I grew up in a church and have attended and visited many churches in which the finale of the service is a call to salvation. “Altar calls” is the typical name for this segment in the service and, if your experience is like mine, they usually are the exact same thing every time. Being consistent isn’t a bad thing per se; my question is focused rather on the content and method that is being consistently, and constantly for that matter, used.
Typically, there is a sermon in which the focus lands upon the individual’s need for salvation. The usual need for this salvation is so that when one dies one will go to heaven. John 3:16, Romans 3:23, Romans 5:8, and a slew of other verses are brought out to ensure the individual sees the individual need for salvation because of individual sin. (Notice a pattern yet?) This is a very necessary thing, in that, indeed, everyone has sinned and everyone is failing at being the humans we are supposed to be. My problem is with the overemphasis on the individual. But more on that later.
I find it interesting, and here is where I get annoyed, that we call people to this individual salvation and then ask for a response done in secret. Have you ever heard this: “With everyone’s eyes closed and heads bowed, if you prayed that prayer, please look up at me or simply raise your hand.” The “all eyes closed and heads bowed” part usually gets repeated to ensure the secrecy of it all, and then just the pastor gets to see all who have made a decision (perhaps in haste, I dare ask?).
Does this make sense? What is the message we are sending to people? “Please come join us because we all believe this is the best offer you will ever receive. We are so thrilled, and so is Jesus, about you becoming a Christian that we’ll all sit here in complete silence not knowing who is doing anything.” The message behind the message of salvation is brought out in the action that we all do, or better said don’t, take by sitting passively, deciding to not know who has just prayed the prayer. Am I the only person who sees this as being weird?
My concern is that we are sending a message of privatization and individualism, which undermines the mission of the church, to those who are “praying the prayer.” By simply raising a hand or looking up at the pastor we are in essence saying that we don’t really need to know or care what you are doing. It is simply a matter between you and God, and the pastor, and this is all that seems to matter. This is called privatization.
Shouldn’t we be rejoicing and welcoming in all those who join in the kingdom of God? Shouldn’t we as a community of believers open our hearts to those who have accepted the invitation of participating in God’s new creation? Rather than sit with eyes shut and heads bowed, we should be thankfully and humbly receiving the ones who have joined the new people of God. We are family (read Ephesians) and need to be lovingly accepting people into the family. Faith isn’t a private matter (and yet it is) because it has a communal dynamic to it that is demonstrated as joining in together with God’s mission. Salvation that is predicated on “dying and going to heaven” someday is a water-downed version of what we are called to do. Salvation is the entrance into a family called out by God through Jesus’ death and resurrection to be servants and witnesses to and for the world for the expansion of God’s new creation and redemptive kingdom. It isn’t private; it isn’t accomplished with a hand raised; it isn’t proclaimed in the midst of shut eyes or bowed heads. It is for the public to see and hear; it is accomplished by the raising of Jesus; it is proclaimed in the midst of rejoicing and the love of family.