The Psycholgy of Altar Calls

One of the first difficult discussions I had with the Board of Ordained Ministry was over invitations to Christian Discipleship (ie. "altar calls"). It is customary in the sermons we submit to include an invitation to accept Christ into your life via an altar call.  I did not include one and they asked me why. Instead, I invited the recipients of the sermon to action, be it offering hospitality or seeking justice or truth-telling.  It was my understanding that Christ invites us continually, not just once, and we respond continually as we seek sanctifying grace. Thus began a 4-year conversation with the Board over my weak embrace of an altar call praxis.

While as a pastor I have of course led people to Christ, as a layperson I can recall only one: a youth at a summer camp. It was a camp that was heavy on emotional 2-hour worship with a rockin' band and sweating preachers.  This youth and I had a good relationship, and on the last night of camp when other youth were coming to the altar, without my prodding he accepted an altar call, asked me to walk with him, and credited me with inspiring him to discipleship.

I have thought of that youth for a decade now, and while I praise God that he chose the path he did, I wonder about the reasons why.

Was it the band?
Was it the preacher?
Was it seeing others walk down the aisle?
Was it feeling like an outsider all week and wanting to be included?
Or was it the Spirit and I should stop analyzing it?

I'm certain it was a combination of the above, with the Spirit affecting the large majority of it. But I cannot help but wonder to what extent did the psychological role of emotive worship and the social-psychological effect of altar calls affect the situation? Are those means justified by the ends of saving people to Christ?

The seersucker seminarian pointed me to a post by Oklahoma pastor Wade Burleson. He recounts an article  that speaks well of my reservations with altar calls and my lingering concern that "the ends justify the means" mentality is intrinsic and inseparable from altar calls.

The article by 1970s preacher Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones is reprinted here in its entirety (source here, bolded sections are my bolds).
Question: During recent years, especially in England, among evangelicals of the Reformed faith, there has been a rising criticism of the invitation system as used by Billy Graham and others. Does Scripture justify the use of such public invitations or not?

Answer: Well, it is difficult to answer this in a brief compass without being misunderstood. Let me answer it like this:

The history of this invitation system is one with which you people ought to be more familiar than anyone else, because it began in America. It began in the 1820s; the real originator of it was Charles G. Finney. It led to a great controversy. Asahel Nettleton, a great Calvinist and successful evangelist, never issued an “altar call” nor asked people to come to the “anxious seat.” These new methods in the 182Os and were condemned for many reasons by all who took the Reformed position.

One reason is that there is no evidence that this was done in New Testament times, because then they trusted to the power of the Spirit. Peter preaching on the Day of Pentecost under the power of the Spirit, for instance, had no need to call people forward in decision because, as you remember, the people were so moved and affected by the power of the Word and Spirit that they actually interrupted the preacher, crying out, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” That has been the traditional Reformed attitude towards this particular matter.

The moment you begin to introduce this other element, you are bringing a psychological element. The invitation should be in the message. We believe the Spirit applies the message, so we trust in the power of the Spirit. I personally agree with what has been said in the question.

I have never called people forward at the end for this reason; there is a grave danger of people coming forward before they are ready to come forward. We do believe in the work of the Spirit, that He convicts and converts, and He will do His work. There is a danger in bringing people to a “birth,” as it were, before they are ready for it.The Puritans in particular were afraid of what they would call “a temporary faith” or “a false profession.”

There was a great Puritan, Thomas Shepard, who published a famous series of sermons on The Ten Virgins. The great point of that book was to deal with this problem of a false profession. The foolish virgins thought they were all right. This is a very great danger. I can sum it up by putting it like this: I feel that this pressure which is put upon people to come forward in decision ultimately is due to a lack of faith in the work and operation of the Holy Spirit. We are to preach the Word, and if we do it properly, there will be a call to a decision that comes in the message, and then we leave it to the Spirit to act upon people. And of course He does.

Some may come immediately at the close of the service to see the minister. I think there should always be an indication that the minister will be glad to see anybody who wants to put questions to him or wants further help. But that is a very different thing from putting pressure upon people to come forward. I feel it is wrong to put pressure directly on the will. The order in Scripture seems to be this – the truth is presented to the mind, which moves the heart, and that in turn moves the will.

