Have you ever been disturbed but unable to really speak up about it? I’ve heard a lot of things spoken from a stage I think are not only unhelpful but truly harmful. I remember one specific time during an “alter call” where the closing speaker just couldn’t let it go.
For you non-church folk or maybe those that grew up in a tradition that didn’t do alter calls, it’s the time of the service near the end after the sermon has been given and the audience is given an opportunity to respond in prayer, confession, repentance, dedication, etc.
It was a steamy summer evening in the southern part of the state. We were on a small stage set up beneath a pavilion. I still remember the condensation that formed on the drum heads from the humidity.
There were probably a couple hundred or so people from all the nearby churches. Most of the leaders were well-intentioned parents, but one in particular just had to really take things to the next level.
At the conclusion of the service, the speaker asked for anyone who was not a Christian or had never made a profession of faith to come to the stage if they felt led by God to do so. A couple teary-eyed children made their way forward. We continued playing music softly behind them, feeling the service draw to a close. But then...
A parent who was obviously not happy with only a few people getting saved that night decided to take matters into their own hands. The speaker wasn’t a hard enough closer, and by golly, a few more people needed to get saved, or at least rededicate their life.
“I know there’s one more out there!” she yelled with conviction. A few more tears started to show on the faces of the kids. She continued with her call to salvation, really digging into the pain points children and teens might have. “If you came here tonight with [fill in the blank with a problem]...”
Several more kids came forward. But that wasn’t enough. “I know there’s more!” At this point the service had been going on for several hours. I saw a few kids look at each other, shrug, and walk forward.
More and more kids started coming forward until nearly half of the crowd was huddled up against the stage. I think most of them just thought, “If I walk up front maybe we can finally leave and eat dinner.” I couldn’t believe what I was watching.
We sang one more triumphant chorus and ended the service. Pictures were taken. Numbers were recorded. It was probably published in the local newspaper. Parents smiled proudly in the background.
Never mind that most of what happened was manipulation. Never mind that most of these kids were mimicking their peers. Never mind that most of what transpired was totally bogus. Smoke and mirrors, not the Spirit of God.
There are a few reasons why my recollection of this event is with more disgust than amusement. I could tell this story as a joke; it truly is comic in a sense. More importantly, though, it’s tragic. It represents, what I believe to be, a serious problem in church culture.
We are forcefully passing along a prepackaged paradigm.
It’s the spiritual equivalent of “give someone a fish and they eat for a day, but teach someone to fish and they eat for life.” When we force feed a belief system to a child, they’ll always momentarily cave and comply.
It’s not because something real is happening, but because social pressure and the need to belong to a group is powerful. Not to mention the psychological terror instilled by a turn-or-burn preacher, but that’s a whole different topic.
Approaching spirituality this way perpetuates a cycle. It creates a “mountaintop experience,” as we’ve coined in Christiandom, that feels great for a time time and then fades. Every major event or really pointed sermon serves as the next catalyst for a “move of the Spirit.”
You end up with countless “salvations” and “rededications” from the same people. The camps and churches and organizations continue reporting the numbers, ecstatic at the souls saved, but oblivious to the fact that much of it is repeat business.
I think the answer is simple. Be faithful to present the truth then leave the manipulation tactics out of it. Give people a chance to process, wrestle, grow, exist in community, ask questions, and do the hard work themselves. Just let them figure it out, and be a loving supporter along the way.
Otherwise, I think we are fueling a machine that will make weak-minded, immature, insecure believers. And it won’t be their fault. It will be ours.