Molly Baskette, the pastor at the UCC congregation in Somerville, MA wrote a wonderful Still Speaking Devotional this week, “Altar,” about the tradition of altar calls.
And how some “heart-led churches,” have worship during which they invite people forward to receive the Holy Spirit, to recommit themselves to the walk of faith, and to get beyond all sorts of nonsense and shame — to make peace with themselves and to be forgiven by God.
She also mentioned how getting called to the front of the church for people from more “head-led churches” is like getting called to the principal’s office, or an exam after one has forgotten to study all semester. “We would rather die in our pews than experience the new-lease-on-life that can come of an altar call.”
Rev. Baskette wrote about the heart / head identity crisis in her own congregation. Not too far from the august environs of Harvard University, her local church — in its pastor’s description — is a congregation “full of migrants and misfits.” That me laugh out loud!
Her theme was about the essence of Christian worship:
~ Is the communion table just a place for the bread and cup to chill until we get to that part of the worship once a month? On other Sundays, is it just a safe perch for leaving the collection plates for the financial secretary to pick up after service?
~ Or does the communion table retain “some” of its antecedent character as an altar, or as she put it “a cairn marking a former visit by the Divine?” …An everyday object to be sure, but which can take on or be useful for extraordinary purposes… where someone, moved by the Spirit, might almost literally throw oneself down to experience God and God’s grace immanently and immediately?
Her reflection reminded me of my time at Flatbush-Tompkins Congregational Church in Brooklyn. The church, like the surrounding neighborhood, had long since transitioned from predominantly Euro-American to African American and, even more so, Caribbean American folk. But our boundaries stretched to other parts of the world too.
One of that church’s big struggles at that time was trying to figure out how to catch their worship style up to the community gathered there each Sunday. They needed and mostly wanted to look like some version of “a proud Black church.”
But there was no simple formula or easy answers for knowing exactly what that meant. There was no common experience, shared understanding, or brokered agreement what “proud Black church” might look and sound and feel like for us in worship.
We had Black American Baptists.
And Guyanese Congregationalists.
And Jamaican Anglicans.
And Bajan Presbyterians.
And Catholics from the Virgin Islands.
And some Nigerian and Ghanian Pentecostals.
And then there were people who were also of East Indian descent.
Somehow there were also a lot of Mason men and Eastern Star women — so the rites and rituals of Masonry got in the mix too.
Oh, yes, and they had me for a pastor!
One Sunday I decided to do an altar call. It was an impromptu impulse. Something I thought of while preaching the sermon (beware when a preacher’s sermons inspire or move the preacher himself!). It was one of those messages about faith needing us to make a decision. Think of Margaret Rohdy’s favorite hymn “Once to Every Man and Nation.”
Altar calls and “opening the doors of the church” certainly were not the tradition I grew up in. First Congregational Church in St. Louis, right on the edge of Washington University’s campus, was a quintessential head church.
But I’d been trained at Union Seminary. And pastored in East Harlem, and particularly at ecumenical events, I’d pulled off an altar call or two in my life.
So I left the pulpit. Didn’t explain. Kneeled before the altar. (As Congregationalists, we said it wasn’t an altar. But architecturally, there was no doubt; it was an altar. Anyway, the Jamaicans insisted on a custom from home — the wedding license was filled out and signed during the marriage ceremony, “on the altar.”)
I began to pray. “That we would know God’s presence. That the spirit would touch us. And move us to decide.”
Then I invited anyone, “Everyone, who wants to get up from where they find themselves, particularly if you are in any way stuck… stand up and come forward; show that you are ready or willing or wanting to make a decision, to take some faithful, new steps.”
It was really just an invitation to prayer. But prayer that was more dramatic, because one was to change positions, actually to move to a new place. To get up from where they were and join the pastor in the chancel at the altar, before God. To say to oneself and to God and before other people that, at the least, “I need help with this decision.”
I figured one or two would come forward easily, either because it was their church tradition or they really were that desperate for help.
I thought a few more might struggle forward, either because they liked me or wanted to show they were in support of my trying new things.
And so, nervously trying to listen for footsteps coming my way, on I prayed, figuring that I’d end up laying hands on a handful of people and praising God with thanksgiving for the decisions that they had before them and that they were laying before the altar of God.
But I know how altar calls work. It sometimes takes a minute for people to mull the invitation over, and to get up their nerve. And a while longer then, tentatively, to stand up and to venture forward. Once the first one or two start moving, sometimes others are emboldened.
So I kept praying to give whomever needed time to cover some space. I could hear a bit of movement, but I was more attuned to the prayer.
So much so that when I stopped praying, and stood and turned around, I was astounded. There before me stood so many people that I could no longer see the rest of the church — or be sure if there was anyone left in the pews.
That one day, that first altar call didn’t solve our identity issues or answer all our questions about the worship appropriate to that community.
And we didn’t thereafter have altar calls every week.
But it was an important experience. Stepping out in new direction. An authentic experience of being able to do something that was meaningful, new, exciting, holy. And learning in the process.
As Molly Baskette says about First Church in Somerville, most evolution of sacred traditions for new circumstances occurs as a compromise. Or in the midst of all our diversity, one might say the best we can often do is somewhere in between all the various different extremes that people might name as their first choices.
In Somerville, their version is inviting everyone in attendance at the annual Drag Gospel Service — already an exceptional worship service — to come forward to the communion table and touch it, “to whatever degree they are comfortable, if they’ve been somehow moved by what they experienced that day.” To shift out of spectator mode and try something new.
The modified, even watered down altar call aside, can you imagine trying a drag gospel worship service?
Relax, there will be neither drag (that I forsee!) nor an altar call THIS Sunday.
But we too — and all churches, always — are in need of evolving our rites and rituals for the current community we are to serve. To that end, new perspective always helps. And new practices ironically need to precede, or even engender those new perspectives.
We’re going to try an other way this week! Instead of more down home worship, we’ll worship in higher church form, more like Lutherans, as it is Reformation Sunday.
We’ll be trying to imitate our sister congregation, the Markusgemeinde, in Bielefeld, Germany. Real German Lutherans! Our worship will be more liturgical, traditional, maybe even more formal (if Old First can do that). Maybe I will even wear a suit. Or tabs and a clerical collar!
Since most of us won’t ever make it Germany, maybe this is a next best thing.
And stepping out of our routine, we have something to learn. Something new to experience. Holiness still. But how the Spirit can move outside our traditions. How we can worship in a new style. As we move or are moved, we might stumble on some important new perspectives about worship. Or our church. Or ourselves. Or God. At the least, we will be reminded that there are different ways to worship God.
And that promises a worthy Reformation Sunday celebration.
And here’s the challenge: no Principal’s office or end of semester exam, but see if you can figure out the differences between this Sunday’s worship and what we usually do. If you want, I will gather folks after worship, and we can discuss what we experienced.
See you on Sunday,