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Monday, February 25, 2013

Gimme That Old Time Religion--Part 3...The Altar

Another memory from my early days as a believer. Another seeming relic that has all but been mothballed in contemporary church services these days. The Altar Service.
Now, a common complaint about altar services...and one that bears great that they can be abused and forced. I agree. I have seen some of the most over-the-top drama and emotionalism occur at the end of a sermon, when the "altar is open" and the preacher waits for verse after verse of the invitation hymn to coax any straggler from his pew.
Sometimes the traveling evangelist would stop in the middle of the altar service and over dramatize some story (which likely wasn't even true) about some poor stooge who was visibly wrestling with God but who resisted the prompting of the Spirit and dropped dead of a heart attack on his way out the door. Or hit a tree head-on inexplicably the next morning on his way to work.
Again, the church I grew up in wasn't given to such nonsense. Although the invited evangelists did quite frequently. I vividly remember a "revival service" at a nearby Christian School in Elkton MD. Our administration decided we needed to go hear this guy so we took buses down the road to Elkton and listened to this guy preach.
...and preach
...and preach.
He started at 9 AM. He wrapped up his sermon at 11 AM. And then he began his altar service.
At 12:45 we were finally saying "Amen" and getting on the buses to return back to our school.
I, for one, was happy. We had a test that day in one of my classes, and by the time we got back, it was too late.
An hour and forty five minutes worth of altar pleading.
That was nuts.
But again...the church I attended wasn't like that. But they did have an altar service. They never failed.
Because they believed--and I agree--that a person who has had his "head-on collision" moment with Jesus, needs the opportunity to do his business on bended knee, with a mature believer's hand on his shoulder. A new convert needs to let the folks know. A prodigal heart needs a chance to come home.
It doesn't need to be protracted or dramatic. But I like knowing that if I want to kneel and get some things straight with God, or just kneel in thanks...that I have a place I can go and maybe share my burden with a Christian brother.
They didn't take a head count at the end to see how many "decisions" were made. They never turned it into a sideshow. Nor did they use phrases that made you feel guilty or ostracized if you happened to stay in your seat. They just let you know that if you needed a meeting with Jesus this was a pretty good place to do it.
I seldom see churches doing this anymore. Not contemporary churches anyway. I understand it a bit. It has been overworked in the past. But meeting with God in your moment of conviction should never be forgotten.
I wish more churches had those moments at the end of a service. I wish we could see someone making a public profession, or making a change, or surrendering to God's plan or simply kneeling in front of their church family to talk with God.
I watched a lot of transformations take place at the altar at that church I grew up in. A few didn't "stick". Most did and those folks went on to become valuable, vibrant members of the community of believers.
I wonder if we'll someday look back through the lens of time and see a few souls who almost made a decision for eternity. Someone who almost found their way to Jesus. Who would have doubtless made the final step in His direction, had there been an invitation hymn...and an old fashioned altar service.

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