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones




Rock Band: Psalms

...and other satirical Christian versions of video games at ChurchCrunch.

Hilarious (especially leisure-suit larry)!


Boston Flashmob for Living Wages

When I was a pastor in the Boston area, I got into the social justice opportunities that my good friend Anthony sent to me, particularly the protests for living wages for hotel workers, security guards, produce workers at Shaws, etc. As a clergyperson, it was my honor to offer a religious presence to remind people that God is on the side of the oppressed.

So I'm SUPER sad to have missed this particular protest. I doubt I woulda been rockin' with these folks, but it would have been great firsthand!

So in solidarity and so others can see the creative joy that beckons people to ask what is wrong with the world, here's a protest of unfair wages and firings of hotel workers at the Boston Hyatt.

Genius! Keep up the good work!


Do just one thing.

On August 19th, 1991, Boris Yeltsin stood on top of a tank and defended demoracy against a socialist coup. He credited his inspiration to reading the stories of Lech Wałęsa.

Lech Wałęsa helped play a key role in inspiring Poland towards democracy.  He credited his inspiration to reading the stories of Martin Luther King, Jr.

MLK boycotted the bus system and was a voice for civil rights and anti-war struggles. He credited his inspiration to Rosa Parks.

Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, opposing an unjust law.

That's it. It took courage, but it's something we could all do, right?

And if you trace the thread, one person's act might have lead to a major setback to communism's reign. One act played a key role in breaking the chain.

What one thing might you do today that echoes into eternity?

(h/t my D.S. Linda for the inspiration).


What if Small Churches sell out to Corporate Churches?

One of the phenomenon that I didn't plan to study but has increasingly become a part of the HX critique is Wal-Mart churches: churches that spawn multiple campuses that are near-clones of itself.  Now that I'm pastoring in the Plains, is all around me: three of its 12 campuses are within an hour's drive of me.  The pastor is simulcast via digital streaming or DVD to all the campuses.  While each have their own local flair/personality, the pastoral headquarters operates all the satellites...much like Wal-mart headquarters operates all its Wal-mart stores that drive the smaller chains out of business by its well-honed machinery.

Wal-mart Churches are churches with multiple locations, like a franchise.
In our conversations, we've focused on what happens when a big well-financed church moves into a rural area, as well as the dangers of planting Wal-mart churches in gated communities, but so far I've left out UM churches either by my own bias or lack of material to comment on.

Until now.  Rev. Adam Hamilton is the pastor of the largest UM congregation with several satellite campuses and an online campus (he is also a Methoblogger along with his online associate pastor...impressive).  However great Adam is for theological conversation and the church, I felt a deep sense of foreboding when I read Adam's eNote this past week:
Resurrection Blue Springs?  

Two months ago the leadership of North Springs United Methodist Church in Blue Springs, Missouri (located on the north side of I-70 between 7 Hwy and Adams' Dairy Parkway) contacted our church to ask if we would have any interest in allowing their church to become a campus of The Church of the Resurrection like Resurrection West and Resurrection Downtown. They are an 18-year-old congregation with about 150 committed members who have been unable to grow and who have struggled to become the church they hoped to become when they began.

Further conversations with the District Superintendent, the head of Congregational Development for Missouri, and others convinced us that the Missouri Annual Conference and its bishop supported this idea. We explored the demographics of the community, looked at the debt obligations on its current building, sought to understand what would be involved in adopting this congregation, and we considered the potential of this location, building and people as a new campus of Resurrection. Recently the North Spring's Church Council voted unanimously in favor of this idea. Last week our Church Council voted unanimously in favor of moving forward with further conversations.

In a few weeks ahead, I'll share more about this with you during weekend worship and invite you to vote on this proposal.
Let's be clear: these campuses clearly lead people to a relationship with the Body of Christ. I'm not doubting the integrity of the pastoral or lay leadership of these campuses.  I'm not critiquing the ends; I'm fearful of the means and what this might mean for the kingdom.

