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Communion, The Subtle Altar Call

by Mary Domb Mikkelson, Senior Editor, Connecting Voices

     When speaking of a recent visiting minister I heard someone say, “Wow!  You could just hear the altar call he wanted to issue at the end!”

     True enough.  A few more words and the choir might have burst into song – “Just As I Am,” perhaps, as sinners walked the aisle to salvation.

     Not very UCC, you say?

     Maybe not, maybe so.  The range of belief within our church is one of its glories.

     The comment sent my mind on an interesting journey.  What, if anything, I wondered, serves as surrogate for the altar call in liberal, theologically progressive churches such as mine?

     At that point in my ruminations I realized I’d best brush up on the history of the altar call.  Which led me straight to Charles Grandison Finney (1792 – 1875), Presbyterian minister, president of Ohio’s Oberlin College and a leading advocate for the rights of women and Blacks.  An active revivalist known for his altar calls, he instituted the “anxious seat” on which prospective converts sat after coming forward to receive prayer and, often, to be preached to and publically urged to renounce their sinful ways.  While altar calls thrived long before Finney, especially in Methodist camp meetings, with him they became an accepted part of American evangelism (think Billy Graham).

     All of which led me to think about communion, about coming forward to receive the elements, to connect or re-connect with Christ – an interesting congruence of ideas:  communion, the subtle altar call.

     Ours is an open communion; all are welcome.  We speak in the United Church of Christ of our sense and practice of extravagant welcome.  There’s darn good precedent for it, too:  Jesus, after all, turned to the thief hanging beside him and said, “Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43, KJV).

     Communion, the subtle altar call; extravagant welcome, the palpable one.

     Back in 2004 the United Church News asked readers whether or not non-baptized persons should be allowed to receive communion.  In response Rev. Ronald A. Sparks, pastor of Community UCC of California City, CA, wrote  “The whole texture of Jesus’ ministry was one of inclusive welcome.  One biblical and theological construct contained in the fact that the thief on the cross is the only person ever promised instant immortality by Jesus.  If such unconditional inclusion was extended to this person (without any sacred or sacramental participation), then how can we do less in our ministry with others?”

     Communion, the subtle altar call; extravagant welcome, the palpable one.

     Another response, from Sanna Landin of Noldrege, Nebraska, touched on communion as an expression of extravagant welcome:  “We should all break bread together, inviting outsiders and anyone who hesitates at God’s door to come in and partake of blessings we all have to share.  That is why we are here – to share God’s blessings with everyone.  Churches spend too much (time) today ignoring the real issues and the real people God sent here for us to comfort, act kindly toward, and invite into God’s houses.  Start today.  Reach out and serve with a humble spirit to all!”

     Puts the ball squarely in our court, doesn’t it?

     Hal Seed, in a PastorMentor.com blog, asked, “How much time does it take for a visitor to decide whether or not they will return to your church?”  The answers from the experts, he added, range from 90 seconds to 12 minutes.   Says a lot about the importance of that extravagant welcome!

     Our openness…

     Our warmth…

     Our willingness to share God’s blessings and to reach out to others…

     Our work in the community…

     Our ways of living our faith…

     Our following of the precepts of Micah’s charge to work for a better future for all:  “But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women.  It’s quite simple:  Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don’t take yourself too seriously – take God seriously” (Micah 6:8, The Message)…

     Altar calls all!   And not an “anxious seat” in the lot.

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