We were talking in comments recently about one aspect of Christianity that outsiders really don’t understand about that end of Christianity. This particular touchstone forms one of the strongest emotional connections that many Christians have with their religion–one that easily overrides any of their intellectual reservations with its truth claims, much less any of their moral reservations with its doctrinal teachings. So with one of the biggest holidays in the entire Christian calendar coming right up our butts, this seems like a good time to describe altar calls.
I spent a good many years in a Pentecostal denomination–something like Kim Davis’ sort of Christians, the kind who really get into patriarchy and gender roles and ultraconservative politics.
I was a member of several different UPCI churches over the years I was Pentecostal–two that were very large (1000-2000 people attending on Sundays) and one that was teeny tiny (um, 12?). The teeny tiny church never really got boisterous and didn’t really have formal altar calls owing to its sheer tininess–you really need to get a crowd moving through a place to get the genuine experience or it just feels awkward–but the larger two had a very similar way of “doing church” (as many of us called it).
If most folks even have a conception of what it’s like to be in the middle of a church service like the ones I was part of, they probably think it goes like the church scene in the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers. That conception is actually close to the reality.
(Can you spot Chaka Khan? She’s in the choir–that is your only hint.)
My church looked a lot like this, except the floor was blood-red carpet, the walls were pure white (with columns!), and we had a giant baptismal fount built on a raised loft thing located right above and behind the dais. Also, we had a LOT more white people. The dancing was nowhere near as good or as organized as this clip shows; people got stepped on fairly often. Otherwise, the vibe was there. That’s what it was like–at least when we felt safe letting our (uncut) hair down.
The Rhythm of the Night.
On Sunday morning and during the midweek service, things were fairly quiet. There might be some shouting in the pews, but it wasn’t a huge big deal most of the time. These were the services that visitors were most likely to visit, and a full-on rowdy Pentecostal service freaked the mundanes like you would not even believe.
Sunday night, though, was when shit got real. That was the service when visitors were least likely to visit, and thus when we could really get out of hand. Those services tended to be the loudest and most emotional–and to feature the full altar call experience at the end. Visiting pastors or preachers might give the sermon and lead the festivities, or we might hear from visiting missionaries or evangelists. Often the sermon lasted a long longer than usual even by Pentecostal standards, and the preacher would always make mention of it in full expectation that the people listening would only urge him to talk as long as he liked. (YES. I KNOW. I hated it. I think everyone did–we just were too scared to say it because that was a great way to invite accusations of lukewarmness, and a fundagelical would rather be accused of being a cannibal than a lukewarm Christian.)
The songs on Sunday nights were different as well, as you might expect. The slow, dignified tunes that we were used to on other occasions were ignored in favor of the really rowdy busy loud songs that got people’s blood pumped up and made them want to dance. I noticed right away when I became Pentecostal that there was a distinct sound to the music on Sunday nights that was very different from anything heard any other time of the week–and most visitors saw it too if they visited more than once.
The pastor of that first church, of course, had stated reasons for these differences in style and content. He liked to say that Sunday morning and Thursday nights were for our minds–general edification, education, and community. Sunday nights, however, were for our hearts. What he didn’t say–but what I figured out fairly quickly–was that Sunday nights were the catharsis that so many of us needed to get through the following week. I knew a lot of people in church who freely volunteered this information to anybody who’d listen.
One of the most powerful experiences a person can have involves catharsis: that extreme buildup and purging of steam in a supercharged emotional blowout. The term is Greek, like most wonderful terms are; it means “cleansing.” And that indeed is how you feel after having a deeply cathartic experience. They can be game-changing and outlook-altering. Little wonder so many Christians’ testimonies feature them.
People have been creating and enjoying catharsis for pretty much ever since we’ve been people, it seems. Through arts like drama and song, through shared group experiences like dancing and performing, through big personal situations like relationships that never should have happened, we reach dizzying emotional heights and lows and then blast through them to a sort of pleasing purity that can leave us downright dizzy and emptied-out afterward.
