The Altar Question: Southern Baptists and Others?

I have mostly heard and seen this in Southern Baptist churches. I am not talking about altar calls where unbelievers are being called forward which is another topic for another time. I am talking about going forward to pray and/or renew your commitment to Christ. I have asked about this practice before on this and other blogs with no real answer.

Emotionally, I can understand the purpose this may serve. This practice can really get one emotionally charged up and feel like really doing better this time. This is my observation through watching as well as hearing from others. Often, the same people may be seen going to the “altar” for renewal. To be fair, sometimes the same people are going to pray for certain things. Please hear me on this, I am making an observation not a judgement.

Theologically, I really cannot see where this fits in at all. The altar we are to go to and look to is the cross of Christ. We are to do this repeatedly. We do not need to go to a special physical place or position such as the altar steps in the front of any sanctuary. Nor do we need to go through any priest but our Lord Jesus, the perfect intercessor.

Is there a particuar right or wrong in this practice theologically? Maybe, maybe not. Practically, this practice probably moves people to feel closer to God and each other for atleast the time it’s happening. My concerns are where people are being led to look for renewal. If done enough, do they come to believe the sanctuary steps hold a special place in God’s eyes? That they can get more favor from God by using this method? See, I’ve never heard any warnings to this effect. I’ve never heard the people told that they can have just as much access to God even if they don’t come forward. I don’t know what all the motives are for such a call to the steps. I can’t help but think it’s similar to feeling like you are ready to sell ice to an eskimo after listening to Zig Ziglar for an hour. You feel motivated until you feel the coldness at the first showing of the ice.

A more appropriate challenge, I believe, is to examine one’s life and conscience and look to Christ for our short comings. As Piper has said, he wants to be a church of brokeness that looks only to Christ. Now, maybe for some or many going to the altar steps is a way to examine the self, but I’ve just never heard that exhortation in such a situation. I also think this practice can or may lead someone to look to their hightened emotions in a certain place for relief rather than looking to Christ from right where they sit.

So I’m back to my main question: Why is this type of renewal/prayer altar call done?

Mark

Let's connect!

in Church Issues,Culture,Southern Baptist,theology

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

1 excogitatingengineer February 6, 2007 at 12:39 am

I think that there are many reasons that this happens and it vareis from person to person. It would be wrong to judge someone and their reasons for going forward. With the best of intentions, I would have to say that people are encouraged to go forward to put some action behind what they have committed to in their hearts (i.e. rededication). They could easily have recommitted their lives to renewed obedience to Christ in the pew but some go forward for accountability and support from the body of Christ. The question still remains, however, why do some do it over and over.

Blessings.

-sorry to have posted this comment on a post on buddhists. don’t know how I managed to do that.

2 johnMark February 6, 2007 at 7:39 am

I didn’t really mean to come across as questioning peoples’ motives. They are basically following the preachers lead. They may feel more accountable and as if they are being supported moreso by going forward, however, accountability and support would seem to need to have two way communication. And it may not be renewal but just prayer.

But it’s really more about why does the preacher call people to do this? Ususually, the wording is something like “just come leave your prayers at the altar…come to the steps”. How is it more helpful to the congregant in their walk with Christ, especially, if a call to examine one’s self is absent? Is there piety involved? If so, how so?

I’m just trying to understand and I appreciate the comment.

Mark

3 Phil Hoover-Chicago February 6, 2007 at 1:01 pm

Of course, Mark,

What if the believers used their time at the altar to really get “prayed through” over some issues in their life?

The greatest congregations that I know have altars that are used regularly by saints as well as those wanting to transfer their membership from the “kingdom of darkness” to the kingdom of light.

Keep those altars open, active, and full.

Encourage the believer to “bring their burdens” to the Lord every time you possibly can.

4 johnMark February 6, 2007 at 1:52 pm

Thanks, Phil.

First, I want to make sure we don’t move to talking about altar calls to the unrepentant. That is a seperate issue though related.

My question is still why? Why encourage people to pray at the altar? What purpose does it serve above and beyond what is accomplished by doing the same yet not going forward?

