Director, The Ockenga Institute
I can’t recall the moment exactly, except that it seemed more like something that had already been going on for sometime, only it became more vivid now. It was an impression, an inner voice, perhaps, a nagging sensation that rose from somewhere within myself that finally pooled itself into a commitment. Whatever it was, it did not originate with me, that I knew somehow. At that moment, I knew I was only responding—irresistibly--to something or Someone outside myself.
To this day, I wonder how that newly formulated commitment would have grown and flourished if I had not had opportunity to give witness to it in front of that humble rural Midwestern church of mine that crisp autumn evening as a boy of seven years old. There was something about looking into the eyes of my newly formed family of brothers and sisters in Christ that made my newly shaped commitment all the more real. Like sun hitting freshly mixed cement, it fixed my response to that inner voice into something very real. And, it did something else. It seemed to leave quite an impression in the eyes of those who heard me stumble my way through a public acknowledgement of my commitment-in-the-making.
I am not sure I believe in altar calls anymore. I don’t know why, except that I probably find myself reacting to times when I have observed the whole enterprise as contrived and, at times, abused. But, if altar calls are no longer in vogue in our churches, how else do brothers and sisters in Christ have opportunity to regularly express the inner work of God in their lives for their own benefit? And, where else does the Body, in turn, have opportunity to regularly benefit from seeing faith being exercised in others?
If my memory serves me right, altar calls were really more than just expressions of salvation. In my early tradition, the call to salvation was one of a trinity of pubic calls to commitment. The opportunity included not only an invitation to express one’s response to God’s call to salvation, but also to sanctification and service.
This third little sister of the altar call is what I want to focus on for a moment. How do our churches own their own leadership, not only in the present but also for the future? More specifically, to what extent do pastors feel responsible for training the future leadership of the Church? I think it is a lost art for most of us. It is no longer on the radar of many of us as we scan across our sanctuaries every Sunday morning.
By contrast, for several years I served a three hundred year old Congregational church where the two first pastors were so committed to the future of the young colonial Church, they actually built a third floor to their house to house ministers-in-the-making. So committed they were to identifying and nurturing a new generation of ministers, they gave a significant amount of their time and energy every week to teaching their young charges. Imagine the impression that must have been made in these young people when a grown person of significant stature came along side of them and affirmed in them personal and leadership qualities that they didn’t yet recognize in themselves. But, who better is there to identify these traits for ministry than those already in ministry?
I suppose the reason this third little sister of the altar call is on my mind right now is because we are midway through a Lilly-funded program that I direct at the Ockenga Institute called the Compass program. Every year we invite pastors to identify high school students who they feel might have qualities necessary for a life of full time service to the Church. And every year, we invite these young charges—twenty-seven of them--to spend one month with us to explore these potential calls of God in their lives through a rigorous three-fold, one-month experience. We put them in the wilderness (in the Adirondack Mountains), the classroom with our own faculty, and on a mission field to serve (this year in Costa Rica). And then we send them back to their home churches for pastors and lay leaders to further mentor them for the next three years as these students continue to explore God’s call in their lives.It has been a wonderful program, in part because commitments, I think, left solely to the inner rumination of our subjective lives, often remain dormant and colorless. It is when they see the light of day, fleshed out and affirmed publicly by the Body of Christ, that they become vibrant and full of color. If you have a young person in mind that you sense has this kind of calling, give me a call at the seminary. Perhaps we can partner with you in nurturing these commitments to full life. My goodness, I think I just gave an altar call!