I think there is a place in the church for altar calls.
And I think there is a place in the church for the kind of evangelical spirituality that altar calls are associated with. It might come as no surprise, then, to learn that I have an affection for country music as well.
The “progressive” movement in mainline Christianity has a deep flaw or blindspot in it. That is, it is has hitched its horse to a liberal, academic and intellectual agenda. A whole industry of books, conferences and seminars has been created out of heaping scorn on evangelical spirituality and practice. There is rarely even any attempt to disguise the tones of superiority and condescension while expounding at length on what the biblical writers “really meant” and how they were constrained by their social and historical context. Piece by piece the contents of Christian faith are reduced to their acceptable rational components in the name of doing away with”superstitious” or “childish” beliefs. Unfortunately, as the progressive program proceeds it generates unheeded collateral damage. As the doctrines and stories of the Christian tradition are treated with this intellectual solvent the Mystery also is stripped away and what is left are inert, safe, easily stacked blocks that few people can love let alone die for.
I will readily admit that the contemplative renewal movement within Christianity, a movement near and dear to my heart, is not immune from a similar problem. All over the world upper middle class white baby boomers are flocking to “contemplative” conferences and seminars, buying books and downloading podcasts, searching for a version of Jesus they can swallow and communities that “get it” like they do. Once again, enlightenment is often taught to be found somewhere other than in the orthodox tradition: The biblical writers are dismissed as agents of empire, Jesus becomes a Jewish Buddha, and esoteric practices are seen as the “real” Christian teaching.
And then there’s Kris Kristofferson. The man has evidently had a deep and profound and lasting experience of Jesus Christ in his life. He can’t really remember the words that were said but he testifies to the overwhelming sensation of a “forgiveness I didn’t even know I needed.” And it all happened because someone sang a song and an evangelical preacher asked his congregation if there were any of them who felt that they were lost.
Do you feel lost?
Do you want to accept Jesus Christ into your life?
I have a deep sense that there is something integral about the evangelical pattern of conversion. Whatever language we use I suspect that many Christians consider ouselves followers of Jesus because we came to a place in our lives where we couldn’t manage to make the world ok and we took the first step of admitting our own helplessness in the face of chaos/sin/pain. And somehow, mysteriously, we were met by an energy/force/spirit of wholeness we identified with Jesus Christ. When our egoic programs for being ok in the world stopped working and we admitted that fact and surrendered to it, a reality and love took up residence in our hearts. It is likely more often a small event than it is a grand one and quickly we can convince ourselves that we probably just imagined it. But the spark that took up residence cannot be extinguished and whether we know it or not, things are different.
I want there to be room in our churches for this kind of witness and testimony. I want us to not be afraid to proclaim that Jesus Christ can find us when we are lost. I want us to be able to sing Amazing Grace and mean every word. I want the Eucharist to be an altar call every Sunday, beckoning forward those who want to know the love of Jesus Christ. I also want us to embrace our intellects, use our wits as a gift from God, question our assumptions and think critically about our traditions and let those questions bring us ever more into the light…