The altar has been a pillar in the history of God’s people. In the Old Testament the altar is a sacred place for gifts and sacrifices offered up to the Lord. In the early Christian church, the altar became widely known as “God’s Table,” the place where the Lord’s Supper was celebrated. In many traditions today, the altar is the center of worship, the place where we encounter God. Some even call it the “throne of God.” Throughout history, the altar has signified our faith and our connection to God.
For many years an important part of evangelical and Pentecostal churches has been the “altar call,” an invitation to the congregation, usually at the end of a sermon, to approach the altar to publicly make or renew a commitment to Christ. In many Pentecostal churches the altar is seen as a place of purification where people can receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit (specifically, speaking in tongues).
At Grace + Peace Church we have broadened our understanding of what it means to have an altar call. We provide a space not only for responding to and applying the sermon, but for hearing and testifying to what God is saying to the church at other times. Altar calls at Grace + Peace can happen anytime during worship. The altar is where we receive knowledge and encouragement, and it’s where we commission people to go and do the work of the Spirit and work for justice. Sometimes the altar call is used to encourage and affirm those who feel called to leadership in the church. Other times, when we sense that people feel anxious or depressed, we use the altar as a place to surround them with a community of faith-filled believers who uphold their brothers and sisters in Christ. Each time an altar call is made, we are led by the Holy Spirit.
We choose to see the altar as the kind of place described in Hebrews 4:15–16: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” The altar has become a public place of access to our high priest, Jesus, among the company of other believers. Therefore, we carry all things before the Lord our God in prayer at the altar. Because of this practice we have experienced healing, deliverance, and spiritual growth. We continue to use the “altar calls” as part of our faith formation and as part of our journey of sanctification through Christ.
Other reasons for an altar call include (but are not limited to):
- new converts coming to Christ or people rededicating themselves to a relationship with Christ;
- prayer for and around a specific personal issue with the understanding that there is power in praying in agreement with another believer;
- prayer concerning issues that affect the global church;
- prayer to encourage and equip individuals in different phases of life; and
- prayers for courage for believers who feel called but are fearful of moving forward.
We understand this way of using altar calls may not be common in some churches. We also acknowledge that altar calls can be ineffective, poorly executed, misused, or misappropriated. This can happen because of a lack of understanding or out of fear. We encourage people to believe that the practice of coming to the altar is not something to fear, though it is something that should be revered, especially when stewarded properly.
Just because the altar call is not part of one’s tradition does not mean it has no potential significance or power. The benefits of the spiritual practice of altar calls may be something more of us should explore. The need for affirmation, access, encouragement, and empowerment is not specific to one congregation or people group. As believers of Christ, we long to truly encounter the Lord and grow from those encounters, and the altar call is one way to facilitate that.