The meaning of altar calls

Updated: Jan 31

I remember when I was a child, going to a big tent revival meeting held at the Fairgrounds.  I remember the large area the tent covered, the sawdust on the ground, the many wooden folding chairs set up in rows, arching around the big stage.  I remember watching people being called to come be healed.  They lined up a ramp on the right side of the stage, one at a time walking onto the stage to be touched by the preacher.  Some were walking, some with crutches, and some in wheelchairs.

However, the thing I remember the most about going to that big tent revival meeting was the fried apple pies the vendors sold outside the big tent.

fried pies

I was probably only eight years old.  All my friends and schoolmates would talk about going to the State Fair, which was held at the Fairgrounds; but I never got to go to one of those.  Still, there was a circus-like atmosphere surrounding the revival meeting, because the setting was the same as for the fair.

From the parking lot to the big tent, everyone had to walk past the neon lights of the vendor buildings that were always there … in the open-air pavilion.  I imagine that was where the ring-toss, coin flip, and cotton candy stands were calling out to the people passing by along the path leading to the circus tents and the fair rides.  It had to have been like it was going to the revival meeting.

The last stand going in and the first one coming out was where they sold the fried pies.

I don’t think I have ever found a fried apple pie that has tasted as good as the ones my mother bought me after the big tent revival meeting at the fairgrounds.  The revival lasted several nights, and each night we went I got a pie as we were walking back to the car. 


That was the early sixties.  I don’t remember exactly when.  I do not even remember who the main speaker at the revival meeting was; but I imagine he was advertised and promoted by the church where we were members.  That was an Assemblies of God church, which is a Pentecostal branch, which believes it is important for members to speak in tongues.

A standard practice in that church was the altar call.  The church was a rather large downtown church, with the building somewhat Gothic-styled, with towers at the front.  The congregation was large enough to support two services on Sunday (morning and night), and two at night during the week (Tuesday and Friday).  At the end of every service, the preacher would call anyone who wanted Christ in their lives to come down and kneel at the altar steps.  The altar steps were covered with plush, bright red carpeting.

The altar call at the big tent revival meeting was like the one in our church, but many more people “came on down” there.  I have watched televised Billy Graham crusades, and his call reminds me of that revival meeting I went to and that church I was a member of.

tent revival

Billy Graham was deemed “non-denominational,” so he preached in front of large numbers of people, so those venues were stadiums, much bigger than big tents, and much bigger than the seating in a large church.  In large events like that, there has always been an altar call that people respond to.

As Episcopalians, we have a different version of an altar call at the end of each service.  In a way, we are not that different from our Pentecostal brothers and sisters.  Our altar call is to pass out the sacraments of bread and wine.

In the Assemblies of God church I was raised in, they only celebrated Communion a few times a year … as I recall.  They do not drink wine, so they passed out Welch’s grape juice, in thimble-sized glasses.  They gave us that along with part of a broken saltine cracker, rather than the “made-to-order” industrial wafers found in “catholic-style” churches.

During those times of Communion, everyone would fill the aisles, not the altar steps.  Everyone took juice and cracker from Deacons holding trays, taken up by each person as he or she passed by.  There was not an altar call made for that special occasion.

altar call

I never went down to the altar when those calls were made, although (at that young age) if they had offered fried apple pies to everyone who came on down, I would have been there each week.

Therein lies the purpose of an altar call.  You have to desire what is being offered … not following the crowd, as if obligated.

One might wonder how the evolution of the churches first founded by the Apostles changed and diverted, becoming as diverse and different as they are today.  Has it always been about symbolic gestures?  Or was it originally about the symbolism of an inner change taking control of one’s life?

You know that when Jesus passed out the first unleavened matzo for each of his disciples to eat; and then when Jesus passed around one of the ceremonial cups of wine that is at every Passover Seder meal for each of the disciples to drink, nothing happened to change anyone.  The change occurred the Day of Pentecost.  From then on, the symbolic ceremony of Communion has been as a REMINDER of having Christ with you … inside your heart, controlling your brain.

