I remember well my time as a ‘zealot’ type youth pastor giving altar calls while preaching and seeing many young people come forward in response – ostensibly to express their desire to follow Jesus. These were moments of great excitement and immense joy. Young lives had found their way to Jesus and they were boldly putting it all on the line. Even as I reflect on those times now it evokes a wonderful feeling of happiness at what was happening.
But I also remember that when I shared this information with other older people their responses seemed less exuberant than I anticipated. I expected long term God botherers to be whooping and hollering at the stupendous news of new birth in the kingdom of God. But often the response was restrained and quite unexpressive, as if I had said ‘tonight the youth watched a movie.’
‘Oh yeah… Nice.’
I remember when I had these experiences I would wonder what was wrong with these older Christians who did not seem at all inspired or encouraged by the news of new faith. To this day I still feel their responses were a little befuddling and may have spoken somewhat to the state of their own spirituality. I judged them much more harshly then, as half hearted, luke warm wannabes who had lost the plot in their own faith, so it was no wonder they found it hard to share in the joy of new life.
Interestingly over the last few years as I have heard similar stories both from our own church and others I have found myself with some similar reactions. I certainly share in the good news of young lives saved, but inwardly my responses are more muted and nuanced. Because 20 years on from my time doing this kind of evangelism my ‘where are they now?’ filter suggests many did one lap of the track and then found something else to devote their lives to.
Perhaps it was a failure of discipleship processes or perhaps it was just that they ‘got a better offer.’ Or perhaps the altar call’ itself is a problematic tool in evangelism. In my teen years I remember attending rallies and events where we painfully endured ‘just one more verse’ of ‘just as I am’ because there was still someone out there who needed to make peace with God. The potential for emotional manipulation in these spaces is very high and young people are particularly vulnerable. Did they really understand what they were signing up for?…
Who else remembers those words ‘every head bowed and every eye closed’? It was the cue for the Holy Spirit to begin his work… Or it was a part of a process that not so subtly messed with people’s emotions and may have even manipulated them into a position they would not have been in if they had been sitting in a silent, well lit room.
I’m not a fan of altar call evangelism. I’m not even sure if it ‘has it’s place’. If it means mood music in a dark room at the end of a long night and a persuasive speaker offering a choice between heaven and hell then it feels like a bit of an ambush for those who have attended.
My final few attempts at ‘altar call’ style evangelism – probably 12-15 years ago – met with minimal success. Because in I painted a picture of discipleship to Jesus, we don’t have any ‘sign me up’ music – just silence – and I invited people to stand up where they were as a statement of their intent. No eyes closed and heads bowed, no mood music, just a raw decision.
Do it or don’t do it. I’m not going to make it easy for you.
I’ve only done this 2 or 3 times and the response has been underwhelming on each occasion. However by setting the bar higher and choosing to paint a more holistic picture of what it means to follow Jesus I think those on the edge may have said ‘Oh… I need a bit more time to really think this thru…‘ If that is all my altar call accomplished on these occasions then I am content, knowing that if one day that person does decide to sign up they do so with a much greater consciousness of what it entails.
So hear me on this; I do want to be able to share in the joy of our young people as they see their friends find faith. I don’t want my years in the game to simply turn me into an old cynic. But I also want to acknowledge that the ‘conversion moment’, if there really is such a thing. Is but one small step in the journey of faith. When Paul wrote of those who are ‘being saved’ he seemed to be implying that it is an ongoing process, an experience I would concur with. I cannot track my ‘conversion’ to any one moment, but I can speak of many ‘moments of conversion’ where I chose Christ over the other options life offered me.
Somehow 40 years on from my own teen years I am still following Jesus and still ‘being saved’ regularly. Now I am less attracted to shiny things and more able to make the choices intuitively as distinct from my teen years when I was having to choose intentionally and often.
There is a line between cynicism and wisdom and it’s a hard one to walk in these situations because there are people who have responded to these calls and walked in faith for years to come. My unverified hunch is that those who responded and are still going likely came from Christian families where it was hoped that at some stage they would respond in faith, but for those who live in families as the only Christian I’d suggest the attrition rate is much higher. (This is a generalisation so your own story may prove me wrong…)
So – by all means please celebrate the young people finding faith and beginning a journey of discipleship. But more than that let’s make sure they have the support around them that enables them to keep making ‘conversion decisions’ when the option to give up will often be much easier. And as older people who may be aware of this, let’s enter into the joy and maybe we can just do our bit by praying for them.
And if you want to explore the (very recent) origins of the altar call then here is an article that may be helpful.