Catharsis involves a buildup of tension that reaches a peak that explodes into activity. This buildup is a lot easier to accomplish when you have a lot of people on hand who are all doing the same thing–which is why a lot of folks think that their religion has some kind of monopoly on that particular feeling. I know I sure did. I was young and inexperienced enough to have never encountered that kind of huge emotion or its resulting blowout anywhere except in church–and even then, only when the group was really in its groove–so I thought that churches like mine were literally the only place where I could achieve that feeling.
If you’ve noticed that the way I talk about catharsis sounds uncomfortably sexual, you’ve picked up on something really important. Indeed, this feeling can become downright addictive for people who can’t get it any other way. In church, my fellow believers pursued it the way that some people pursue their first orgasm or their first high on drugs.
The stone-cold easiest way to reach catharsis was the altar call.
An Evolution of Effective Strategy.
Every single sermon–whether it was on Sunday nights or not–ended with an altar call. That’s why churches have been doing them since the late 1800s. As that link points out, the practice does not originate in the Bible (which doesn’t stop really fervent Christians from contorting Bible verses to try to support the idea). There are a few churches and preachers who absolutely do not ever do altar calls because they don’t think they’re effective or because they think altar calls create a coercive atmosphere, but if any of those were in the UPCI I didn’t hear about them. Altar calls are part of fundagelicalism’s DNA in a way that very little else could be, and they have evolved into their own art form.
Here’s how they went down. At the end of the sermon, the preacher would go through this weird, coy ritual. I think it was supposed to make things easier for shy people. He’d duck his head low, close his eyes, and very softly and in a monotone voice ask everyone else to do the same. Then he’d suggest that if “Jesus” had touched the heart of anybody listening that that person could show it in some way. Usually the suggested method began with raising a hand, which nobody would see in theory because everyone’s head was similarly lowered and everyone’s eyes were supposedly closed. Then after some hands presumably got raised, the preacher would suggest that those who wanted “a touch from the Lord” could make their way to the altar.
While he spoke, the music would be very soft, usually just the piano or organ, but once the altar call was formally given the choir would swell into something really inspirational–the sort of music you’d expect to be in the background while someone was sobbing a confession or a Sinner’s Prayer or looking for what we called a “breakthrough.” The song “I Surrender All” was a big favorite for this purpose; it got people thinking in the right directions.
People would gradually begin to filter up toward the front. Almost every one of them would be actual members of our church rather than visitors or other converts. Though the altar call was originally conceived as a way to move people through a really emotional conversion experience, I don’t think it took long for actual Christians to wonder why there wasn’t enough Jesus to go around to everyone who wanted it. So it was pretty rare to see non-members up front.
Instead, what happened was that established members of our church would seek a “breakthrough.” That’s Christianese for that cathartic blowout experience. See, we often felt that praying didn’t do anything. Sometimes we even talked about feeling like our prayers were “bouncing off the ceiling.” A breakthrough was, therefore, literally feeling like our prayers had actually broken through the ceiling and actually reached our god’s attention–like we’d finally established a connection.
The Bible might tell believers that the Christian god is right there and ready to chat whenever about whatever, but in reality, we thought, a lot of things could cloud that personal connection and make it very hard to feel like we were actually communing with the divine author of the entire universe. All of those things were our problem, it goes without saying. Pride, sinful desires, stress, general busy living, anger, it could all stop our prayers from breaking through.
So an altar call was the perfect way to get a breakthrough. There, we could confess our sins in a big group crush, and all those other Christians praying for the same things were thought to magnify everyone’s prayers by lots. If you couldn’t break through in a good old fashioned Pentecostal altar call, then you had some very serious problems.
It was complete bedlam when things were going well; there’d be people dancing in the Spirit with their eyes closed and hands raised, people yell-praying and being rocked bodily back and forth while held up and pushed and pulled by a crowd of others (my Evil Ex Biff loved to be part of such a crowd and eagerly sought out petitioners and converts), and the closer you got to the actual pulpit the more active the scene was. On the fringes, people prayed in groups in more mild and less aerobic ways.
