If you’ve ever been in a church you know about altar calls. Service begins with prayer and singing, followed by the preacher stepping forward with an important message from God. But as service winds down, the preacher closes with an invitation to the altar at the front of the church. This is often times the most uncomfortable moment of the entire day. The idea of getting up out of your pew and stepping forward and kneeling at an altar in prayer can be petrifying to some.
I call this “altar-phobia”. It’s a huge problem in churches today and can be a huge blockage preventing spiritual growth in yourself. However, there are cures as with most spiritual endeavors.
First, consider what an altar actually is.
The first recorded altar was built by Noah after the Flood, in Genesis 8.
“20 Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And the LORD smelled a soothing aroma. Then the LORD said in His heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground for man’s sake, although the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth, nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done.’ “ (Genesis 8:20-21 NKJV)
In Genesis 22, God tests Abraham’s faith by ordering him to sacrifice his own son, whom he and Sarah had hoped for for years, on an altar to the Lord.
“9 Then they came to the place of which God had told him. And Abraham built an altar there and placed the wood in order, and he bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. 10 And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.” (Genesis 22:9-19)
And later in Exodus, God instructs Moses to build an altar after giving him the Ten Commandments.
“22 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: ‘You have seen that I have talked with you from heaven. 23 You shall not make anything to be with Me–gods of silver or gods of gold you shall not make for yourselves. 24 An altar of earth you shall make for Me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I record My name I will come to you, and I will bless you.” (Exodus 20:22-24)
What is an Altar?
The three scriptures I just listed all have something in common. Sacrifice. In each instance there is some mention of sacrificing something to the Lord. In fact, the Hebrew word for altar used in these instances is “mizbeah”. Its root meaning is “to slaughter for sacrifice”. Therefore we can conclude that an altar is a place where you sacrifice, or give something up for the Lord.
However, it goes beyond that. The idea is that there is a physical location, a specific point or points on the Earth where we can interact with God. At this you might ask yourself, “can’t I interact with Him through prayer, anywhere at any time?” The answer to that is yes, most definitely. However, the altar deals more with old tradition and the concept of a specific point being holier.
Throughout the Bible, God is extremely responsive to altar activity. The majority of great men and heroes of the Bible were regular partakers in altar rituals. From Abraham to Moses to Elijah to David. It is because God is moved by people who are willing to come to a place where they know they will receive His presence. Moreover, an altar is much more than a place of sacrifice, but a place of reception and healing.
Reception and healing sound great! So why won’t people come up to the altar during service? What is there to fear?
Why we have “Altarphobia”
If we look again at the scripture I listed from Exodus, but back up just a few verses, we see that the Israelites feared not the altar, but the God of the altar.
“18 Now all the people witnessed the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off. 19 Then they said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.”
20 And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear; for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before you, so that you may not sin.” 21 So the people stood afar off, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was.” (Exodus 20:18-21)
It becomes obvious to us from watching the experiences of those brave enough to venture to the altar that the altar is associated with the full power of God. The Israelites saw the strength of God and where therefore left feeling terrified. In other words they felt extremely uncomfortable. They made the connection that this God was incomprehensibly powerful and thus, the altar would be a place where this power would reside. They wanted to stay far away from it. They wanted Moses to mediate between them and God.
Often times we want to ask our pastor or preacher to pray for us, but we don’t have the strength to go to God ourselves. While the preacher might even have an immensely deep connection with God, it lies upon your own action and your own choice to receive Him in your heart.
The altar invitation begins. The preacher calls up anyone who is lost and needs the Lord, or anyone who has a need they want to present to God. Music may begin to play. The congregation stands and bows their heads. Universally the preacher always says something similar to, “every head bowed, every eye closed. No one looking on…”
Your emotions begin to stir inside your chest. The singing was reviving, the message was powerful. You can almost hear the voice of the Lord Himself calling you up to the altar. You feel as though a rope is lassoed around your waist, pulling you toward it. Your fingers grip the edge of the pew in front of you, or remain interlaced down in front of you. You fight and fight the urge to go up there. But why?
Some thoughts you may be experiencing during this:
- What will everyone think of me going to the altar?
- I’m unworthy to go to the altar
- I’m not right enough with God to go to the altar
- I can worship from my seat, there’s no need for me to step forward
- I don’t want anyone to know what I did
- I don’t want people to know I’m not saved
- I’m saved, so I must not need the altar
- I don’t think I’m ready to change my life and follow Jesus, I need time to think about it. This is too much too soon.
- I don’t want anyone to look down on me
- I don’t like to beg for help from others, I’m self-sufficient
- I can’t let go of my sins, so why should I do something I’ll undo in only a little bit of time?