Is more assurance given that an issue is “prayed through” due to going forward? If this is a pragmatic issue, which *I think* you are implying then the question is if it “works” why does it work? Why has it worked so to speak?

I’m trying…
Mark

5 excogitatingengineer February 6, 2007 at 10:00 pm

Mark,

I think you may be onto something here. This issue you mention is one of the reasons that many ‘Christians’ think that you have to walk an aisle or pray a prayer to be saved. We have confused a heart-change with an external symbol or act of walking an aisle.

Blessings

6 The Highland Host February 7, 2007 at 4:20 am

And why ‘altar’ anyhow? Baptist Churches don’t have physical altars. Do they?

And I think the danger of such a call is that it can become a sort of sacrament – and an unbiblical one at that.

7 johnMark February 7, 2007 at 7:54 am

excog,

A lady mentioned last weekend that it was some time until she realized there was more than walking the aisle involved in becoming a believer. Warrant for being more careful in this area? I think so.

Highland,

I have also wondered about that too. Isn’t the altar or place of sacrifice for Christian the cross? It seems that the biggest sacrament in the evangelical churches today has to do with this “altar”.

I just can’t get over the exhortation given for folks to come forward and pray or renew, etc. very much seems like doing this will give you favor with God. It will get you closer to Him rather than had you stayed in your seat. If we looked at this practice and the emotional effect it has on people I am sure it would be revealing. My guess is that it makes people remember this experience and gives them more emotional ties to a service or church. Maybe this is a bad thing maybe it’s not, but it seems a danger because I would wonder where people are seeking their spiritual comfort. In Christ or in the experience?

Thanks,
Mark

8 Machaira February 7, 2007 at 9:55 am

I used to repeatedly answer to altar calls when I felt like I needed to be rededicated to the Lord (I’m a former Southern Baptist too). I don’t mean to reinforce any preconceptions, but looking back at it all, it was largely due to my nagging insecurity as a believer. One well versed in doctrine can probably deduce what sorts of misconceptions can factor for such a feeling.

The insecurity is still a major issue with me nowadays, though now I have been taught, through the grace of God, to keep going to Christ when in a pinch. Security was never based on me but on what God has objectively accomplished in space and time (Christ on the cross for us), and communicated historically in a form we could understant (the Scriptures).

Going back to the issue, though, I believe we should take heed not only to doctrine and personal motives, but also to how much freedom we are willing to allow in our churches, and yet at the same time how much we are willing not to make wrong impressions that may effect such and such a doctrinal error in the believers that attend. JohnMark is correct in saying that we do not necessarily need to have an altar call for believers to recommit themselves to the Lord or to be prayed over; God can work in the pew as well as in the front.

But the fly in the ointment here is how willing believers are to actually come up and do that. For this reason an altar call can work two ways: 1) it may end up as merely an external act meant to “prove” to oneself that he has what it takes to present himself to the Lord (which is a rather humanistic view), or 2) it can also be a way for believers to communicate personal concerns that require more or less corporate prayer (although, lan’ sakes, that’s what we have prayer meetings for).

That’s all I’m going to say at the moment, I guess. Not much for me to go on here except what has already been mentioned.

God bless,
Mach

9 Melvin Jones February 8, 2007 at 3:49 pm

I suspect the primary reason the practice is there is because it gives people two things. First, the action is something they can do. Walk up, commit to an action (in front of other people). It can serve as a sort of marker for the person. The second is it makes a person feel good, like they have expended extra energy and admitted before they world that they need to improve.

However, I don’t see any thing like this in the Bible. The closest I can see is when the folks brought all their magic books and stuff together and burned it all.

Melvin

10 johnMark February 8, 2007 at 8:00 pm

Mach, my friend, thanks for the insight on your own personal struggles and how they relate to this topic. I will post a link below which answers these methods more clearly than I.

Melvin,
I appreciate your comments and your reading here. I don’t quite have your traffic. I agree with you. What you said is similar to what my wife has said about visiting evangelists who do this: they want the experience to be remembered.