In the letter Paul wrote that we read today, he named his companions as co-authors, before sending it to the Thessalonians.  Paul encouraged them, as Christians.  He called them his “brothers and sisters,” and he stated his hope that they would continue to be steadfastly committed, to withstand the pressures to NOT be Christian.

There were obviously pressures put upon them by their fellow Jews, as the greater majority of early Christians were Jewish (Hebrew-speaking peoples).  Paul commended the faith that the people who made up the church of Thessaloniki had shown.

Paul wrote, “We always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified.”  The people of that “gold star” church were called by God to serve him at his altar … not to be served.

And they responded.  They answered the call.  Thus, their faith grew abundantly, and increased the love of “everyone of (them) for one another.”  Just as Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy wrote a letter of support and encouragement to their brothers and sisters, each member of the church of Thessaloniki also supported and encouraged one another.

That is answering the altar call to the fullest.

The early Christians needed support and encouragement because of the persecution they faced.  Paul wrote the 2nd letter to the Thessalonians, according to many scholars, around 52-54 AD.  Christ, as we know, died and resurrected around 33 AD, so we are talking about 20 years later.  At that time, the Roman Empire did not feel threatened by Christians, enough to persecute them for their religious beliefs, at least in Greece.

The history of the Bible, in both the Old and the New Testaments, focuses on the plan God had for preparing a specially groomed, hand-picked lineage of human beings, who would evolve to be the ones called to His altar, to serve Him as his priests.  The Holy Bible is not a history of all mankind.  It is specific to a lineage stemming from Adam to the Apostles of Christ.  We are part of the continuation of that lineage, thus a reflection of that history.

This means that the story we read today, written by Habakkuk, is focused on the failure of many of those chosen people who were called by God, where they were expected to respond positively and faithfully to God’s call to serve Him.  They failed to do that, and they suffered because of that.

The story of Paul’s letter is about those chosen people, ones who not only responded to the call to renew the faith their ancestors had lost, but ones who also responded by believing Jesus was their promised Messiah, their Christos.  They were continuing the spread of the Gospel by calling upon Jews and Gentiles to “come on down and serve God through the Christ who has been delivered.

The story of Jesus going into Jericho is one where he called Zacchaeus to the altar.

zac in sycamore tree

That story is of that same historical period as Paul, but the Luke account focuses on a time when some Jews were taking sides: either following Jesus to see his next big tent meeting (like his sermon on the mount, and like on the shore of the Sea of Galilee), or turning against Jesus (as he preached and debated on the steps of the Temple).

The detractors of Jesus were plotting the persecutions that would be continuing into Paul’s ministry, even as Jesus was preparing those who would be called to serve God, through him.

In the Habakkuk reading, it ends by stating, “Look at the proud!  Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.”

In other words, the ones who take pride in their faith do not have the right spirit.  That would be found in the detractors of Jesus … the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Temple priests.

This can be explained as them misunderstanding the word “faith.”   It could be like them mistaking “faith” as meaning their religious denomination.  That designation today, as Jewish, is confusing.

To some, it means a race, as a specific lineage that is different from Arabs, although similar in many ways.  Still, to many Jews, being Jewish means being faithful to the practices and dogmas of a religion that is different from others, although possibly similar in some regards.

The Jewish religion, as a branch of faith, was and still is a set of rituals they learned (aided by parents and enhanced by regular attendance at synagogues) because they were born into that faith.  They are taught to take pride in being Jewish, the people chosen by God personally.  To many, the word “faith” means being special, as specific dedication to a certain set of rules pertaining to how one relates to God.

We are of the Episcopalian “faith,” which is different from, although similar to, the Roman Catholic “faith,” the Methodist “faith,” the Lutheran “faith,” … and yes … even the Pentecostal “faiths,” and the Jewish “faith.”

