“The success of any venture will be helped by prayer, even in the wrong denomination.” Boyle’s Laws, #14
One thing that every single church I’ve ever been to has had in common is the location of the altar – front and center. Worse than that – the whole design of the sanctuary creates lines that leads your eyes directly to the altar. This gives us two possibilities – anyone who wishes to go before the altar will have to do so in front of everyone watching them or they will not go at all. Neither option is a good one.
For one, Jesus repeatedly taught his followers that ideally, their spirituality wouldn’t be on display; in Matthew 6:1-18, he instructed them not to let their left hand know what their right hand was doing by giving in secret; he instructed them to go into an inner room, close the door and pray in secret; and not to make it obvious they were fasting – but to fast in secret.
The altar stands opposed to private prayer and the offering is not the ideal situation for giving in secret. I remember times when people who went to the altar threw wrenches into the worship machine; once a woman was praying at the altar when a man got up, stopped the music, and made a tearful confession – leaving her at the front and center without any idea of what’s appropriate for her to do in this situation; other times when somebody was at the altar, the music would have to stretch for another song or verse until the person was done praying, eating up the time for other parts of the service; and one of the worst altar moments was when the guest pastor ordered that everyone come to the front of the church and kneel for the duration of the prayer which he didn’t begin until everyone was kneeling … then others felt compelled to pray audibly so everyone remained kneeling for their prayers one after the next after the next. Once it was over, it took awhile to help everyone back up to their feet which had fallen asleep and weren’t helped by their sore knees. The whole debacle generated more complaints than anything before it and not once was it repeated in the rest of the time I was there.
Which just leaves altars to stand there, devoid of use and purpose for the vast majority of the time. Most of the ones I’ve seen have the words ‘do this in remembrance of me’ carved on them, they’re covered with colorful cloths that hold up the Communion glasses and wafers and candles and the offering plates. Some pictures I’ve seen show ones that also have flowers and other decorations that are probably supremely important though I know not why. But in general, no regular person prays at the altar on any given Sunday. It is a sacred object that is too far out of reach for ordinary people such as us – like the cross that is usually somewhere near it – one of those ‘look but don’t touch’ or ‘come but not too close’ sort of things. I would guess that other churches might view it a little differently, but I’ve only seen and heard how the Southern Baptists view their altar – with a healthy respect for tradition but a fear of tradition becoming an idol – and the altar symbolizes both quite perfectly. It’s not easy to balance including it with keeping it from taking over. But now I attend a Methodist church and it’s not that much different no one usually prays at the altar.
But altars are important, aren’t they? Wouldn’t they have to be in order to be a common element to so many religions and expressions of belief the world over? Altars were a part of the Temple – specifically ordered by God and approved by Him for worship to Him; so it has to be a good thing in the New Testament churches. Paul was able to witness to the Areopagus in Athens by explaining to them who and what the Unknown God was that they had an altar for. Even in Revelation there are about a half dozen references to an altar. Since we know that earthly things were a copy and a shadow of heavenly ones (Hebrews 8:5) then we know that altars are not without importance or meaning and use even if we can’t bring ourselves before them because they’re badly positioned in the building. One of my churches actually got around this problem by creating a prayer closet – an inner room that the doors could be shut with a cushion for kneeling on and a small altar to center one’s prayer. In my friend’s church, there were areas that were out of sight where people could go to and pray – these stations each were decorated differently with scenes from Jesus’ final days. Off of the main sanctuary there was a place to light candles and pray out of sight from the people sitting in the pews. It’s no wonder why these people had a greater spirituality – they had an outlet for prayer in the sacred spaces of their church that allowed for God to reward them in secret when they prayed in secret.
Which probably explains something of the popularity of War Room – take away from it’s war-based terminology and you have the story of an old woman advising a younger woman to carve out a sacred space to serve as her alter in her closet – it might not look like a table with candles but it serves the same purpose – somewhere to pray to God in secret. It works because it’s one of the oldest methods of worship in all religions – an altar to serve as a spiritual outlet to focus one’s prayers. I think churches would find themselves much better served to create an altar room, to which people can retreat to by themselves for times of prayer and uncertainty – somewhere only God will be watching and waiting to reward them. I think it would go a long way toward fixing what’s been broken about our spirituality for a long time.