I was in grade eleven when I experienced my first, and last, Billy Graham revival.
I recall hopping into a bus with my friend’s youth group and heading for the SkyDome where the opening band, DC Talk, greeted us upon arrival.
And I remember being uncomfortable with the altar call.
For those who are unfamiliar, it is the moment when people are fervently invited to make their way to the front and receive Jesus as their Lord and Saviour.
Now this is the kind of evangelistic practice that many people today (including me) tend to look at with disdain and, well, mockery. The altar call culture seems emotionally manipulative, psychologically damaging in its suggestion that there is something fundamentally wrong with you, and it all seems a little contrived and overly simplistic.
It has taken me many years to realize that my disdain for this form of evangelism comes from a place of deep hurt and fear.
The altar call theology left me feeling deeply inadequate. Like I didn’t measure up. Like if I couldn’t agree with this particular set of ideas, or see how sinful I am, or feel just the right feels, that God would reject me.
So I am not particularly fond of this way of understanding God, Jesus, and what the path to salvation looks like.
But I have been surprised to discover that as I have walked through my own season of spiritual conversion, I have begun to see the spiritual truth at the heart of many aspects of evangelical faith.
I have found myself questioning the ‘progressive-evangelical divide’ that many of us still live into.
Now this doesn’t mean that I suddenly want to go to church where altar calls are a regular part of the service. I still disagree with most of the theology that surrounds this practice. But I do wonder, what kernel of truth, what nugget of wisdom, is present in this tradition that I have so shunned in the past.
And the nugget I wonder about is whether altar calls are a site for practicing consent.
Our communities are talking more about this idea of consent. These conversations primarily centre around how to develop a culture of consent in the context of sexual relationships, although we’ve also begun to talk about emotional consent which is fascinating. These conversations are badly needed and long overdue.
In the pieces I have read I found a definition of consent that I love. Namely that consent is present when there is an enthusiastic YES.
Is consent a relevant idea in our spiritual lives as well?
We don’t often hear the word consent in the realm of faithy language, but I think this is what the revival preachers are after in their passionate calls to the altar. They are inviting us to offer our enthusiastic YES to God’s transforming presence in our lives. To open our hearts to the powerful Love from which all of Creation has come; the Love that calls us home.
And if we separate this out from a theology that shames, is this not an incredibly beautiful invitation?
I have long envied people who seem to have a boundless energy for life. Folks that enter each moment with an emphatic YES to being here, now.
But this is not who I am. I generally prefer to say: no, thanks though. This whole life thing, let alone this whole God changing you thing, ach, it just seems like a lot of trouble.
There is another part of me, however, that deeply desires to enter each day with an easy yes – no matter what the day may hold. I long for the capacity to really receive the sacred in every moment.
At a workshop I attended a few years ago, the teacher, Russ Hudson, said that we ultimately have one choice to make in life: whether to say yes or no. In each moment, we have the opportunity to be present and choose life, or, we can check out, run on auto pilot and decline to really be here.
I want to consent to life. I want to be ready to receive whatever it is that grace brings my way, even when it is painful.
And I wonder what it might mean to create this kind of culture of consent in our communities.
How do we help each other learn how to say yes more often?** How to be more present and authentically engaged with each moment?
I usually think of the altar call moment as a singular event. The moment of conversion.
But consenting to our experience, being open to the presence of grace, this is never a one time deal.
So maybe that’s why in some churches, altar calls are a regular part of worship – they provide a space for people to make an active choice. To say yes to receiving love and grace. And maybe this can make all the difference…
Maybe I am coming round to this whole altar call thing!
But my altar call, well, it doesn’t take its starting point with the laundry list of things wrong with me and the world. My altar call most likely includes yoga or some kind of embodied prayer. Where I breathe, I feel the sensation of the earth holding me, and as I move I pray for grace to open my heart to the presence of Christ within me, and all around me.
And some days, I weep because I feel lifeless and without the capacity to say yes to God. Or if I can, it’s a small, tentative, tempered yes. And I try to trust that God tenderly responds to all forms of consent (and resistance for that matter!).
But some days, my body lights up with energy, my heart opens wide, and I can tangibly feel the support of grace with every movement.
On these days, I enthusiastically say: Yes. Thank you.
This yes saying is not to be mistaken for doing whatever someone asks of you – not at all – being more present in the moment might actually mean we say no to one another more, have a clearer sense of our boundaries and what we do or do not want to do. This is not a new form of the old theology that told slaves and women in abusive relationships to stay put. No. This is quite distinct from the larger, more internal and God-directed ‘yes’ I am trying to describe.
Tamara Shantz is an interim pastor with Pastors in Exile. She is covering Jessica’s parental leave until the end of August, 2017.
In addition to working with PiE, Tamara is a spiritual director and Enneagram teacher. She attends Stirling Ave. Mennonite Church. You can reach her at email@example.com.
In the ‘progressive’ church I attended in my early twenties, there was a tradition at the Easter and Christmas services that for the final hymn anyone in the congregation was invited to come to the front of the church and sing with the choir. Many always did, saying ‘yes!’ with their bodies, standing up, walking forward, singing. It was the most stirring part of the service, even of the whole church year.
Your article has helped me realize that this tradition was actually a disguised altar call, practiced by people who pretended to disdain such ‘evangelical’ notions!
Your larger point, that the progressive/evangelical divide needs to be questioned, deserves more attention. Thank you, Tamara.