When the LORD told Habakkuk to write down on a tablet, “the righteous live by their faith,” this is stating why the chosen people … the children of Israel … would be punished and sent into exile, losing everything.  Being special in the eyes of God means living by a faith that God is all-powerful and He will protect you from being persecuted for living by God’s law … as long as you live by faith and not simply do as you please, while claiming to be a member of a “faith.”

That is answering the call … living by faith in God.

Now in the story of Jesus today, where he saw short Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree, and having the chief tax collector be chosen as the one in whose house Jesus would spend the day, we need to see this story more as a metaphor for each one of us here today.

Jesus has come into view, for each one of us to see.  There is an appeal, an attraction … there is a big tent, and fried apple pies, so we all want to get close, if for nothing more than for the entertainment of a spectacular event.

“Jesus is coming to town!”

We are each Zacchaeus, as we come up short.  We do not measure up to the purity that Jesus represents.  We are all sinners, but we want to be pure.  We know we are sinners because we have put way too much time and energy into establishing material security, warm and comfortable lifestyles … persecution free.  We know others see our sins, but we ignore them, because we see others as sinners too.  In fact, if it is okay for others to not be persecuted as sinners, then it is okay for us too.

We support and encourage one another by our acceptance of sin!

Suddenly, we hear the call.  YOU!  Yeah, YOU SINNER, come on down!  Jesus wants to stay within YOU.  Jesus wants to save YOU because you are a sinner.

You want to make Jesus happy, and you want to stop being a sinner, so you welcome Jesus in.

When Jesus is at your emotional center … written upon your heart, just as we read a couple of weeks ago … we begin to pray to the LORD.

We say, “Look, half my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”

In other words, when Jesus is written into our hearts … when we welcome him in … when we answer the call … we forget all about our desire to have wealth and riches save us, realizing it is much more important to have God and Christ save us.  We promise to give whatever the cost … whatever the persecution may be … because of the ultimate reward is so much better.

The call is not about your religious affiliation, it is about your living by faith in Christ, God, and the Holy Spirit.  Living by faith means depending on God’s help to make us worthy of his call, and to use His power for every good resolve and work of faith.

The call does not only occur in big tents, large stadiums, cathedrals, or small churches like this one.  The call comes 24-7, wherever you are.  The call does not offer fried pies or wine and wafers.  The call demands you actually welcome faith as the means to serve others … even willful self-sentencing to hard labor, if need be.

We must answer that call, and support and encourage all others who do likewise.



Amendment: In Roman Catholic churches, non-Catholics are denied the sacraments of Communion.  This is because the Roman Catholic Church requires one be baptized by a Roman Catholic priest … not some splinter-group leader that has never been baptized as a true Roman Catholic Christian. In Episcopalian churches, the priest will mention “anyone who has been baptized is welcome” to partake of the wafer and wine given at the altar rail.  The “Catholic style” churches offer Communion every time they turn the lights on at the church and have a service.  Other denominations offer Communion less frequently.

It is worthwhile to realize the expansions and limitations placed on parishioners is because denominations of true Christianity have taken the truth and twisted it into untruths.

The original intent was only those who were baptized by the Holy Spirit, … reborn as Jesus Christ, … AS CHRISTIANS … were truly saved and given eternal life, with their soul promised heaven with God – sin free forever.  That Saintly character then meant that once a year (on two nights of Seder rituals) Christians were able to eat the Passover matzah and drink from the Passover Seder cup of Redemption wine (cup of wine number three) separately … exclusively from all others.  All others were still Jews (or Israelites) or heathens.  The Christians then spent the rest of  their free time preaching the Gospel to Jews and Gentiles, trying to get others to personally experience the same inner changes.

Thus, an “altar” is the table upon which the Passover Seder meal is placed, and it is for family to share (the family of all being Sons of God), while lounging on pillows.  There is no need to call anyone down.

#Habakkuk214 #Habakkuk114 #Psalm3218 #2Thessalonians1112 #Isaiah11018 #altarcalls #PentecostProper26 #Luke19110 #meaningoffaith #Zacchaeusinsycamoretree #Psalm119137144

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