Stuff I learned on Sunday
There was an altar call during worship at the youth retreat, and I was
totally okay with it. That’s a change for me. Here’s how it went down.
The preacher was a woman from a Spanish-speaking Presbyterian church where altar calls must happen all the time. Her sermon built up to a time where she invited students (vaguely at first, but with increasing urgency) to “surrender” to God to “step forward,” and even to “kneel.” A couple of students, the ones from the preacher’s church, did exactly that. And it was fine. But you could tell the preacher was used to more of a response than this and was discouraged. She invited the music leader to come up and play some music while she reiterated the invitation a couple more times. He did, but nobody else moved. Finally, the preacher said “Amen,” docked the microphone, and sat down. The students looked around, then sat.
The music leader cleared his throat and looked apologetically at the preacher. “I’m sorry,” he said, “But I just need to add something here.” He noted that several students seemed to be confused about what they had been invited to, that many seemed to him to want to respond but nervous about how. So he carefully reissued the invitation in terms that teens from mostly white Presbyterian churches could understand.
“We Presbyterians like to live in our heads,” he explained. “We work from the inside out. But it also works the other way around. Taking physical steps can get our heart in a different place.” He told them he would play another song and that they had a “second chance” at taking a step of commitment to God by walking up to the front and allowing their peers and pastors to surround them and pray for them.
He’d hardly begun playing before students were moving. I stepped out of my seat to join another adult leader in receiving them. She knelt. I stood. We placed our hands on students’ shoulders. She whispered prayers for them. After a few minutes I noticed several students crowding behind me, so I turned around and offered to pray for them. Yes, they wanted that. The song ended and everybody sat back down without any air of awkwardness or embarrassment.
Time was when this would have rattled me and I would have participated very hesitantly as a careful observer and analyst rather than as a leader. I’ve got issues with alter calls from my childhood church and college evangelistic rallies where coercion and guilt reigned to everybody’s detriment. But this was careful and sensitive. I know the people who were leading it, and I trust them.
Also, youth need moments like this. Adults need moments like this, where we are invited to say “Yes” and to take a concrete physical step right now, right here, in response to God. This has been a major blind spot in my pastorate. Thanks to a group of friends and colleagues from diverse churches and the immovable youth retreat, something about that is changing.
Other yorocko youth retreat posts: