When someone stepped up to the altar in my old home church, we all knew what it meant.
Either they were getting saved (or becoming a member, or getting baptized) – which was entirely possible, especially if they were new and especially if we didn’t know them – or, if we knew them and they were already believers, they had really, really messed up and needed public forgiveness to match their equally public sin.
I knew that sometimes other believers “went up,” as we called it, either to pray or to rest in God’s presence, but occurrences were rare. As a result, at my old home church, I stepped up to the altar precisely four different times: to be saved, to become a member, to be baptized, and to pray for my then-boyfriend, now-husband when he decided to be baptized. I had no intention of being mistaken for someone unsaved or for a particularly egregious sinner, thank you very much.
Imagine my surprise then when I went to college and found at our campus events that everyone went up to the altar, all the time, at the end of almost every service. Uncomfortable and uncertain, I always ended up shuffling up so that I wouldn’t be the one lone believer left behind; I tried to focus on praying with someone’s knee jammed into my back while the person behind me invoked God out loud and softly pounded their fists on the carpet. We dispersed as soon as the last guitar chords faded.
Now, at my current church, the altar seems to be for no one – or, rather, it is for candles, and sometimes floral decorations and the Bible. All the “altar acts” – prayer, salvation, church membership, baptism, and the like – can be requested by simply checking a box. Pastoral staff will come to your aid and contact you; you needn’t walk anywhere at all.
And that is my experience with the altar. I wish it wasn’t.
I think about this a lot when I am overseas and in cathedrals. I am a Protestant, but I so value the reverent hush of these places. Oftentimes, when we visit, they are empty and still, or maybe at most populated by one or two people. There is no call to come forward, no pressure to hurry up and finish, just an attitude of expectation and quiet reflection. This, I think, is a place where I could kneel at the altar and pray for a long time. And I wish that I could. But because I’m Protestant, I feel awkward – like I’m usurping a place that doesn’t belong to me – and so I don’t.
My mother, who had a freak accident when I was younger that makes it now impossible for her to kneel, talks every now and then about how she regrets losing that ability. “Sometimes,” she says, “you just want to kneel at an altar and pray.” And I, having knelt in my own bedroom, in a dorm room, in other people’s rooms, understand that. There is something moving about a full-body focus on God, about the act of kneeling or prostration, that is different than sitting in a chair praying. It’s not something I need all the time, but sometimes, I very much do.
It’s why I wish more churches offered altar hours.
It’s not that I need to be at a church to pray, or to be inspired to pray. But sometimes I want to be. The silence of a church is like the silence nowhere else, and there is something about praying at an altar in a church that focuses you entirely on God. That marks the occasion as special, and somehow different than you kneeling down on the carpet at home. When you come to the altar to pray, you are there for literally nothing else; there is nowhere else to go, and there is nothing else to do.
The trouble is that at most churches praying at the altar signifies…something: that you need salvation, or forgiveness, or that there is a great need. And in many cases, when there is a great need, that prayer is corporate. For the individual who simply wants to pray for a while at the peace of the altar without being addressed, or without being pressured to stop before the final verse of Just As I Am comes to a close, the options are few.
A few months ago, on my way home from teaching a class, I passed a small Protestant church with a simple sign: “Chapel and altar open from 5-7. Come in and pray.” It was only just four; I was too early. But if the time had been right, I would have pulled over. I liked the thought of being able to walk into a church that I did not know, full of believers I did not know, and nonetheless being able to relax at the altar and just pray for as long as I needed. How close to the very heart of the communion God desired for His people – strangers from everywhere, drawn together by His presence!
Time at the altar is sometimes necessary, and very valuable. I wish there was more of it.
13 thoughts on “My Frustrating Relationship With the Altar”
I definitely can relate to this. That holy, peaceful quietness found in an almost empty church, nothing like it.
It’s wonderful, isn’t it?
I find that altars are just awkward. I remember the time that someone went to the altar to pray during the music – we were singing “Just as I am” and this other member jumped out of his seat, went to the middle of the aisle, ordered them to stop the music, and began to give a tearful confession; all the while that lone person at the altar prayed – exposed and isolated without the covering of music.
We also had a guest pastor who ordered the whole congregation to come up to the altar to pray and it was as uncomfortable and awkward as you describe; except he had us remain knelt down so long that our knees ached for a good hour afterwards. It didn’t feel sacred or prayerful – just painful.
I remember another experience where I was taken to an altar room where I was supposed to light a candle and leave it in a specially-designed altar: but it was standing room only and it left pretty much no time for a sacred prayer.
Perhaps there’s some latent suspicion of them as a protestant? Who knows?
For some people they understandably are! Fear of that awkwardness is why I never tended to approach it when church was actively happening. I’ve seen that “tearful confession” sort of event you mention, or something similar to it, happen several times myself. And any time the altar becomes mandatory or “scripted” it risks either being awkward (or painful!) and not at all meaningful or sacred.
There may well be that suspicion you mention, too.
And also, why is it ALWAYS “Just As I Am?” That’s the song every single time, it seems!
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I wonder – it’s usually paired with a convicting or challenging sermon, it could be a spiritual one-two punch combo aimed for just that effect.
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Oh, for sure! I’ve been in several services where the altar call was in some way a part of the essential focus – it was EXPECTED that people would flood the area.
I have never been an “altar fan” – I think because I am an introvert. If I go up in front of people, I feel very self-conscience, and instead of it being about God, it ends up about me – and my feeling like everyone is looking at me,etc. It ends up harder for me to pray or reflect with God. I can have a private moment with God in my pew. I have kneeled at altars in empty or near empty churches/cathedrals, and on rare occasion at church services. It can serve a good purpose – stepping out can be beneficial. Perhaps help seal a commitment. But like said – I prefer the pew. Ya know that old hymn “I shall not be moved” – that applied to me in the pew. : )
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I think my inner introvert is why I wish so much I could go to the altar and have a chance to pray ALONE, which is so rare! Without anyone being around or knowing that other people had just come to pray about their things, I think I’d feel a lot better than walking up or out in front of so many people!
I do like your suggestion of the pew. 🙂 Sometimes it’s the best alternative!
I love those little chapels by the roadside. We don’t really have many up here in Canada, but I think they are wonderful and need to be everywhere.
A Canadian! I enjoyed the last trip I took to Canada. 🙂 And yes, it’d be nice to see those all over the place!
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Interesting. I’ve always known the altar as the place from which the Lord’s Supper is served to his people. Where I go to church, that’s what brings people forward to the altar–to eat and drink, remembering Him. J.
That’s fascinating, because the only place I received the Lord’s Supper in that way was at a wedding. At all the churches I’ve attended, no one goes forward for communion – it’s taken to people in their seats. Neat!