This is my fifteenth year on staff at Bible camp. The path to the snack shop is well worn, and I’m an expert at carpet ball. The closing ceremonies of camp are routine after a decade in the ministry. The speaker closes his final message, slapping his Bible against the podium. His hands raise with confidence as he invites the room of high school students to stand. With heads bowed and eyes closed the group repeats a phrase found nowhere in Scripture for assurance of salvation. But this weekend, a funny thing happened on the way to the altar call.
The room rose to their feet after the speaker's obligatory command for all sinners to stand. I arched my back to stretch. It was going to be a long time before I returned to my chair. There were over 300 hands in that auditorium and I was sure he was going to recast the invite until he counted each one.
I started looking around the room, breaking the first rule of altar calls. I spotted the blonde-haired athlete who shot free-throws with me the day before. She wiped sweat from her forehead as she told me her commitment while we sat on the bench near the court. She is setting an alert on her phone to remind her to read her Bible every day. Her time at camp convicted her to have more devotion reading her Bible. She now stood with her shoulders back waiting for the altar call. She was ready to commit.
Three rows in front of her was the counselor who I visited with after lunch the day before. He got hammered with questions about predestination and why a humble God demands our worship. Our coffee grew cold on the lunch table as he described his guilt as an unprepared mentor. He’s determined to be better prepared to present Jesus in the next small group session. He says it’s his duty of love. He's ready to commit to better training. The altar call is perfectly timed for his commitment. It always is.
In the front row I see a girl in a tank top and shorts. At least, I’m assuming she’s wearing shorts. All week she’s been hanging on a different guy’s arm. I heard from a few counselors that this week was the first time she heard that her “special contact” with boys should wait for marriage. It isn't a message she's heard at school, and her parents don't seem too involved. She has some things to confess, and seems ready for a 180. The altar call will give her a moment in time to propel from. Camp is a beautiful mountain top to survey life from.
But something special happened on the way to the altar call. The speaker called the tech team to show a slide. I was puzzled as the room filled with high school voices reading, “Almighty God, our Maker and Redeemer, we poor sinners confess unto you that we are by nature sinful and unclean, and that we have sinned against you by thought, word, and deed.”
The room echoed with the final refrain before the speaker proceeded, “Upon this your confession, I announce the grace of God to all of you and forgive you all your sins.” The speaker picked up his Bible and resolutely walked off stage as the worship team started their final set. My mouth was as wide as my heart in that moment. There wasn't a prayer. No one walked forward to receive their free gift of salvation. There was no work to do. It was almost as if the work had already been done.
There were less tears that night than I’ve seen in past altar calls. But I will say, I’ve never shed more tears at a closing night of camp than that night. For the first time ever I left the camp’s auditorium with a sense that God had forgiven my sins without any action from me. It’s a funny thing to have happen on your way to an altar call.