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Friday, February 21, 2014

Stand Up, Sit Down

Altar calls. I know, I've written about them before, but they still irk me. The very first altar call I remember was the one for my baptism. It's a vague memory, but I was a bit shaky as I went forward, convicted that I was doing the right thing, me, the pastor's kid, almost 13 years old. I sat in baptismal classes for several weeks with my best friend; we were baptized on the same day. My grandma and two uncles came thousands of miles from England for the very special occasion. My grandma brought me a beautiful white blouse and an elegant burgundy long skirt and I felt very grownup as I stood in the receiving line afterwards to shake everyone's hand of congratulation.

The second call I responded to was more informal. It was not at a Seventh-day Adventist gathering; it was in a Sunday church several hours drive away on a Saturday afternoon. Eric Ludy stood on the platform while Leslie, his wife, played a song of surrender and I slipped to my knees. In that moment I chose to hand ultimate control of my future relationships to God and have not regretted it since. He was faithful even when I was not and He protected my heart from many possible mistakes. 

The third altar call that I chose to take was at a youth conference in Sacramento. Ironically, the pastor who made the call was later forced to resign from ministry due to his indiscretions but God used him that day to speak to hundreds of young people. Strangely enough, I don't remember what the call was for but I knew I must go forward, even with my friends there who at the time were not a crowd that rose for every call.

Then the calls ended. I have sat through too many altar calls since to count, ranging from the simple to the serious to the spiritually manipulative. My conservative estimate would hover around 500 over the past 15 years. Can you blame me for retreating inwardly tonight when the speaker said, "and in closing, I would like to make an altar call" and proceeded to lay out the terms of his specific call? I was thankful that he was sensitive to the crowd, insisting that this was only for those who felt convicted, and placing it after the closing hymn and general prayer. I knew, though, that as soon as he dismissed the formal meeting there would be a streaming of people to the front. I was not mistaken. My three row mates vanished the moment he said Amen and found their way to the front of the group waiting to pray.

Please don't misunderstand me, though. It is not that I am against altar calls; I am not. I do believe in the power of the moment, the emotion, the conviction, the Holy Spirit's call, the awareness that this is the time to make a decision, and the music creating an atmosphere conducive to surrender. I believe in the support of others making a similar decision and going forward to later encourage each other to remain strong. It is not the principle of the matter that I rebel against; it is the repetitive manner in which it is conducted.

I've always said that any pastor who wants to feed his ego by having a large group of people come forward for an altar call could come here. Rarely will anyone sit through a call; as soon as the trumpet is sounded, whether it be during the closing hymn, a waving of hands, or a standing up among the congregation "while every head is bowed and every eye is closed," there is always a mass response. I wondered tonight if it was out of real conviction, peer pressure, or perhaps guilt. I wondered about the serial repenters; those who went forward for every single altar call regardless of what it was or where it was. Have they no ability to work on their relationship with God, that they must continually repent as if taking mass or sitting in the confession booth each Sunday?

When I said earlier that I had sat through many altar calls, I meant it literally. After my first few years in college where I rose for the calls, then transitioned to a dutiful response out of respect for others watching me, I finally realized that it was not necessary to behave as a spiritual jack-in-the-box, only popping out when the owner gave the command. I began to engage in critical thinking and reasoned that an altar call was an opportunity to answer a conviction that was placed on my heart by the Holy Spirit, not by a manipulative spiritually abusive pastor (unfortunately I was present for several of those). As I accepted the freedom Christ had given me, I began to remain seated when the calls were made.

At first it was rather awkward. I often felt like people were staring at me and wondering why I wasn't standing. I imagined they thought I didn't have "a converted heart" and likely were praying their own little hearts out that I would "come to the Lord" and "be saved." I usually studied my shoes until the speaker had finished the three or more phases of his appeal and everyone sat back down again. It was even more embarrassing when the call was to "stand during the final song if you believe with all your heart that Christ is Lord and want to surrender your life to Him." I would remain resolutely planted in my seat and stare straight forward until the 5-verse hymn had finished. If the speaker was particularly zealous he would then launch into another appeal and the congregation would stream forward.

Tonight I was grateful for a speaker's awareness that not everyone needed to answer his call. I knew there were people who had burdens on their heart that they desperately needed the community to come together with them in prayer for. I knew that an altar call could mean the difference between surrender and someone leaving to follow their own ways. I recognized the value of the experience and when I quietly slipped out, though I was annoyed at yet another altar call, I was not upset that it had happened. I guess perhaps on some level I still wondered if there was something wrong with me because I did not feel convicted, I did not go forward.

When Nicodemus came to see Jesus in the dead of night, Jesus did not send him away and demand that he return in the light when everyone could see him. He patiently dialogued with him, shared some of His mission, and spoke the words of John 3:16 to him, words that would become the most quoted and memorized words of all time. Years later, Nicodemus, now a loyal and faithful disciple of Jesus, provided the embalming material for His body. 

I am of the firm belief that God works on our hearts with a timing that is perfect for each of us individually. God convicts when it is the time to convict; not because it's Friday evening or Week of Prayer. I know God can use those times, but I believe that He is continually working and brings us to repentance only when He has determined it should be so. I am convinced that God is not pleased with the "sacrifices" of the repetitive; that He is looking for genuine change and He asks for a sincere heart of mercy and humbleness.

I likely will be sitting in my seat at the next altar call. Yet in my heart, as I do each time, I will listen for the still small Voice. And if He calls, only then will I go forward.

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