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.