The first time my mother visited my church she immediately approached me with a concerned look on her face. “Why didn’t you do an altar call?” she asked. Being a recent graduate of an evangelical seminary I began to explain to her all the theological reasons why altar calls were not necessarily helpful for discerning true conversion. My mom listened, slightly confused. “Well, you still should do altar calls,” she said. “That’s what you do in church!”
Several years later, I still don’t do altar calls. (Sorry, Mom.) However my mother did have a point about “what you do in church.” If you have spent any time in what some may call “traditional church,” then you are familiar with things like altar calls, formal benedictions, extended pastoral prayers, and a call to worship. While some of these elements may be problematic because of how they have been used in the past, many of them remain important and even relevant parts of a worship service. In fact, I would argue they can help contextualize the gospel message for many demographics. Hispanics familiar with liturgical services, African Americans who have enjoyed many generations of “traditional church,” and many older individuals who grew up in a churched culture would all be familiar and potentially more comfortable with these traditional elements in a church service.
It is interesting, then, to see church leaders intentionally get rid of these more traditional elements in order to contextualize the gospel. Churches all across our nation emphasize casual worship, and their pastors often sport graphic tees, jeans, and flip flops on Sunday mornings. They believe this approach will best reach a generation turned off by “churchiness.” However, while these churches may be contextualizing their church services for one particular demographic, they do not necessarily reach an entire generation.
If you only want to reach one demographic slice of the current generation, then okay, go ahead with the coffee shop casual approach to church. However, you will miss the mark with the many unchurched minorities, low-income families, and Baby Boomers who expect church to look like their memory of church. They may not understand everything happening when they visit on a Sunday morning (which is why we must explain things along the way). But culturally speaking, at least, they understand and even embrace the idea that Sunday mornings are about more than just “gathering” and hanging out.
Let’s not sacrifice reaching so many important demographics in our culture in order to create churches full of largely one demographic. It is easy to build a church full of people who think, act, talk, and dress just like you. But these homogenous churches do not reflect the fullness of gospel-centered community we see in the New Testament. I pray we all would grow in desiring and working toward contextualizing church services to reach every people group in our cities.
I still don’t do altar calls, but I begin each service with a call to worship and close with a benediction. And over the last year I finally decided to step up my game and wear a suit more often when I preach. No necktie yet, though. (Keep praying, Mom.)