Leading at the Altar

Leading At The Altar
By F. J. Ellis

“Leading at the altar”, is it really that important? If you feel the altar is a vital part of Apostolic church services, and meetings, then you must see the importance of trained, spiritually mature leaders, who can effectively assist the seeker in his quest for God. I can only speak for myself, but my most life-changing and memorable encounters with God have been experienced at a Pentecostal altar. Reflecting back on those times, how well I remember the faithful men and women who were not in a hurry to go home or to the restaurant, but stayed at the altar assisting me with their prayers, praise, and encouragement to continue until I touched God. It is, however, this writer’s firm conviction, the ministry of the altar worker should not be left to spiritual novices who are filled with zeal without knowledge. As stated in Part I of this chapter, how tragic it is for people who come to an altar
seeking after God, only to be hindered because they are left in the hands of untrained new converts while the mature leaders are in the pews or foyer talking about trivial things. If God is concerned enough to be at the altar with the seeker, shouldn’t we be? Isn’t Christian leadership leading people to Jesus Christ? Enough said on the importance of our subject. Let’s deal with some practical helps that can assist you.


Having been raised in the church since I was an infant, I’ve never experienced the awkwardness that many feel the first time they step into an Apostolic service. My wife, however, who I had the privilege of leading to the Lord in my senior year of high school, knows the feeling well. Having been raised in Catholicism, and never knowing anything else, she was totally awed her first time in a Pentecostal service. How well I remember the struggle she had even months later, in making that first trip to an altar. It was all so different and so strange. I watched her night after night, as she would squeeze the pew until her knuckles were white. Tears would pave highways down her cheeks. God was drawing her by His Spirit. She wanted to go, but it was such an awkward thing to do. One Sunday night, a gentle word of encouragement, by a young lady who was spiritually sensitive to the Lord, was all it took for her to make that necessary trip to an altar of repentance. Just a few weeks later, God gloriously filled her with His Spirit.

1. Be sensitive to the feelings of others.

Put yourself in the shoes of the visitors or those who have come forward to pray. Realize it might be their first time ever to go to an altar. They might not have the first thought of what they are supposed to do or what to expect. Ask yourself if you were in their shoes how would you want to be handled? Remember Jesus never embarrassed anybody.

2. What is their spiritual status?

At a conference not long ago. I was very moved by the ministry of theWord. I made my way over to the corner of the altar, wanting to talk to God alone. Only seconds later however there were a couple of very zealous men who evidently did not know I was a pastor or even saved for that matter. They proceeded to lift my hands in the air, pat my chest,and lay hands on my head as to pray me through to the Holy Ghost. I quickly helped them succeed, so they would leave me alone. They did, and I touched God.

If you are not aware of the seekers’ spiritual status, but feel led to pray with them, it is usually in order, to kindly introduce yourself to them. Then ask them, “How can I help, in praying for you?” Your few minutes of introduction about prayer, repentance, receiving the Holy Spirit, worship, faith and etc. might make the difference in them getting their prayers answered according to their need. It also might keep you from embarrassment. This is a generation that for the most part, doesn’t know how to pray. Don’t assume they do. If they are already in earnest prayer, it is best not to disturb them, but to ask someone else their status. Simply pray with them as to not hinder the Spirit working in their heart. We are there to assist God, not hinder Him.

3. Pray to be spiritually sensitive!

Putting a cast on a leg to heal a broken arm is useless. So it is in the spiritual realm. Specific prayer is far more effective then
general prayer. Rarely does someone come to an altar without a specific need. Pray to be sensitive to the specific needs of people.

To effectively pray a person through to the baptism of the Holy Ghost, it is important to know where the seeker is in the Spirit. Encouraging an unrepentant sinner to worship will not get him the Holy Ghost. On the other hand, demanding a seeker to keep repenting over and over without allowing him to praise God, will bring the same results. Great frustration.

