This post is part of the series on Preaching for Youth. Many of us have grown up with the concept of an ‘altar call’, that moment in a service where those wanting to follow Jesus are asked to come forward, to raise their hands or to do something else to signify their choice. While the ‘results’ of these altar calls can fill us with joy over lost souls being saved, they can also give us a deep feeling of unease or doubt, especially when we see no long term effects of the choices being made.
Youth seems to give a different meaning to the choice they make in services or events than we think or than we’d want them too. Some youth we see come forward time and again, some we see come forward and then live on like nothing happened. What does ‘making a choice’ mean for the postmodern generation?
Becca Dean asks this question in a blogpost on the altar call and states that “To opt in and choose something seems obvious to a young person in a world full of options, where you make temporary choices as the moment suits.” It may very well be that the definition of ‘making a choice for Jesus’ is something we have to explain and define a lot more than we do now. Merely asking youth to make a choice doesn’t stress the eternal importance of making this choice.
But all this also raises the broader question if the concept of an alter call still fits this generation of youth. Mind you, the Bible doesn’t speak about altar calls at all. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use them, but it does mean it’s something we have come up with later as a means to an end and we should keep carefully judge it to see if it still works.
I think that postmodernism should inspire us to come up with alternatives that do justice to the importance of a decision for Christ and that appeal more to this generation of youth. I’d love to see a way that better fits into the concept of a relationship with God and with the youth, into the process of becoming saved instead of treating it as a one-time event, and in the thinking of life as a spiritual journey.
That doesn’t mean I’m opposed to altar calls, but I’d handle them with great care to detail. Here’s what I would advise:
Preach the gospel
Make sure the gospel is preached, no matter what the subject of the talk or sermon is. Whatever you preach on, you can include the gospel because after all, that’s what the whole Bible is about. Sure, you won’t do justice to every nuance of God’s grace and Jesus’ sacrifice, but you can give a summary of what the gospel means. It’s important to do this consistently, preferably stressing a different aspect each time so over time the whole picture starts to form. The altar call then becomes the logical response to hearing God’s message.
Explain the choice
When making a choice means something else to this generation of youth than it does to us as leaders, make sure you spend some time explaining what the choice for Jesus means. While there’s no need to get negative about postmodern culture, it’s perfect okay to stress the difference between ‘normal choices’ they make and this one. The word commitment is perhaps something you’ll need to stress. It may take some practice to find the right balance between stressing the enormity of this choice, while not scaring them away or giving the impression that they’re never allowed to make another mistake once they’ve made the choice. Grace is key here.
Make it short and easy
When doing an altar call for youth, make it very clear what you want them to do and explain that just once. Don’t let the call itself drag on for ten minutes. Just tell them that if they want to make a choice to follow Jesus, they should do this and this. That’s it.
Make it public
It seems anonymity is stressed in many alter calls for youth. Youth are asked to close their eyes so nobody can see who raises their hands. Obviously, that’s to lower the barriers for youth to respond. I can understand that, but theologically I don’t think it’s right. Making a choice for Jesus means confessing Jesus is the risen Christ, the Lord of all. That is not a confession you can or should make in secret (unless you live in a country where it’s illegal to be or become a Christian). Following Jesus will cost something, maybe everything. If we want youth to realize the importance of the choice for following Jesus, if we want them to know it’s a choice that could have ramifications and may cost them something, it’s only fitting we ask them to make the choice publicly.
Don’t hype it
If youth thinks the only place and moment to ‘get saved’ is during a service, we’ve done something wrong. While altar calls are perfectly okay, we’d better make sure youth knows they can come into God’s presence at any time, talk with Him any time they want. Altar calls shouldn’t become a hype, a peak moment, thereby almost emotionally pressuring youth to take part. Be careful in using certain music, ‘convincing words’ or prayers, etc. Don’t force youth to make a choice in any way. Altar calls should naturally flow out of a relationship with God and with the youth, a logical step in everything you do together. Show them God, show them the relationship, then show them how to get that.
That being said, I’d love to know what alternatives people have come up with for altar calls. How do you get your youth to make a commitment to Christ? Do you use alter calls and if so, how? Let’s get a conversation going here!