Week in and week out it happens. As surely as the sun “rises” in the East and “sets” in the West, my church will have an altar call. What is an altar call you ask? Well it is the time in the Sunday service where the minister/pastor invites those people who feel called to, to come up to the altar where s/he is standing and give an affirmation of faith. Ours right now is, “do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of the Living God and that he is your personal Lord and Savior?” (I don’t really like this language, but it is very ingrained in the culture here). We do this at the very end of the service and most of the time it seems like the only reason we do this is to sing another hymn before we go out. Why?
Because not very many people go up and become members of the church like this.
“Well Will, maybe that is because you’re not very good at your job of inspiring people to be committed to Christ?” One, you’re probably right; but I am learning. Two, and this one is a secret, not many people like to be in front of crowds of people whose undivided attention on them. It is just awkward.
I understand that the altar call can be intimidating for many people, so whenever I give the invitation to join our church I give the caveat that if they are uncomfortable with this, then they can talk to me afterwords and we can get them on their way. The problem with this is that, maybe another reflection on me, (though I don’t think so) not once has someone come up to me afterwords and wanted to become a member of the church.
This can be psychologically devastating because week after week no one comes up. This leads to questions of inadequacy and poor work. My question is, is the altar call relevant anymore?
I think the door always needs to be open to someone becoming a member (we call them Disciples, imagine that) and a follower of Jesus. A good way to do that is the altar call, but what I am noticing more and more is that people are doing all of the things that a member of ACC would do, but they aren’t taking the plunge and getting on the rolls. They are pledging, volunteer, going to pot-lucks, singing in the choir, etc. For all intents and purposes, they are apart of the congregation. They just don’t have the title of “member” next to their names. They are becoming what I like to think of as common law members.
Similar to common law marriages, where you live with someone in a committed relationship for so many years (it varies state to state) and you are then considered to be married, a common law membership is where a person does ministry, worships with, gives to a particular church for so long they are considered to be a member.
Now the question of whether one would rather have many altar call members or more common law members? For me, having lots of altar calls would make me feel like I am doing something right, like I am preaching the Gospel in way that effects change in people (my goal). Even though that would feel good, I would rather have many common law members because they would be more invested in their faith, in me, in the church, and more importantly, in their relationship with God.