Daryl Wingerd over at Christian Communications Worldwide has a new article on altar calls and makes some great points. It’s called The Corrupt Root and Bitter Fruit of Altar Call Evangelism found here: http://www.ccwonline.org/altar.html

Following are some good quotes from the article.

“…the methods of evangelism are ways of introducing the means of salvation to the unconverted. The methods are not seen as means themselves.”

“…the person looking for relief from a troubled conscience cannot help but conclude that at least some aspect of his eternal benefit can be gained only by complying with the preacher’s request. The preacher may not mean to convey this, but his actions and words so strongly imply it that the listener cannot help but think that he must do something beyond merely believing if he is to be saved. Likewise, the one who does respond outwardly as instructed cannot help but assume that he has gained something of eternal importance by doing so, even though outward responses often reflect no corresponding inner reality.”

“…the one who did not respond as invited cannot help but believe he has missed the “opportunity.””

That pretty much sums it up.

Mark

11 Fr. Bill February 23, 2007 at 8:50 pm

I’m coming in here way late, I know. Maybe further discussion on these ideas is better in a “fresher” blog at another time. For now, since the blog title above mentions “others,” I’ll leave the following.

First, background on my comments below. My early Christian formation came from Southern Baptist, and later from Baptist-like, congregations. The invitations to the “altar” for various reasons are very, very familiar features of my memories of those days. Later, I pastored in Bible-church enviornments, which were similar to my earlier Baptist days, without any invitations that were ordinary in “fully Baptist” kinds of settings.

Today, I am an Anglican priest, and most of the things which your blog directly or implicitly rejects are the meat and potatos of day by day spiritual life for me and for my parishioners. We have an altar, a real one. We have the presence of the Lord, we commune with him weekly, or more often. And, yep … physical nearness to the altar is something we value.

I know I can pray while sitting on the toilet. I imagine some folks do that, just to prove the point. I routinely pray in all sorts of settings and locales. But no one would think that talking to his wife on the cell phone was the same as talking to her across the dinner table. Is it so with God?

Holy places? Sure. Special occasions for prayer, or worship? Why not?

You see, I’ve inhabited both universes — the one that says “God is no where around here any differently than He is any other place;” and also the one that says “God is here in a way He’s not anywhere else.” Kind of like when.

I’ve decided that the universe God made works for us Christians as it did for the Patriarchs. Bethel (means “house of God”) was “special” to them. And one time, Jacob found out that it was “special” in a way he had only dimly perceived before (cf. Gen. 28:16ff).

The universe inhabited by the Patriarchs is the same inhabited by Israel, and by the Church. In it, God is everywhere. And, as He pleases, he is at places in ways utterly other than how he is anywhere else. This is how God taught his people to live with him, to think about him, to worship him, and to pray to him.

I will not speculate on the motives or thinking of the Baptist pastors who summon folks to the alter. There’s no way to make any judments. I will, however, offer this observation, based on my own years in that kind of environment and many conversations with those who were my good Baptist brothers and sisters:

Baptists — as it touches their fundamental premises about the spiritual life — do not live consistently. You are correct to suspect a disconnect between the idea that “it makes no difference where you pray” and “Come down the altar to pray.”

I do not fault those preachers who make those invitations. Even though the professed belief and the call to “come down here” don’t jive, the invitation to come down to what he’ll call an altar is a kind of groping toward the truth of how the dynamics of spiritual life are supposed to work.

We are, after all, material as well as spiritual beings. We have bodies as well as spirits. And Christ — who took a body — redeemed both spirit and body. And, so the notion of using that body, in concert with our spirit, to worship, to pray, to commune with Him — well, the two go together as naturally as any other kind of life. Life, of course, is the union of body and spirit (cf. Gen. 2:7).

I didn’t depart my Baptist cradle faith because it had bad stuff in it. I was running away from nothing. Everything about the gospel I learned first from the Baptists. I joyfully retain it all to this day, and I thank them for being God’s agents to proclaim the gospel to me.

But, I as I grew up in the LORD, the Bible showed me showed me things that were good, and right, and wholesome; things that I did not find in my Baptist cradle, except in earnest (though inconsistent) altar calls.

