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Asking the clergy to discuss 'altar calls'

An altar call, when the pastor invites congregants to the altar to join the church, accept special prayers or offer the names of others for prayer, is more commonly practiced in the South and Southwest, but is migrating north and east. This week's clergy explain the concept.

Pastor Victor J. Lewis, Friendship Missionary Baptist Church of Roslyn, Roslyn Heights:

An altar call is not really anything more than a request for a response to the preached Gospel, sometimes either the preached word or prayer for a specific thing. That is the way it is in the evangelical churches. People are physically getting out of their pews and coming up to the altar.

Altar calls are not biblical. They were likely started by revivalist Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875), whom we call the father of American revivalism. He could preach in such a manner that people would respond en masse.

It was Billy Graham's altar calls that started the concept filtering down to smaller churches.

The best altar calls are at funerals, when people may be more receptive to thoughts about what will happen to their souls. Unfortunately, sometimes families don't usually want them if the person being buried wasn't a practicing Christian. On the other hand, some want it because they want their

"heathen" relatives to come to God.

The Bible doesn't specifically say anything about altar calls, but it is alluded to in an immediate response after the Gospel is preached (Matthew 4:19). After Christ spoke, he immediately said, follow me. In the New Testament, they preached the Gospel, and immediately after they preached, people were baptized and added to the church (Acts 2:41). I personally do altar calls and hope that people will make a decision to come or not come to God. You don't come to the altar just so I can see you, but so we know you've made a decision.

The Rev. Eric J. Rey, Hampton Bays Assembly of God:

The altar call is a time offered in the church service when parishioners can voluntarily come forward to the front of the church, the altar, to be prayed for by the pastor, deacons or lay workers for various needs such as salvation, healing, deliverance, etc. The altar call often takes place during the time of congregational singing or after the sermon in response to the message. Prayers at the altar usually are accompanied by the laying on of hands and/or anointing with oil.

It is a public response to something you feel God is calling you to do. It also is a way of giving people an opportunity to pray for you when you have a need. It is not limited to that. In the book of James, he encourages people in the congregation who are sick to call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil.

For us, it is the time set aside for prayer and response, to be prayed for and for the congregation to respond to your needs.

Pastor John Williams, chairman of the Elders Board, Calvary Tabernacle, Hempstead:

The purpose of the altar call is trying to get the listener to respond to the prompting of a message, song or sermon. We want them to express themselves to God and articulate the particular need they have in their lives at that time. Most of the time, it is done after you preach a sermon, but also may be done after a prayer or song.

If someone was prompted in a certain direction and comes to the altar, we have altar workers who have been trained to help them once they are there. They have to be sensitive to the person's needs and situation, whether it is spiritual, physical or emotional. The person coming forward may want to be baptized, to give their life to God. They may simply need prayer for a particular issue in their lives. It is up to the altar workers to sensitively help them articulate their need.

Of course, there are those who are reluctant to come forward, so we may do a general altar call where members come forward with their needs, and it makes it easier for the visitor to come forward because he or she doesn't feel like all eyes are on him or her. Of course, there are members who also have needs, such as prayer.

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