The preacher had to stay up on the pulpit–I’m not sure if it was a rule, but I don’t remember ever seeing one of them leave to Jesus Mosh with everyone else. He’d talk in a very low voice like someone who was trying to calm a frightened animal, mic held up to his lips. I now associate that exact way of talking almost exclusively with altar calls; you don’t often hear it outside that venue. His job was to keep the background patter going. The choir would repeat the chorus over and over again but more quietly, and the guy at the organ couldn’t go home until things looked like they’d petered out.
Eventually the altar call would, indeed, peter out. People can’t maintain that kind of energy for too long. Eventually whoever needed the breakthrough would get it–almost invariably–and you could be almost anywhere in the building and hear the shrieks in tongues that would erupt at that point. The converts, if there were any, were ushered upstairs to get baptized in the tub up above the choir, and of course everyone had to celebrate with each dunking. Dazed women who’d fallen down (slain in the Spirit, we called this) got up and figured out whose coat covered them so they could return the modesty-preserving assistance. And the rest of us found our shoes and our stuff and went home.
Altar Calls Make Their Clothes Fall Off. Afterward you’d be able to see clothes and shoes literally everywhere.
We went home drained and empty in the best kind of way. That happily-drained feeling lasted all day, and the whole week following, we could coast through our days because we’d had this glorious experience. And then on Sunday we could just about count on there being another like it–at the Sunday night service.
Most of us, anyway.
I think I was one of the only one of my peer group who didn’t eagerly rush forward every time for the altar call. A lot of folks in our church didn’t–the cool girls who didn’t want to muss their perfect hair or dresses, the sedate older people–but most of the people in my peer group were right there every time without fail. But I’m not at my best around big groups of people being super-unpredictable physically. Plus, an astonishing number of women dancing up front wore very high heels. (When I brought up this concern to my pastor, he said that Jesus kept people from getting stepped on and implied that my faith maybe wasn’t as strong as it needed to be if I couldn’t trust our god to keep my feet safe. I was not so certain.)
Since leaving Christianity, I’ve run into a number of folks who’ve mentioned offhandedly that they felt forced to participate in altar calls–at least for some minimum number of times, like the flair in Office Space–or else get accused of lukewarmness. Mine obviously wasn’t that bad, but my lack of participation did get thrown in my face sometimes by Biff, who worried that he’d be seen as less of a candidate for a pastor position somewhere if his wife wasn’t 100% all in and gung-ho.
Was It Really Divine?
Of course not.
I won’t denigrate the experience itself by saying that the emotions weren’t real. Obviously they were real. The sheer power of it is difficult for outsiders to understand, and makes deconversion much more difficult for insiders. When you hear Christians of that stripe hotly declare that they totally absolutely know Christianity is real because they can literally feel their god’s presence, they may well be thinking of exactly what I’m describing here.
But Christians’ certainty doesn’t make what happens at an altar call divine in nature by a longshot.
When I was just a year or so out of Christianity, I met a young man on an online game who loved mosh pits and raves and that kind of thing, and that’s about when I began to unpack exactly what I’d seen and experienced around altar calls. It surprised me at the time just how similar the two were–but now I see the same stuff going on in all kinds of places. Rave dances, the whirling of Sufis, pagan drum circles, the endless chanting of a number of Eastern traditions, and yes, even some orgies–they’re all about inducing that kind of euphoria, that catharsis, that glorious singularity that seems to happen when people get together in such situations.
Quite a few of the people who experience these things declare that their gods are behind the feelings that result, but that doesn’t mean it’s so–or that it’s bad. It’s just part of the human condition, one of those many ways that humans can become so much more than the mere sum of our parts, and some folks really love that feeling.
This time of year, you can guess that I’ve been thinking back about my time in Christianity. Next time, we’ll touch on the Christian love of torture porn–because whoa, Easter is the time they really let that tendency run wild. See you then!
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