In my case, the English Reformation supplied the missing pieces to the puzzle of living a spiritual life. It isn’t the only place I could have slaked my thirst; it’s just the well I first found that did so.

For what it’s worth (probably very little) all the Anglican clergy I am personally acquainted with began their life in Christ as Baptists.

12 johnMark February 27, 2007 at 10:29 pm

Fr. Bill,

Thanks for your comments. I don’t mean to leave you hanging. Of course, I disagree with you, but appreciate your insight. I will get back to responding when I have a little more time. So please don’t take this as discounting you.

Thanks,
Mark

13 Fr. Bill February 28, 2007 at 1:50 am

No problemo, Mark. It’s good to know you have a life other than the blogosphere! Thanks for the thoughtful note.

And, I didn’t expect you to agree, of course. But, because we do share some roots, perhaps I can help you sharpen your thoughts as you have time and occasion to develop them further.

Meanwhile, I too have fish to fry….

Fr. B

14 Heather November 1, 2015 at 11:46 pm

I am a southern baptist it’s always been my understanding and as my pastor says though we can pray and repent to god anyway we feel. But going to the altar is a physical way of feeling closer to God. Our way of going to the cross. Even though prayer works for God but with guilt sometimes doing something more physical and openly makes you feel better. It also shows others that they are not alone in troubles of life as a Christian. It encourages others to repent for their sins.
We do this every Sunday. Some days no one goes some days only a few and others there’s a lot. Along with it theres always someone who goes up there with you. They wrap their arms around you and comfort you as you pray. Another way of let you know your not alone in your sins. And God knows we also need each other sometimes it’s his way of using others to wrap his arms around you for comfort.

15 Smith J Kellie August 15, 2016 at 3:41 am

Hello,

I do realize this was dated way earlier than now, but maybe there is someone out there like me, very much confused and goes to all lengths to find understanding when they cannot seem to find it where it counts the most “The Bible”.
My church is the Baptist belief as well and do not misunderstand, I love my church but as with many of you, I too feel like the lost sheep when I should not. I feel most Sundays I have missed something along the way whenever I see only certain ones going to the alter for prayer, and for the most part this Sunday was the first time the pastors wife went for prayer. It seems they all got together one night and decided everyone had to do it. Like it was planned. Is this the devil making me feel notice this? Or suddenly did they ( the women that always hang out together and walk together) really decide that this needed to be done.
Yes, it is a new church and I really get uplifted whenever I go there. I really feel the Lord in this church, but I feel him right where I am sitting, not in that special place up front where all the deacons wives and joggers have suddenly all went this past Sunday. I am feeling like that they are doing this for the wrong reasons. It is almost like a persuasion like feeling that I am getting.

I know the Lord will guide me if I am wrong, He always does put it on my heart and make me turn the right way if I am wrong, if it is pride or stubbornness he will tell me right out, he has before. But I am doing this simply because I do not want the devil making you feel you are not forgiven for any certain sin, if you do not go to the front and pray about it. We have a very forgiving God, he loves us all the same and has no favorites. I do feel he may have intimates because the christians that read more of his word and have more faith than others cant help but feel closer but he loves us all the same regardless.

Also I did have another odd feeling whenever I took my son to church with me one Sunday. The pastor put across that “this may be your last chance of getting saved” that ” the Lord may never call on you again” I do not want my son feeling like if he didnt get up and go to that alter while the Lord was tugging at his heart, he could never be saved if he came back on a later date. Or maybe if he ask the Lord to forgive him while setting there and was later going to ask to be baptized, that he was not saved.

What is someone’s response to this? Do you actually believe someone cannot be saved anywhere? If so, then I am not, and I know I have been. But I was rededicated right here on my red couch while watching Charles Stanley. I felt the spirit and had such a change in how I seen people. I seen it was their sin causing them to act the way they did, not particularly the person. I just feel so different, but yes I have flesh and mess up from time to time, but I can get on my knees right here in front of my couch and ask forgiveness just the same and feel his arms around me just the same as the next. I love my brothers and sisters in my church and we talk about things yes, but as for going to the alter to feel closer to God, I do not feel I have to at this time. If he comes to me and tells me to do it, oh yes I will run. But until then, the Lord says he will never leave me or you and for me to think otherwise, I would be calling him a liar. God bless us all fro any misrepresentation on this part. I love you all.

