Savior.
In fact, with the advent of technology and the way it is becoming to be used more and more in the Church service, its not improbable that soon the altar call will consist of “Now everybody get out your smart phone. With every head bowed, and every cell phone out and in your hand. If you want to ask Jesus in your heart today, please send me a text message. The number to text is 1-780-799-9760. Just put in the subject matter ‘Jesus in Heart’ , with hashtag #victorypotetntialchurch and we’ll have one of the elders message you back, or send you a tweet if you include your twitter handle”
If a pastor is particularity vicious in his orthopraxy, he’ll ask people to ask Jesus into their heart with eyes closed and hands raised, and then he’ll do a bait and switch! He’ll say “Welcome to the family of God! Now that you’re one of us, come up to the front now so we can meet with you and pray for you.” This is an advanced technique that while is still in use some, has begun to wane in popularity in favor of its more anonymous counterparts. A variation of this is asking anyone who needs prayer to come to the front, and once they’re there, bring in the elders and say “If anyone here does not know the Lord Jesus, or you are backslidden, then tell the elders when they come and pray for you and we will walk you through the sinners prayer.” This maneuver is the most advanced move of all, as you’re attracting them with anonymity, and then tricking them with exposure once they commit. This should only be attempted by experienced pastors.
Regardless of how its done, there is no conception of calling people publicly so that the body can support them publicly, and this seems like a far cry from how Jesus did it. If Jesus were to do an altar call, it would probably be more of the “with every head unbowed and every eye open and looking around” variety. Though by no means a great parallel, I think we see more or less see this in the call to the first Apostles. “And as He walked by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then Jesus said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” They immediately left their nets and followed Him. When He had gone a little farther from there, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the boat mending their nets. And immediately He called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went after Him.”[Mark 1:16-20]
Have you experienced the anonymous altar call, and what variations of it have you seen?
[Contributed by Dustin Germain]