In our fast-moving culture, sometimes it feels like altars are downplayed, de-emphasized, and disappearing. But perhaps the impact of responding to God’s voice at an altar is not lost on our generation! One of the largest churches in America released a song called “O Come to the Altar,” which invites people to the altar as a place where God’s arms are open for the hurting and broken. Regardless of whatever the popular trends may be, I’m convicted and convinced that the more we invite people to come to the altar, the more they will!.
When I was growing up as a preacher’s kid in the Church of the Nazarene, altars were used all the time in our worship gatherings. Some of my best church memories come from those special times when the Lord’s presence was so real and powerful that you could feel it. At the altar, I responded to the Word with life-changing decisions. The altar is where I learned how to worship and pray for myself and others.
My view of the altar was deeply shaped by the influence of Dr. J. K. Warrick, my senior pastor for many years. In every church he led, altars were used regularly as wonderful places for people to immediately respond to the Holy Spirit’s prompting. And he never hesitated to use the altar himself.
Shortly after I came to pastor Wooster, Ohio, Church of the Nazarene in 1995, one question I asked the church board and leaders was, “How often have the altars been used?” Their response was, “Not often! We can’t remember the last time anyone was ‘saved’ there!”
“That is about to change!” I replied. It did change! Since that pivotal moment, hundreds of people have bowed at our altars and stairs. We’re thankful that many lifechanging spiritual decisions have been made there. In the last church year, more people have responded to altar calls than in any previous years. Our love for, and use of, altars has never been stronger.
When we moved into our new facility in 2006, we had our new altars designed and built by local artisans. They are low, wide, and sturdy, so they are comfortable for those desiring to kneel. They also provide easy access for those offering prayer assistance. Those unable to kneel are actually encouraged to sit on the altar to pray. Our altars were built to be used.
Recently some of our children in leadership suggested that we also make altars available in Kidz Church every Sunday. We found some altars in storage and reworked them for the children. Now they are being used regularly! What a sight to see children and adults praying together around those altars!
At Wooster Church of the Nazarene, our goal is to create a culture that shows and says, “We are altar-people.” This is who we choose to be. Our aim is to teach people to use the altars regularly, whenever they sense God’s Spirit tugging at their hearts. We don’t want anyone to miss what could be a moment of transformation in his or her spiritual life. The altar is certainly not the only place to pray, but it is still a great place to meet with Jesus. When we use our altars regularly, guests will soon feel comfortable with them, too. We do our best to explain the “altar experience” to the new people we bring to worship.
We are always looking for creative ways to invite people to come forward and gather near the altars. For example, we invite people to come forward for communion, baby dedications, mission trip blessings, memorials, baptisms, military recognition, and always, we open a red candy bucket for children at the altar at the end of each service. We believe that if our people get close to the altars often, even for lighter moments, they will be drawn to them for the most important things as well.
We believe it is important to give people the opportunity to follow up on a spiritual decision by taking a physical action step. For those coming to the altar, the experience can be a very meaningful first step in their spiritual life. This is another way to declare what they have decided in their heart. So, our altar calls are becoming bolder!
At Wooster Church of the Nazarene, we give an altar call nearly every Sunday, but we try to provide people with an opportunity to respond to God in different ways. Sometimes the invitation is tied directly to the message and then broadened to include other prayer needs. At other times, it starts with a general invitation that becomes more specific. At some point in every invitation, we try to offer an opportunity for people to come into a personal relationship with Jesus or to renew a commitment to Him.
We commonly ask the entire congregation to repeat a directed prayer out loud. Then, those who prayed personally and sincerely from their hearts are encouraged to indicate their decision by raising their hands or standing. On other occasions, people may be asked to stand if they are choosing to receive Jesus or responding to a specific prayer need. Then they are led in directed prayer, with the congregation praying out loud with them. We also encourage those who have made a spiritual decision to come forward during the closing song to kneel or stand at the altar. They can receive further prayer or tell someone about their decision as a public testimony.
We have new believer packets behind the altars. These are filled with items to help new believers grow. And we ask respondents to fill out a simple decision card with contact information, so we can follow up with them within that week, directing them to our My Start Class. We also offer these packets at our Connect Area in the foyer. We want to encourage these folks by walking alongside them as they listen and respond to God’s voice. From my early years of ministry, I passionately believed and often stated that every person is just one friend away from knowing and loving Jesus. It’s still true! We encourage our people to invite their friends and family to pray with them at the altar because it is a wonderful place to connect with God and the church family. As a tangible symbol, the altar has always been a sacred place for offering sacrifices to the only living God, and it still is. We are the living sacrifices He’s looking for. We come to the altar confident that since God has called us, He will meet us there.