I grew up in a Pentecostal Church, and interned at a Baptist church. Altar calls were the epitome of the Sunday worship service. After the pastor would finish his sermon, he would give the 4-5 step salvation message and then ask if anyone in the congregation wanted to accept Jesus into their heart so they don’t go to hell. Depending on the guilt and fear administered in the sermon and call would determine how many hands would go flying into the air. We would always be asked to put down our heads as to give them privacy as the pastor would call the worship leader up to the stage to play something nice in the background. The rebels and the catchers would keep their heads up anyway. Catchers were the ones that would go up to the altar and catch people when they got slain in the Spirit, but they are also the same ones that love to point out to the pastor the hands that were raised. Then as a pastor would see a hand, he would say, “Thank-you sir, you can put your hand down. Praise God.” Typically those that would raise their hands were youth just hitting puberty, a few people with disabilities and a few others from lower socio-economic backgrounds who would probably never come back to the church. This would go on for about a minute as we sat in silence praying fervently that God’s Spirit would move and convict people of their sin and need for salvation. The pastor would say a prayer that the entire congregation would repeat after him, I was saved multiple times a month because of this prayer. Then he would encourage those that put up their hands to come to the front and pray with someone to receive a mug and a salvation packet.
Recently I observed a different kind of service that had many similar attributes of an altar call. It was a thirty-minute session by a Christian music artist, sponsored by a Christian non-profit that works with child sponsorships. It started with some songs off his albums, then slowly transitioned into a sermon, where his guitar got put down, picked up his Bible and he shared with us about the dire conditions in the third world and our blessed conditions here and our call as Christians to help the poor and suffering. The music was in the background as the conference volunteers flooded the attendees pews with pictures of the children needed to be sponsored. Those that felt guilty, awkward, or convicted and who made the mistake of looking the volunteers in the eye were pressured to take one of the packets in their hand. They were then encouraged at multiple points during the day to bring back the packet to the booth if they did not want to keep it.
From what I can see, saving children is the new saving your soul. Using manipulation, relaxing music and giving people no choice but to respond; the act is the same. There is no discussion. No chance to ask questions. No relationship. No follow-up. No honesty of the negatives. No context of the sermon or the day. Just a simple ultimatum.
Do you want to go to hell?
Do you want to let these children die?
We’ve seen new expressions of salvation as the church learns to disciple and show people Jesus in new ways. Walking with people as they discover Jesus and giving them room to ask questions and make the hard decisions has been helpful. We’ve started to count disciples over hands raised. Our numbers to report have dropped significantly, but we are doing our job, we are making disciples of Jesus. We’ve realized that we can’t just win people over with a bunch of good news and forget to tell them the part about dying to yourself and forgiveness.
This is where I hope organizations that do child sponsorships deal with Christian churches and conferences. I hope that they seek to build an ethic into the people they are communicating with of a lifestyle that is centered around solidarity with the poor and marginalized. Stop trying to get into as many pockets as possible at every presentation and look to help change people to be more like Christ. For some, this won’t mean giving them money. In fact, odds are they will receive less money as they learn to be honest before they are manipulative. However, this is a way that is sustainable and doesn’t depend on unstable emotions to make progress.
Effectiveness cannot be measured by hands raised at an altar call or child sponsorships sold at a youth event. Effectiveness is measured by stories of individuals and communities moving from being less self focused and more focused on the values of the Kingdom. Sometimes sponsoring a child is just a selfish distraction from changing your lifestyle. Sometimes getting saved is just a selfish decision so you can live the life you want and not end up in a bad place. We shouldn’t be interested in short term results. We need to work as people that are working for the long term redemption of all things and have a kingdom perspective on all that we do and the way that we do it.