I've got a bad feeling about this...
What happens if we put the pieces on the table without any religious terms?
  • A struggling (or at least flat in growth) entity decides they are unable to compete in their area of specialty
  • Facing extinction or reduced viability, they contact a larger, more established corporate entity and offer to be absorbed
  • The corporate entity accepts and absorbs the initial entity into the whole, retaining some local customs but decisions ultimately come from the corporate head.
In short, this local congregation has decided to bring in the creative talent of a corporate church to (presumably) lead its worship. Resurrection has a fantastic staff and tightly crafted message and (since they have multiple locations) they already know how to bottle, transport, pop open and enjoy.  So from the small church's perspective, why not get really good worship in their space that might jump-start their community?

I would posit this is a connectional church phenomenon (ie. Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, etc).  There's an attraction to retaining a United Methodist identity.  Thus, outsourcing the worship message to another UM church or even becoming a satellite of a UM church will most likely be a connectional-church phenomenon rather than a non-denom outsourcing to Willowcreek or something.

I could see a lot more of this happening as local churches that struggle to grow and yet have great ministries decide to focus their energy on their active ministries and outsource their worship to a corporate church. I'm not saying this is going to happen with Blue Springs/Resurrection, but I wonder what might happen if more churches decide to turn their worship, the heart of the Body of Christ, over to the professionals (who do GREAT worship, let's not kid ourselves, but disturbing nonetheless).

Resistance may be Futile.
I can see the temptation. I'm a clergyperson who crafts worship, curriculum, and ministry every week and I wonder how I would respond if we did this.  If we gave over our worship time to a corporate church (in whole or part), then look at the benefits:
  • I could spend more time doing discipleship ministries (my primary interest) and less time preaching/leading worship. More time = more effective.
  • The preaching would be less personal in message but more tightly crafted by fantastic worship leaders.
  • People already watch TV all the time, they can clearly be mezmorized by handle a streamed message.
  • The parish can accept ministers with more gifts in discipleship/congregational growth rather than simply great preachers/worship leaders.
So yes, I can see the temptation to do this. The benefits are clear.  But what might the concerns be?  Since this is my first pass at it, I don't have any data to call on for support, but there's a few inklings that I have on my heart:
  • Dude, you just outsourced the primary thing that separates the church from the world: worship of Jesus Christ. Outsourcing the theological task just doesn't seem right to me, no matter how great the product is you are buying.
  • I can see more denominational splintering as multiple churches align themselves with various charismatic preachers, so in one town you have the Adam Hamilton UM church and the Tom Harrison UM church and so on.  These sort of alliances can only spell more schizmatic force and the temptation to influence the political process.
  • Further marginalization of ethnic preachers and women. Why have the guy who talks funny or the woman when you could have a white male preacher in a bottle?  Let's face it: the super-majority of  megachurches have white male pastors!  While Resurrection has female campus ministers to offer worship leadership, I could see this happen as congregations vote to marginalize their pastors' leadership and ability to craft worship.
This may be hysteria, it's OK, I know.  But for a small church to offer to become a campus of a successful corporate church, perhaps outsourcing their worship and a substantial part of their theological task to an outside agency...well, that could be a troubling trend.  Effective? I'm sure.  But like McDonalds and Wal-Mart ran out their smaller competition, I see no reason why franchised corporate churches could do the same...even within my own denomination.


(Yes, Star Wars AND Star Trek in the same post. I'm as surprised as you are.)


The Object of our Worship

The mega-church problem 
of sustaining their brand 
rightly-directed worship.


Faith in the In-Between

Some Christian theologies (ie. Determinism & resurgent Calvinism) states that 
"Everything happens for a reason"

Science and empirical studies of cause/effects states that 
"Everything happens because of a reason."

Between these two lies chaos
with neither the answers for why things happen 
or for what reason do they happen.  

Perhaps there in the chaos 
between these certainties
is where doubt resides 
where the Christian faith abides

One that accepts neither cheap trite answers
or that what we can observe is all that there is.  

What's between "everything" and "reason" for you?

What's your in-between?


Are We to Fill the Pews or Empty Them?

I love it when two divergent views appear on my radar within seconds of each other.

Earlier this week Bishop Will Willimon posted an article that equated clergy effectiveness with numerical growth. He was pushing-back against clergy who protest the emphasis on numerical growth in conference reports about church effectiveness, as well as providing support for church growth as a standard for measuring whether a clergyperson should be reappointed.
How do we Methodists define effective clergy? We do it with one word: growth. Effective clergy know how to grow the church in its membership, witness and mission.
Wesley sent pastors to those areas where, in his estimate, there were the most souls to be saved. He told his traveling preachers not just that they ought to read, but also put a number on it: at least five hours a day. Wesley also kept a close eye (with charts in the annual “Minutes”) on how much money was collected each year — for Kingswood School, for new preaching houses, for the pension fund, for operating expenses. The annual conference was invented, not just as opportunity for worship and fellowship, but mostly for the purpose of everyone rendering account and confessing their numbers.
Read the whole article as Willimon seeks to legitimize number-counting by presenting its history in the UMC.

At nearly the same time as I read this article, my facebook friend LBH linked to an excerpt from a book by Graham Power "Transform Your Work Life" that has this provocative nugget:
Where is the best place to ‘shine your light’ and be ‘the salt of the earth’ (Matt 5:13–15)? You need to shine your light where it is dark of course! For many years I made the mistake of thinking that a church’s success is measured by its seating capacity (how many people are in worship on a Sunday). The truth is that a church’s salt, its real worth, is measured by its sending capacity. God does not care how big the ‘salt shaker’ is, rather what God is concerned about is how much salt is shaken from the salt shaker, and how much light the church shines in the darkest places of society.

Let me ask you another question, if your church were to close its doors this week, who would notice that you are not in ministry any longer? Of course the members who worship in your congregation would care, but would the homeless in your area notice? Would the hungry and the abused of your society realise that you are not operating anymore? Would your closure have an impact on the sick and the elderly people in your community? How about the schools and businesses in your community; would they notice that you are no longer ministering in the community?

When Jesus said that He would build his church and the gates of hell would not overpower it (Matt 16:18), there was a clear assumption that He builds his church at the gates of hell! One of the most loving things we can do with the church is to send it to hell. We need to find the places of suffering, brokenness and need, and be the church in those places so that Jesus can build his church there.
Wow. Boom.

So which of those do you see as more effective? A church that fills its pews with numbers? Or a church that empties them in service to God and neighbor?

Of course, this type of conversation quickly turns to ridicule as people say that of course both are important.  The number-aficionados quickly say either (1) missions leads to growth or (2) only one of the above is countable and thus comparable to other churches.  Both are true but one is troubling.

I wrote the following section before but it bears repeating.  Bryan Stone, a professor at Boston University School of Theology, expands on this debate in his book Evangelism after Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness.
When the mission of the church becomes a mission of numerical growth, quantitative influence, and geographical spread, evangelism is easily reduced to whatever means, method, or gimmick will facilitate that mission. Conversion then becomes a lowest common denominator decision or experience that will allow a church, without too much embarrassment, to claim an individual as its own. (page 272)
The problem for church leaders, of course, is how to gauge "success" without playing the numbers game. Stone continues with something of value to us at Hacking Christianity:
Evangelism can be measured by how fully inclusive is our "reach" and how thoroughly we refuse to allow that "reach" to be domesticated by the political boundaries and economic disciplines of the [world]...the measure of Christian evangelistic reach is its openness and hospitality to the poor, the stranger, and the socially ostracized. (pp. 273-274)
But of course, evangelistic openness is not quantitatively evaluated, and church growth with Gospel integrity lacks a checkbox in any church report.  Numbers are absolutely not evidence of fruits of the spirit.  I could put on a dog and pony show with laser lights and Justin Bieber as the singer and my numbers would go up as fast as my integrity to the Gospel goes down. Conversely, I could close the church doors and say that we ought to go out and help our neighbors one Sunday morning and there's not a single place for that type of outreach on my conference reports. None.

Perhaps our entire way of judging growth and integrity needs hacking.  Thoughts?


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