It was the summer before I went into high school and my cousins invited me up to their house to stay for a week. I loved going to their house, mostly because it was so different from my everyday life living out in the country where my closest neighbor was a mile away.
My uncle was a Nazarene pastor and the week I was staying with them there was a community summer revival going on. What you need to know about me is that my family didn’t really go to church outside of the major holidays. I would often attend on Sunday mornings to sit with my grandma but it was not the culture in my family. Going to this revival really pushed me out of my comfort zone. I had never been to anything like it before.
At the end of the first night toward the end of the service, the pastor began sharing about the death and resurrection of Jesus. The music began to play and before I even knew what was happening, people began crying and walking toward the front of the room. I was so confused as to what was happening. What was compelling these people to walk to the front and stand before this huge room of people, full of emotions?
Fast forward thirty years and nineteen of those years serving in student ministry, I now have an opportunity to walk alongside other students who might be like me when I was fifteen. Students who didn’t grow up in church but still need moments to understand their relationship with Jesus. I choose to do these foundational faith moments differently than an altar call because I wonder if it had been different for me, it may have shifted my life.
Here are a few best practices I have found for doing altar calls.
Give students options.
One of the most important things you can do is provide options beyond an altar call. Students like options. They are starting to gain more freedom at home and are trying to understand who they are. At the same time, options can be helpful when students feel moved by a message but don’t have language for what they are experiencing. Or when they feel moved and that makes them feel like they need to make a huge decision.
Students who are already following Jesus may feel moved to take a step of faith, but when the only option we give is trusting Jesus for the first time it can be confusing. I will put three options on the screen for students to read through as I explain what they mean. The wording for these options my vary depending on the message that I am giving but here is an example.
Option 1: Trusting Jesus for the first time.
To be real with Jesus means acknowledging that you need His help, asking for His forgiveness, and putting your faith in Him for the first time. To say “yes” to following Jesus and trusting Him with your life, knowing that He isn’t afraid of your honesty and can help you in your doubt and struggles.
Option 2: Getting to know Jesus more.
You may have been doing your own thing for a while now, and your relationship with God has felt distant. Maybe you’ve been struggling, but have been trying to hide that from your friends and family. But in your heart, you feel like it is time to be honest with yourself. You need to take a step toward God. Maybe you need to remember how much He loves you.
Option 3: Having a conversation with someone you trust who can help you.
Maybe you’ve been handling a lot by yourself. Maybe there’s been a lot going on in your life that you need to share with someone. Whether it’s your Small Group Leader or another trusted adult, its time to get real with them about what you’re dealing with. Don’t be afraid to share what’s really going on in your life. Jesus doesn’t run from you when you are real with Him, and He puts safe people in your life who will do the same.
Direct students to an influential adult.
Another helpful practice is to always point students to the adult in their life who knows them in a personal way. Students need to be connected with someone who has history with them and will still be in relationship with them when they are no longer at camp. When an adult is personal with a student, they get to step into these sacred spaces.
Send students to a quiet space to reflect independently.
I have also found some success with sending students outside of the worship space. That’s because we all know that friends play a big part in every student’s life, so being surrounded by their friends can be distracting. I would make a half sheet of paper with three ways a student could respond to the message, much like the statements above. I would send the students out and ask them to come back in when they hear the worship music.
You have to set up this scenario up with clear expectations. Remind them that their time outside is for them and God, not for them and their friend. This is a time for them to think about what it means to have a relationship with God. What does it mean to pursue that relationship? While the students are out of the room, I would ask the small group leaders to pray for the students and the stirrings that are already happening in their hearts.
Have students select a verse that speaks to them.
As someone who has led confirmation for many years, another way that I would help students navigate their faith journey is to have them pick out a verse from Scripture that speaks to where they are in life. They may google this or head to the back of the Bible to begin searching the concordance. When they decide on a verse, I would have them sit with me or their small group leader and share their choice. Then I would ask students how they see this verse in action in their life.
Leaders can then set phone reminders to follow up with them, sort of like an accountability partner. We would also allow students to create some art around the verse so that they could take a visual reminder with them. Some would choose to paint, draw, collage or make a digital graphic. During this process, students may change their verse and that is okay. We want them to think about how God’s word can live in their everyday lives.
I know these altar call moments are important, but I also know that God is working in a student’s whole life, not just a moment. We need to continue to walk alongside them as they continue through their faith journey. Our role as leaders is to continue to point students to God and to help them see God in their everyday lives.
If you want to learn more about how we can lead our students as they make faith decisions check out Episode 79 of the Rethinking Youth Ministry Podcast. Plus learn more best practices for leading students as they make faith decisions here!