Font Size » Large | SmallBy Samuel Rodriguez Growing up in a Pentecostal church shaped my spiritual journey from an early age. It was a colorful world where the music was distinct, the preaching was passionate, and the testimonies sincere. But there was one thing in our church that stands out above all other memories of my spiritual upbringing: the altar. Every service began and ended at this special place. The altar was a place of personal encounter. Growing up around an altar taught me that God wanted me to desire more of Him and that I could draw closer to heaven from a posture of prayer. So many of our personal encounters with Jesus and the power of the Spirit occurred at the altar. We came to Christ there, we were baptized in water there, we were called to ministry there, and we received the baptism in the Holy Spirit there. Some of us even got married at an altar. However, I’ve noticed that altars aren’t as common as they once were. Some churches no longer have the space for them. Others juggle multiple service schedules that leave no time for extended worship and intercession around the altar. Still others are designing their sanctuaries with fewer religious symbols to put unchurched attendees at ease.While these are valid perspectives, I believe many churches today are missing out on something significant. If the altar once represented the time and space for encountering God, I can’t help but wonder: How and where do we meet with Him as a Body today? While many Pentecostal churches have done away with the elements that make room for these transformative interactions — activities that include altar calls, Sunday evening services, and Wednesday prayer services — few have provided viable alternatives. Admittedly, the altar call is a product of the modern evangelical church. Historically, 19th-century preachers like Charles Finney were among the first to invite people to come to an altar and profess faith in Jesus Christ as Savior. Neither the altar nor the act of walking down the aisle changed lives, of course. But this evangelistic method provided a platform for people to proclaim their commitment to a God of transformation. The altar became a place for decision, encounter, worship, sacrifice, reflection, repentance, change, confession, declaration, accountability, celebration, revelation, empowerment, and passion. Now that so many churches program their services down to the minute, the question arises: How do we create moments of encounter in the worship service? Make no mistake — our culture has its share of alternative altars, places where people encounter, embrace, and offer themselves to idols of materialism, voyeurism, consumerism, and narcissism. The world builds these altars to establish new norms born out of darkness. And the advocates of moral chaos craft ideological constructs to facilitate encounters with the gods of decadence, relativism, and apathy. Nevertheless, just as Gideon built the altar in the presence of the altar of Baal (Judges 6:24–25), we have an opportunity to reintroduce both the corporate ecclesiastical altar and the domestic home-based altar to a generation desperate for an authentic encounter with the risen Lord. A CALL TO MEET WITH GOD The word “altar” appears 384 times in the New International Version of the Bible: 361 in the Old Testament and 23 in the New Testament. Under the old covenant, altars were central to honoring God. The altar represented not only sacrifice, but also worship and divine intervention leading to transformation. The stories of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Elijah, and others capture both the sacrificial and transformative dynamics surrounding altar experiences. At the altar, terrestrial beings connect with the God of the universe. That theme continues into the New Testament. The Book of Revelation speaks of a future time when an angel offers the prayers of Christ’s followers on a golden altar before God’s throne in heaven (Revelation 8:3-4). May this generation’s prayer and praise, poured out in corporate and private moments of deep intercession, rise up to the very throne room of God. An encounter with God is essential to Pentecostal spirituality. We are people of the Spirit. We believe God has called us to be Spirit-empowered (Acts 1:8), Spirit-filled (Ephesians 5:18), and Spirit-led. Shouldn’t we seek constant encounters with a God who still saves, delivers, heals, and transforms? And if the altar represents a place of sacrifice, surrender, and encounter, shouldn’t we lead the way in reviving it? Growing up, I understood that approaching the altar at the end of a service represented a transparent, authentic, genuine response to God. Church-based altar calls and services depict a public expression of faith, humility, and commitment that run counter to a world full of facades. A TEACHING OPPORTUNITY A desire to leave a spiritual legacy for our children should further motivate us to rebuild a sacred space for altar experiencEs. Where people encountered God in Old Testament times, they constructed altars for the perpetual recollection so their children and children’s children would never forget what the Lord had done. Consider the account of the children of Israel crossing the river Jordan to inherit the Promised Land: In the future, when your children ask you, “What do these stones mean?” tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever (Joshua 4:6-7). We are the children of the Cross, ambassadors of the empty tomb, and spiritual heirs of the Upper Room. Our Pentecostal DNA includes a genome for transmitting to our children and our children’s children the fact that God still meets with us (Acts 2:39). Yet we have become more like Gideon, hiding in a winepress rather than taking up our inheritance (Judges 6:11). God is calling us to emerge as mighty warriors, with a new identity and a fresh passion to do His will — a passion that began at the altar. A SACRED SPACE People today are desperate for a sacred space where God’s love, truth, grace and mercy can change a sinner into a saint, sorrow into joy, mourning into dancing, and ashes into beauty. A divine encounter brought Gideon out of his winepress and into the realization of his calling and mission. Gideon’s first response was to build an altar, which he called “The Lord Is Peace” (Yahweh Shalom). That same night, the Lord said to Gideon, “Take the second bull from your father’s herd, the one seven years old. Tear down your father’s altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah pole beside it” (Judges 6:25). Likewise, I believe God is calling us to construct spiritual altars — to mark out sacred spaces, both at home and at church, for countering the darkness of the world around us. It isn’t easy going against the cultural grain. Gideon’s own father built the altar to Baal, going along with the ideas of the day rather than standing up to them. But Gideon razed this altar of falsehood and fear and constructed an altar of faith. At the end of the day, two altars cannot occupy the same space. We don’t get rid of what’s wrong to embrace what is right. We embrace what is right to get rid of what is wrong. Religion says, “Do away with sin to experience God’s power.” God says, “Accept My power to take away your sins.” The altar is the quintessential place where we receive God’s grace to live victoriously in a fallen world. The altar is not just a good idea; it is a spiritual necessity. IS THERE TIME OR SPACE FOR AN ALTAR SERVICE? An authentic encounter with God is the “end” worship services seek. Altar calls represent one of the means in reaching that end. Now that so many churches program their services down to the minute, the question arises: How do we create moments of encounter in the worship service? It begins with intentional allocation of time and space. Leaders can provide intentional structure that still leaves room for the sovereign work of the Spirit. Not every altar time will look the same, of course. Just as diverse people coalesce around the fundamental truths of our faith, diverse churches and ministries can commit to an altar element in the service without engaging in a rigid religious practice. When it comes to working an altar time into the schedule, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. The main altar service in the church where I grew up took place at the end of the service, but prior to dismissal. Today I serve as lead pastor of a diverse congregation with multiple campuses. At some of our campuses, we use the traditional model of creating space at the end of the service for an altar call. At other campuses, just prior to dismissal, we announce that after dismissal we will “open up” the altar for prayer, salvation, deliverance, healing, and personal encounters with God. Further, moments arise when the Spirit leads us to invite people in need of healing or intercession for family and children to approach the altar prior to the message. Our philosophy reconciles the prophetic with the practical, the cognitive with the affective, and the experience with the essentials of our faith. To that end, our core value as it pertains to the service and the altar experience is best captured in this critical Bible admonition: “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19). A challenge arises when churches conduct back-to-back services. This requires a nuanced approach with intentional allotment of a time germane to the altar objective. In our campuses with multiple services, we designate 10 minutes at the end of each service for altar response. We biblically define the altar invitation to engage newcomers and remove any possible angst. Parenthetically, a Christ-centered, Bible-based, Spirit-empowered altar experience does not provide space for expressions that do not line up with Scripture. It provides space for a transformative experience and an encounter with Jesus through the Holy Spirit, resulting in a life that reflects the Word, not the weird. KEEP THE FIRE BURNING From Noah to Moses, Gideon to Elijah, courageous and convicted people in Scripture designated a specific time in a specific place for a special encounter with the Sovereign God. As Pentecostals, we must remain committed to embracing God’s love, exploring His truth, encountering His presence and expressing His glory. More than ever, our faith, our children and our world need us to return to the altar — both at church and at home. “The fire must be kept burning on the altar continuously; it must never go out” (Leviticus 6:13). THE FAMILY ALTAR What about the individual altar? In the age of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Netflix, it takes an intentional effort to log off and tune out so we can encounter God at home. It is worth the sacrifice, however. The family altar — a designated time and place at home where the family comes together to pray, worship and experience the living God — is like a firewall against Satan’s schemes. While a daily family altar is wonderful, perhaps a more realistic starting point is setting aside one day per week. Designate a specific time and place. A 30-minute session with younger children or a 45-minute session with older children creates a healthy space for a viable and measurable encounter. Parents must be careful to avoid creating a harsh religious setting that demands participation. Rather, they should model a sense of anticipation by sharing personal testimonies of altar times and inviting members to experience God together. Consider these suggestions for bringing the family together. ALLOT TIME. Although we live in a world where things constantly change, setting and keeping an appointment to meet God will make a lasting impression. SWITCH OFF ELECTRONICS. Turn off cell phones, televisions, social media, etc. Teach kids that when they give God their undivided attention, He will give them His. You might describe this as “FaceTime with God.” DON’T JUST TALK; LISTEN! Allow time for God to speak. A moment of reflection, meditation, and silence can lead to a word of wisdom, a word of knowledge, or a gift of faith. Be open to praying in the Spirit. DON’T FORGET THE OIL. Although some see this as archaic, anointing with oil is biblical (James 5:14). I believe and have personally experienced a powerful change in my house when we periodically anoint not only our family members, but also our rooms with oil. The beauty of family altars is the glorious promise of a God who shows up when we call on His name (Matthew 18:20). For single parents, couples with or without kids, and every other type of home, the family altar enriches the faith narrative with the ability to live out the words of Joshua: “But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:15). Samuel Rodriguez is the founding and lead pastor of New Season Christian Worship Center (AG) in Sacramento, California. He serves as the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, the world’s largest Hispanic Christian organization.