- I’m shy and don’t like to get up in front of people
- I don’t like to display my emotions publicly
These are all thoughts we experience during altar call. They hinder us from stepping forward and making forms of massive progress with God. The Lord will often fill us with a longing to approach it, but at the same time the enemy will attempt to tie our feet where they stand by using thoughts like these. Satan injects thoughts into us while disguising them as our own. In this way we rationalize and justify our reason or excuse for not answering the altar call.
One of the greatest hindrances to answering this call is the fear of others. When you are afraid of what others will think of you, you are met with a paralyzing feeling that keeps you grounded. Satan doesn’t want you anywhere near the altar because he knows that spiritual progress is nearly always made there.
Sometimes we tend to bind ourselves to ourselves. And by this I mean that we close ourselves up spiritually. We sit in church, feeling a bit numb to God and not absorbing any of the spiritual knowledge we usually attain there. We sit in our pew, preferring not to interact and to stay put. We keep to ourselves. We bind our efforts to ourselves. We barely even think about the effort we could be making for the work of God, or what we could be doing for His kingdom. For what we do for Him inevitably rebounds on us and changes us.
“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20 KJV)
When we reach the altar and put an effort in God’s direction, rather than doing what comes easily to us and sitting in the pew, we are usually met with other people who come to pray with/for us.
In every experience I have ever been in at the altar, there has been some form of spiritual change within myself. I have never walked away from an altar the same as I came to it. The feelings you experience while kneeling there are indescribable. It is one of the most intense places of prayer. When a group of people gather themselves there, lay hands on one another, and begin to pray, there is a change.
Most people who go to the altar go out of sincerity of heart. It takes someone sincere about God to cut through the lies of the enemy and the fear of others. That is often times why the prayers they pray in that situation are very powerful, because they are done out of sincerity, which God loves. And those who go up with this person to pray with them often times do so sincerely as well.
The Spirit of God seems to flow down to the group so freely, filling them with a sensation I can’t describe in any human words. Where two or three are gathered, God is there. When a group of people put their prayers together, they get a lot accomplished, spiritually-speaking.
But still there are those who are so swallowed in their fear that they refuse to go to the altar. They pass up an opportunity specifically handed to them on a platter by God Himself. A chance at renewal, a chance to mend something within us. We refuse. We pass it up because our pride blinds us.
The altar, as I said earlier, is a symbol of sacrifice. But more broadly it represents surrender. You give something to God there. It could be your life, your sin, your emotions, your troubles, your health, etc. You go to the altar anticipating to confess or give something to God. If you are lost, you usually go there to accept Christ as your Savior. In that way you are giving up your sins.
If you are saved, you might go there for a number of other things. Perhaps something is troubling you. In that sense you give your troubles.
You are surrendering something to God, entrusting it into His hands.
The importance of going to the altar is to release inner darkness. We tend to bottle ourselves up till implosion. I find this is especially true with men. We suppress ourselves and our feelings. We don’t like to deal with the bad parts of life, so we push them away and ignore them. But in actuality no such option exists. Those things still exist and they live themselves out in the back of our mind. At least until it’s time to explode. In one dramatic outburst they flow out of us, either in forms of relevance to themselves or not.
One reason it is crucial to make a visit to the altar when you feel the urge is to release these things to God. We all have a weak place, an unstable part of us. We all have a dark side. Our relationship with God can only improve when we reveal it to Him so He can take care of it. It takes trust.
As an added bonus, you may end up praying for something totally different at the altar. I remember a time I knelt at the altar, praying for someone else, when the presence of God overwhelmed my prayers and took me to the realization that I needed to pray for myself, and my cry to Him was needed on a more personal level.
The Virtue isn’t in the Altar
Sometimes an altar isn’t always available. It’s important to know that the virtue does not reside in the altar itself, but in the God behind it. God uses the altar as something physical that we can kneel at to better connect to Him when in the presence of others, but it is not by any means necessary to make contact with God.
“Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
You shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’
“If you take away the yoke from your midst,
The pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,” (Isaiah 58:9 NKJV)
God will meet us wherever we are, so long as we take the first “step” and call out to Him. We have to “take away the yoke” by stepping past our pride, the fear of others, and all those thoughts the enemy pushes into our heads.
The altar isn’t a “requirement” of being a Christian. But it is such a powerful tool and an important experience. I urge you to go to the altar as much as you feel as needed. It is a place of growth. However, don’t feel bad if you don’t go to one. You should always listen to the Holy Spirit and ask for guidance. If you feel like the Spirit is urging you toward the altar, you best not disobey. There is obviously a reason. But God will likely only bring you there as much as needed.
In conclusion, the altar is extremely important for us as Christians. But the altar is not near as relevant or important for us as God Himself.