16 Donna February 3, 2017 at 4:38 pm

I totally disagree with you. People have a misconception that someone going to the altar is because they have sinned. We go to the altar because we are drawn by God and have a personal relationship with God through His Son Jesus Christ Our Lord and Savior. We can pray anywhere but when God draws you then you go out of obedience. You go because you want to praise God and thank him for His Precious Son. You go to humble yourself before God. You go because He is God and we are not. We go because we came to church ” God’s House ” to worship and praise Him and this is His Altar. There is nothing emotional about it. We are serving God with honor and respect. Show me a church that does not pray and humble themselves before God in the altar and I will show you a dead church. If you want The Holy Spirit to show up in church you have to invite Him.

17 Courtney February 4, 2017 at 3:55 am

I recently started going to my husband’s church after we were married, and praying at the altar is a practice they do every single service. This is something I’ve really only seen in the south. I was not familiar with this practice (coming from a northern Baptist church and this a southern Baptist church) and I’ve done a lot of observing myself trying to understand the reasoning behind it.

I know of altar calls, when an invitation is given for the unsaved to come forward with the decision of salvation, and I have “come to the altar” in the past when I rededicated my life to Christ as a teen at Christian camp for example, but to see a congregation make regular visits to the front for every prayer during a church service was new to me.

It definitely is an emotional time, at least for this church, since there’s always singing and music playing during prayer time and every one of them leaves the altar in tears almost every time. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing; genuine conviction of sin or heartfelt praise to an almighty God is nothing to be quiet about. But with music on a loop and the preacher egging you on and people crying and wrapping their arms around your shoulders… it’s easy to get caught up in the moment. And since they do this over and over again, can ya blame me for thinking it’s not always about genuine conviction and prayer, but an emotional obligation? If it was for support or accountability, well that’s fine but doing it every single time says something else. They treat it like it’s an ordinance or obedience to a commandment God never gave. I’m not trying to demonize this either, because I’m not opposed to praying at an altar. I’m opposed to the misconceptions altar-prayerers have for thinking it’s somehow more spiritual or more pleasing to God than those who choose not to pray at an altar.

I humbly pray and talk to God every day and quietly at my seat during church prayer time. I wasn’t raised to pray at a church altar so I’m not comfortable doing it now. It doesn’t feel natural or genuine for me to do it. Now that doesn’t mean I never would. If I truly felt led by the Holy Spirit to make an outward show of a decision/prayer then I would certainly go up to the altar, kneel down, and pray as I always have. If someone asked me to go up with them for support or to pray with them, you best believe I’ll be right there with an arm around them. But I don’t believe in a “special blessing” of literally praying at an altar and until someone shows me from the Bible that it is, and not from overused southern preacher rhetoric, I’m fine praying to my Savior right from my pew, and He will hear me just the same. This isn’t a popular thing to say in some southern churches, including the one I attend, so I don’t make a big deal about it. But I’ve heard preachers say if you’re not willing to stand up and walk down for prayer then you’re quenching the spirit or denying God, and that’s just ludicrous. Some people pray at an altar on their hands and knees, some pray kneeling at their seat, some pray sitting on a pew with their eyes closed. There’s nothing wrong with any of these ways. God still hears his children when they call upon him, no matter the position or location of their body.

18 John Henry March 15, 2018 at 7:53 am

I know this is a old tread but with that said. I beleave that most have a ongoing misconception in what the altar call is even people in the pacific denomination that has them. The altar is a place to give offerings to God and God only asks to give to him in which things are his. Like Christ says give to Caesar what is Caesars and God what is his. So by going up you are offering God your spirit so he may help guide you along the path he has set for you. This is my understanding of it from what I have gathered if you disagree it is ok I have my option you have yours and I hope this helps someone along the way. God Bless

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