Whatever Happened to Altar Calls, “Just as I Am” and Pastors in Suits?

It was my second time in an evangelical church.  At the end of the service the man up front said something I didn’t understand and suddenly teary-eyed congregants were walking to the front of the church and talking to each other.  I asked an elderly woman what was happening.  She replied, “They are getting saved.”  I think I said, “oh.”

And yes, they were singing was “Just As I Am” but I didn’t know this at the time because I had never heard the song.  I certainly wasn’t at all clear what it meant.  “Just as I am, and waiting not; to rid my soul of one dark blot…”  What?  And there’s no time to figure that out because we’re already on the next verse!

Now let me reframe that true story.  A church was having a service designed to help people who did not believe in Jesus become believers.  Good!  I was the market and I was there in place!  But a huge cultural barrier stood between me and the church.   The church was sending me an invitation written in a language I did not speak.  Fortunately, God did know how to speak to me and in His own gentle way drew to me to Himself as I prayed, “God, I don’t know if you even exist, but if you do, I need help.”

Many times since then Christian people have asked me, “Pastor, why don’t you give an altar call?”  Never once have I talked to someone not a believer who thought that would be a good way to invite them to enter the faith.

The church has a culture of its own.  More and more that culture is not comprehensible to people who do not attend church.  And their numbers represent more and more of the population.

Many changes in church culture have come in recent years because churches have wanted to speak a language the surrounding culture can understand.  Guitars, more informal dress, informing visitors that we are not just interested in their money… we have become missionaries in our own country.  Like any missionaries, we begin reaching a culture by understanding it: seeing things from “their” point of view. 

Some Quick History

For the first three centuries of its life the church lived under almost constant persecution.  When the Roman emperor, Constantine, became a Christian early in the fourth century the Christian Church suddenly became the cultural glue Constantine hoped would hold the empire together.  With a certain amount of ebb and flow Christianity remained a major foundation of western culture.  It equally well may be said that western culture remained a major foundation of the Christian Church.  We call this marriage of church and culture Christendom.

But by the middle of the twentieth century divorce was imminent.  Outside the church philosophers wrote about the death of God while politicians in Europe and more recently in Canada discovered that emphasizing their religious commitments did them more harm than good at the ballot box.  Within the church Francis Shaeffer, a widely read evangelical writer, was exploring what it would mean to live as a Christian in a post-Christian world while Harvey Cox, a Baptist theologian, was inviting the church to joyously inhabit “The Secular City.”

While these writers debated the appropriate response to make to the demise of Christendom two missionaries returned home and simply began to find ways to reach out to their post-Christendom neighbours.  In 1957 Donald McGavaran returned to the United States after a missionary career in India.  An ocean away Leslie Newbigin, a Church of Scotland missionary who became one of the Church of South India’s first bishops, returned to England in 1974.  Not only did these two men share in common a missionary background; they also shared the discovery that while they were away doing missionary work their own homelands had become far less Christian.

McGavaran and Newbiggin did what missionaries do.  They began asking how the churches could build bridges to people around them.  Their neighbours in Birmingham, UK, and Pasadena, CA, were no more likely to be Christian in thought and practice than their neighbours in India had been.  They saw that their culture was unable to decipher the language of the church while the church was largely out of touch with the culture and seemed either unaware or unconcerned that culture had shifted leaving the church behind.

In North America McGavaran became the father of “The Church Growth Movement” which was not so much a focus on making churches bigger as it was focused on helping churches reach a post-Christendom population by planting churches that would function as missionary enterprises.  Newbigin became one of the fathers of the Missional Movement that encouraged churches to think and act outside the church; to engage with the wider community and culture.

Another element Newbigin and McGavaran shared is common is both were among the first to understand the dramatic effect the Pentecostal movement would have on the world-wide church.  In the 1950’s each was predicting that what was still considered an offbeat backwater in the Christian community was going to change the experience of Christianity across denominational and national boundaries as the full meaning of the Trinity was not only understood, but also experienced by those who follow Jesus.

The leaders and movements in evangelical Christianity that have been shaped by Newbigin and MacGavaran are too numerous to mention.  Both were insistent that human culture, including church culture rooted in human history, should not be a barrier to the Gospel. 

Every once and again a fellow pastor will inform me that their church has added a guitar- based worship team to “try to bring the young people in.”  They are mystified that adding “some of the same kind of music Spring Garden uses” doesn’t attract the same number of young families.  The problem is that it is difficult enough in the church to address relatively shallow cultural shifts such as the instrumentation accompanying worship music’ let alone cultural values that lie deeper under the surface.

One of the key words in the paragraph above is “attract”.  In a Christendom culture it can be assumed that a significant portion of the population will attend church and if a particular congregation can attract a growing market share of those people that church will grow.  In Christendom a church can focus on good programs to teach children Christian content; good preaching; a great music program; and exciting youth program, etc.  These ministries, when attached to a relevant set of values, can help keep unchurched and dechurched people in the community when they reconnect; but they won’t attract them.

After Christendom most of our neighbors don’t care how good our Sunday School, music program or preaching are.  If they thought it was a good thing to be Christian, or to see that their children become Christians, these programs would attract them.  But as it is they just don’t see the point.

In a post-Christendom world it generally is not enough to invite people into the church.  The people of the church need to go out to the world around us.  A missionary church in the post-Christendom world cannot be content to wrap people of faith in bubble wrap.  Through our lives of compassion, welcome and service we display what it is to follow Jesus.  Out motive in doing so is not to persuade people to join us.  Our motive is simply this is what disciples of Jesus do.  Nevertheless, when our compassion is authentic people are attracted to the kingdom of God and discover that the church may help living a kingdom life.

In my view one, an area that continues to need serious thought and prayer as we learn how to navigate the post-Christendom culture is learning how to effectively share God’s story.  We have made great advances in recognizing the importance of showing God’s care but we have not done as well drawing those far from faith into a life of faith.  We intuitively know that evangelistic tools appropriate to the Christendom era feel stilted and manipulative today.  But we have yet to develop new skills in sharing the story; perhaps because we have yet to discover even what those skills look like.  This is a vital task that lies before us if we want to bring good news into our culture as it is.

I’ll end this musing again with an invitation to many conversations.  If you would like me to visit your small group for a week or several to discuss these musings please let me know.