An Introvert's Guide to Christianity, Part 2: Altar Calls / Invitations
Last week I started this little series to take a mostly-light-hearted look at Evangelical Christianity through the eyes of an introvert. It's an effort at helping introverted Christians (ICs, as I like to call us) understand that their place in the structures of evangelical church should not be dependent on their pretending to be extroverts.
Wait, have you not read Quiet yet? Seriously?? Go get it. I’ll wait.
Did you get it? Good! Now read it. It’ll make these conversations more fun.
Speaking of which, my web guy told me that the comments weren’t working on my last post. I’m going to assume that means that hundreds of you really wanted to comment, but were unable to do so. It should be fixed now, so let me know what topics we need more introvert perspective on.
And, further speaking of web stuff, make sure you sign up to follow the blog at the bottom of the content page. I know many of you were following me over on Wordpress, but if you sign up here you’ll get instant updates, some free stuff, and puppies will like you more.
On to today’s topic. The altar call (or, invitation as it is called in my quirky little branch of the Christendom).
- I preach at church in which we are encouraged to offer an invitation to respond at the end of the sermon every Sunday. I’ve offered such an invitation 1.5 zillion times.
- This also means that I’ve watched people respond; watched people look like they felt like they should respond, then decide not to respond; and, watched people stare blankly shoe-ward with no intention of responding which can only mean they did not properly understand or pay attention to the life-altering preaching I just threw down before them.
- I am a youth minister. A long time ago I learned that I can manipulate an environment (via candles and well-chosen vocal tone) that will inspire teens to respond, usually starting the snowball in which every student responds - even the ones who were asleep three minutes before. I do not do this anymore.
- I have responded to altar calls in full sincerity.
- I have responded to altar calls out of guilt, peer-pressure, or vague feeling that “real Christians” do this. I still feel yucky about the last time this happened, which was 12 or 13 years ago.
These are the questions that go through my head when I am in a service in which an altar car is offered:
- "I wonder if I should respond?"
- "I don't really feel like I'm being called to respond."
- "Why not? What does that say about me?"
- "If the preacher makes eye contact with me, I'll probably respond."
- "What if I have to say something? What would I say?"
- "What will people think if I respond?"
- "Will the preacher be proud of me?"
- "Will Jesus be proud of me?"
- "Wait, what was that sermon even about? I think I'm going to be sick. Maybe I should slide out to the bathroom."
Here is my impression of the history of altar calls:
Well-dressed extrovert preachers of the 1800's were thinking, “I wonder if anyone is really paying attention here?”
Then, “What if we just asked them if they were paying attention? That’s simple and direct and surely everyone wants to instantaneously respond in weeping and repentance when they really hear me bring the good stuff.”
Then, “Let’s do it en mass. Much more efficient. We'll ask the whole crowd to respond a the same time. No, this is NOT about ego or wanting to prove I know what I’m doing! This is about opening the door and letting the work of the Spirit come to greater fruition.” (I do not say this last bit sarcastically. I think this is a valid assumption, goal, and idea.)
Thus were born such statements as…
“We’re going to stand and sing and invite you to come forward…” (Followed by 38 verses of “Just As I am” and the preacher trying to make eye contact with every person in the room until at least one of them feels compelled to make the lonely walk to the front pew.)
“I invite you all to bow your heads and raise your hands if you want to respond to Jesus today…” (Which, let’s be honest, everyone in the room feels at least somewhat compelled to do, because what kind of person would you be if you couldn’t even raise your hand for Jesus???)
“We’re going to sing one more verse of this song. The Spirit is telling me that there are people in this room right now that need to respond…” (This has always felt like a bit of a Spirit-juke to me. It implies that the Spirit is telling the person up front what needs to happen to the people listening, rather than telling the actual people what is supposedly happening inside of them. It feels salesmanish to me)
I’m an IC and I’m here to help!
Things I want my introverted sisters and brothers to know:
- Public altar calls are not inherently biblical (they rose to popularity in the 19th century). As most biblical churching was done in small, intimate groups that met in homes or public spaces, there wasn’t much need for large-scale altar calls because people actually knew each other and could respond to promptings of the Spirit naturally and comfortably. For some, I’m certain that was public. For others, I’m equally certain it was not.
- Altar calls are just one interpretation of “public.” We are all exhorted toward public acts of faith such as acknowledging God before others, confessing our sins to others, and proclaiming our belief in Jesus, but there is no biblical demand that these things be done in front of crowds. Certainly not by every individual (though some are gifted for these purposes, I believe). In fact, the biblical precedent leans much more heavily toward these things happening in intimate, relational settings. We acknowledge our faith in God during conversation with friends, neighbors, and co-workers when appropriate. We ask believers we trust with our hearts and lives to pray for our struggles. We proclaim our belief in the saving power of Jesus to someone, or a group, based on the context, environment, and moving of the Spirit upon us.
- If you feel manipulated or pressured in any way, that is not the movement of the Spirit. It may be old school peer pressure. It may be personal desire for recognition. It may be a sense of built-in guilt that this is what “good Christians” do. When the Spirit genuinely moves you to respond, it is pure, and necessary, and liberating. You respond because you can’t imagine doing anything else.
In short, my IC friends, you are not biblically required to announce or confess anything to a large, anonymous crowd ever.
OK, extroverts, look away for a minute, we ICs need to talk privately.
IC friends, here’s the thing…extroversion itself is inherently aggressive. This is not out of any malicious intention - extroverts aren’t out to get us or anything like that. Still, the “Go! Go! Go!” vibe of extroverts feels overwhelming and creates a sense that if you don’t want “Go!” RIGHT NOW, that you’re a lesser form of believer, pay not attention to the movement of the Spirit, and are probably letting God down.
God created you and he created your introversion tendencies. He created desires you may have to think things over more before responding. He created any need you to feel deeply connected to a person or group before sharing personal struggles. It is his Spirit working in you to call you and sanctify you in his timing. Now, this may not always be your timing, but that timing certainly isn’t determined by the wearing of a microphone, the volume of a voice, the presence of candles or music, etc.
So, my IC friends, the next time you’re in a church service and there’s an altar call or invitation, take a breath. Do what you’re wired to do. Look inward. Be mindful of whether you’re hearing the Spirit prompt you. Then, consider the best way to respond.