During 70 years of preaching, I have given what we preachers call “altar calls” more than 3,000 times.
An altar call is usually an invitation to come forward, to the altar, and accept Jesus Christ as Savior. On some occasions, the call may be an invitation to join the church or to give one’s life or resources to some ministry of the church. It is always a personal call designed to motivate individuals to respond to God.
In the early years of my ministry, I was often disappointed if no one responded to my altar call, concluding that my preaching had been unconvincing. Gradually, I came to believe that whether people responded or not was a matter between them and God — and not a gauge of the sermon’s effectiveness.
That conviction helped me persevere when no one came forward on many Sundays. After all, I concluded, millions of people ignore the call of God himself every day for God is constantly “calling” his children in a thousand different ways to worship and obey him.
The church altar, by the way, is a great place for people to do business with God. And I have witnessed hundreds of lives being changed at the altar.
I have seen couples weeping at an altar and allowing God to save their marriages. I have prayed at the altar with countless men and women who, repenting of their sins, found what we love to call “victory in Jesus.” I love the altar because I have seen God work miracles there.
Since God is infinitely creative, he delights in giving people unique experiences. One stunning example occurred while I was preaching at a men’s retreat in Oklahoma.
The chapel was packed, and the Holy Spirit began touching many hearts. My sermon was on God’s plan for a man to lead his wife and children in the ways of the Lord.
When I gave the invitation, the altar was quickly filled with men weeping, kneeling and seeking God. The aisles also quickly filled with other men waiting the chance to kneel at the altar.
Suddenly, I saw a man in the back of the middle section of pews walking on the top of the backs of the pews, coming forward in earnest. Unable to find a place to kneel at the altar, he fell on his knees behind other men at the altar. I had the honor of praying with that man as he pled with God to change his heart and save his marriage. That was the most determined answer to an altar call I ever witnessed.
One night during a worship service, a woman came in, off the street, and took a seat in a back pew. Her only clothing was a thin cotton dress, nothing more. When she began talking to herself, it was obvious she was somewhat inebriated and distraught.
My wife got up from her seat, went over to comfort the woman and, sitting beside her, put her arm around her. She calmed down.
As soon as I gave the altar call, the woman, whose name was Gracie, asked my wife if she could go to the altar, and Dean said, “I’ll go with you.” Praying for her, we saw not only tears, but red bruises on her face and learned that she had been severely beaten by the man with whom she had been living.
Gracie was not dramatically “changed” at the altar that night, but the love she found there gave her hope for the future. Several caring women went out of their way to help her find a way out of the darkness and make a fresh start.
Gracie soon joined the Navy and began a new life as a disciple of Jesus.
Back of the pew
I have had several men tell me that when the invitation was given, they gripped the back of the pew and resisted the impulse to go forward. They knew God was calling, but they refused to give up and walk down front.
James Moore, a pastor, tells the story of a young man who did that in his church, then felt guilty about it and called Moore on Sunday afternoon to confess how badly he felt about staying glued to the pew.
The young man told Moore that it happened to him on consecutive Sundays. He said, “I just grabbed hold of the back of the pew and held on for dear life, and then it was too late; the service ended.
“I walked out of church disgusted with myself. I knew deep in my heart that God wanted me to go down and commit myself to Christ but I fought it off — both times. But I promised God if I ever felt that way again, I would seize the moment and act on it boldly.”
He paused, and then went on, “It happened again this morning, and I have been miserable all afternoon. But before I called you, I said a prayer and promised God that I was going to get baptized before the sun goes down tonight — so pastor, will you baptize me before the sun goes down tonight?”
Pastor Moore quickly replied, “Of course I will.” To which the young man responded, “I forgot to mention I promised God I would get baptized by immersion! I feel so dirty, and I want to be washed clean!”
Now the pastor was perplexed. Like most Methodist churches, his church did not have a baptismal pool, so he explained that he would have to make arrangements with a Baptist church to use their baptistery, and they might have to wait until the next day for his baptism.
“Oh, no,” the young man replied, “I promised God I would get baptized by immersion before the sun goes down today! So, if you cannot baptize me, I’ll have to find somebody else who will.”
Even more perplexed now, Moore did not know what to say. Then the young man said, “Pastor, you have a swimming pool at the church; can you baptize me in it?” Moore sealed the deal saying, “Yes! Meet me at the pool at 5:00 o’clock!”
On the way to the church pool, Moore started sweating as questions vibrated in his brain. Was it “legal” to baptize someone in a swimming pool? What if his bishop found out about it? Why didn’t the seminary teach me how to handle this?
The pastor’s questions vanished when he saw the young man waiting at the pool for him. “I’ll never forget the look on his face, his sense of urgency, his intensity, his resolve and his gratitude. At that moment I didn’t care what the letter of the law of the church said, I just knew Jesus wanted me to baptize that young man so I did!
“The next Sunday he finally found the courage to come to the altar at the end of the service and made his public confession of faith in Christ.”
I have had my share of life-changing moments at the altar.
Once on a Saturday night, my phone rang about 9 p.m. It was Frank calling. When I first met Frank, I learned that he despised churches and preachers. But the Holy Spirit got hold of Frank and softened his heart. On that Saturday night, his angry spirit melted in the warmth of God’s love.
Frank was still a bit rough around the edges so his voice was a little blunt that night when he called me. “Preacher,” he said, “You know I have never had much use for churches, but lately I have been thinking it’s about time for me to get right with the Lord. Tomorrow is my birthday, and I was wondering if you would baptize me in church tomorrow?”
The next day, my heart pounding with joy. I baptized Frank on his 65th birthday while tears stained his cheeks and mine.
Experiences like that at the altar will inspire any pastor to keep on making altar calls. If you happen to be in church one Sunday when I am preaching, don’t grab the back of the pew in front of you and resist the impulse to come forward. I would love to meet you at the altar, on our knees, and let God do a fresh work of grace in your heart and mine.
Believe me, I know from experience, the altar is a wonderful place to do business with God.
Walter Albritton is a Methodist minister and writes a weekly column for the Opelika-Auburn News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.