Friday, November 26, 2010

Man-Centered Worship: Our Altar-Call Culture

Having once dared to suggest that excessive prayer requests can lead us into the ditch of man-centered worship, I will now turn my attention to another mainstay of our current Christian culture:  the altar call.

Now, what could possibly be wrong with giving sinners the opportunity to publicly repent of their sins?  After all, John the Baptist essentially made something like it the centerpiece of his ministry, while Peter famously presided over an altar call of massive proportions. Clearly, a public call to repentance--an "altar call", if you will--can be an integral part of an evangelistic outreach.

Once again, however, my concern is about the culture, not the act.  It is the alter call as the necessary affirmation, the required proof that the pastor and the "worship team" has hit the mark.  Consider some of the more absurd displays we engage in when our every worship service builds inextricably to an altar call:
  • The final song/hymn is less about worship and more about enticing congregants to approach the altar for anything at all--everything from repentance to requests for baptism to decisions about membership.
  • The unseemly, often interminable pleading for "just one more" to come forward.
  • The ridiculous spectacle of "I see that hand" call-and-response by the pastor.
  • The sense that only an altar-call response qualifies as a real "decision".
Beyond this, however, lies something more insidious.  We have in our churches the subtle destruction of the corporate worship experience when its report card is visible response.  Thus does the church succumb to our craving to immediate gratification, in which "rescued souls" serve as our validation.  This is the worship service as a weekly tent meeting.

There also exists a temptation to see the visible responses we see at altar calls to be determinative, when in fact they are often very problematic.  We fail to see how seriously returning evangelistic "false positives" can harm the church and those we seek to save.  By this I mean that our desire for validation can drive us to hound people into emotional responses often without substance.  To paraphrase R.C. Sproul, it is the tendency to see every "profession of faith" as automatically implying the "possession of faith", neglecting the truth that "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

Understand I'm not against alter calls per se.  They have their place.  It's not the activity I have trouble with, but rather its ubiquitous application to every worship service.  As I said previously, "Worship has intrinsic value, which is often lost in the context of our methods." 

It is my suggestion that the main reason we gather together for "worship services" is ... well, it's to worship our Risen Lord.  By seeking a visible response within every corporate worship service the message we often send is that the chief reason we congregate is to validate our ministry.

Perhaps most alarmingly, it may even be true.