A couple weeks ago, a friend of mine spoke to me about her father, a Baptist pastor, who visited our church. He thought the service was great except that we did not give an “altar call.” His words to his daughter went something like this: “They didn’t give people a chance to make a ‘decision.’” At the time, the counsel I gave my friend was that our objective in Sunday worship is not to “make converts” as much as it is to "make disciples." I used some other words, but it wasn’t really until the last few days that I began realizing something profound.

We do give an altar call every week. It’s called Communion. The “altar” is the cross of Jesus Christ, upon which his body was broken and his blood was shed for us. The “call” is to come to the cross, to lay our lives down at his feet in wholehearted surrender. The Lord's Table is where we immediately respond to God’s call. It’s the place where Jesus himself leads us to respond. God is calling his disciples to the ultimate altar of worship, where his grace conforms us to his image.

Of course, this weekly altar call is reserved for baptized believers who would approach the table in a worthy manner, namely, with an understanding of how great a sacrifice Jesus has made for them and with every intention to commit their lives entirely to him. So, what about the unconverted and uncommitted? Aren't these the very people altar calls were created for? Well, it depends on what your objective is in Sunday corporate worship.

We live in a culture of immediacy. But the reality is, life happens slowly. Before a baby is born, it gestates in the womb of its mother for nine months. In a similar way, relationships develop slowly. We want conversion (new birth) to take place in a split moment of decision. But let's be real, relationships don't happen over night, and neither do major life decisions. Perhaps we should rethink conversion as more of a slow process than something that's supposed to happen in an instant. And perhaps the bulk of the gestational development of a seeker should happen outside of the Sunday worship context (although attending Sunday worship, hearing the preached Word and looking in upon the worship of God's people, certainly is formative, as well).

Once their mentors and others in the body determine they truly are turning and trusting in Christ (the "decision" is communal), they are deemed converted and the preparation for Baptism begins (or Communion in the case of already baptized children). Then the converted seeker answers their first altar call. The call began months earlier as a Holy Spirit whisper. The altar is the water of Baptism. What joy and release! What freedom and forgiveness--dying and rising with Christ! And then comes the continual rite of Communion, the weekly altar call to the converted, baptized, disciples of Jesus. But this whole "conversion experience" is a slow process, and we don't like that.

Many Baptists and other modern Protestant groups have a different objective in Sunday worship. The preached Word is assumed sufficient for the continued discipleship of believers. Communion is set aside for occasional use and the liturgical void is filled with “repeat-after-me prayers” for the unconverted and uncommitted. Response is the decision of the individual (my decision), and then a life of faith should follow. But what usually ends up happening is my decision makes me think that’s all there is to it. I made a decision, so I’m good with God.

A life of discipleship does not naturally follow, initially because of my self-centered response, but also in large because of the lack of disciple-making on the part of church leaders. Making converts has replaced making disciples. That is why “number of decisions” has taken such a primary role in measuring success as a church. Yes, it should be a huge focus of ours to be leading people to the Lord, but that means truly leading people to the Lord, not to self-discovery and a false sense of security. Truly leading people to the Lord is not an instantaneous, one-time thing, but a gradual, daily thing. I am convinced that the Lord’s Supper is one of the most important places we can lead our people to “receive” the Lord.

And if you think about it, “decision” is certainly involved in coming to the table. First, we decide how (not if, but how) we’re going to respond. It’s either yes or no. Then everyone present has the immediate opportunity to act upon their decision. There are only two things that should ever prohibit a person from receiving the Lord's Supper: unbelief or unworthiness. It saddens me when I hear of people who say no because they don't want it to become a "ritual" or because it's too "Catholic." Let's face it, it is a ritual, and it's the greatest of all the rituals in our lives. It's greater than my weekly ritual of coming to the altar of my TV to watch my favorite TV show. It's greater than my twice daily ritual of coming to the altar of my bathroom mirror to brush my teeth. It's one of the only actually holy rituals, instituted by Jesus himself, in which we have the wonderful opportunity to take part. And to refuse the bread and the cup for fear that we're becoming too Catholic, as if we're on strike or protesting something evil? Come on!

We should be racing to the Table in droves every chance we get, longing to receive God's grace, surrendering our bodies and all five senses to him, and recommitting our lives to him in an act of wholehearted devotion. Now that's the kind of altar call I can get excited about. And how much greater the outcome of the majority of a congregation coming to the altar than just a few people who raised their hands with their heads bowed and their eyes closed! But again, what's your objective in Sunday worship?

Is there ever a time for a traditional, Billy Graham-type altar call? I think so, but our greater concern than number of converts must be the kind of disciples we are making and how our worship is making them.

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