How do you teach spiritual sensitivity? You can’t! But God can. One small story to illustrate. I was praying with an eight year old boy to receive the Holy Ghost. The presence of God was all over this child. He wouldn’t yield however to the Spirit of God. One of his young friends in the church, who was praying with us tapped me on the shoulder. I leaned over to hear what he wanted to tell me. He said, “Pastor Ellis, tell him to talk to God like he would talk to his teacher at school.” I looked at this boy totally in awe. “How silly”, I thought to myself. I sensed however, his sincerity and felt in my heart this child really was giving me a word from the Lord. Without hesitation, I softly whispered his instructions into the ear of the boy who was seeking the Holy Ghost. In less than thirty seconds, he was speaking with tongues as the Spirit gives the utterance. There is no substitute for “SPIRITUAL SENSITIVITY.” It is a MUST to be an effective leader at the altar.

One word of caution! Don’t use innocent people who are seeking God as spiritual guinea pigs. If God is leading you in a specific manner, you’ll know it. You don’t have to play spiritual guessing games. It is usually best to take a moment and share it with your pastor first. The Bible says “Out of the mouth of two or three witnesses, let every word be established.” If it’s really God, that extra minute it might take for you to confirm it through the man of God, will not hinder at all. If he isn’t available, usually there is someone in spiritual authority close by who could advise you. Souls are too valuable, Hell is too hot, and eternity is too long to experiment with someone’s relationship with God.

4. Don’t swarm the visitor or seeker like bees on a honey comb!

I have watched people get up and leave an altar when they felt they were being ganged up on. This is one reason we so desperately need trained leaders to take charge. Give people room to breathe and freely repent without making them feel the whole church is listening. Repentance is a personal and private matter. You don’t need to know their past. Give people time to repent and become broken before God. An unrepentant heart will never receive the Holy Ghost.It is usually best for only one altar worker to instruct the seeker, while others support him with prayer and praise. It’s so easy to create confusion with a multitude of advisors. Too often one person is saying, “Let God in”, while another person is saying, “Let the devil out”. Sister Zealous is telling the seeker to shout hallelujah while Brother Novice is shouting, “Say praise the Lord.” Let me illustrate. There was a person in a church where I was preaching who had been seeking for the Holy Ghost for quite a long time. I watched as she got up from the altar in total frustration. After a few minutes of inquiring as to what was the matter, she replied, “I’m so confused. I appreciate people praying with me but everyone is telling me something different to do or say. I can’t keep my mind on God.”

Pastors, if we would take the time to train our altar workers, and position leaders at the altar who could take charge, most of these
types of things would never happen. The truth is, they should never happen!

5. The Altar Leader is a spiritual midwife.

While this sounds somewhat silly, it carries a wealth of truth. A midwife is only able to assist a natural process that takes place
called birth. A midwife can’t force birth. It must happen naturally. So it is with the New Birth. It is a miracle from God. Forgiveness, repentance, healing, deliverance, receiving the Holy Ghost are all supernatural happenings and cannot be administered by man. The spiritual midwife simply positions herself to assist God in whatever way He (God) sees necessary. Most often, it is to transmit faith and encouragement to the seeker, to believe God is going to meet the need, whatever that might be. Speak faith to them! Speak the Word! Encourage them that God is no respecter of persons. He filled you, He will fill them. Steer them away from mechanically figuring out God. Encourage them to simply worship the Lord with all of their heart.

6. Be very conscious of your own personal hygiene.

Why this has to be addressed is a puzzle to me, but here goes! Nothing is more distracting and down right aggravating then to be praying, and have someone blow bad breath in your face. Onion sandwiches should probably be reserved for non-service nights. Body odor from suits and dresses that haven’t been dry cleaned for two months have the same negative effect. It’s amazing what clean clothes, deodorant, and a breath mint will do towards promoting the kingdom of God. Would you mind a suggestion? Good, because here it comes. Ask someone from time to time how you appear to others. Make sure it is someone who you know will tell you the truth. (Your spouse is not always the best candidate). Putting a small breath mint in your mouth, just prior to praying with someone at the altar is strongly advised .

7.Laying hands on the “Head” should be reserved to the ministry. I realize many teach it is scripturally correct for saints to lay on
hands. I totally agree. Jesus said in Mark 16:18, that believers would do so. However, laying hands on the shoulder of a brother and laying hands on the head of a brother are in my opinion two different matters. Historically, laying one’s hands on the head of another was reserved to someone in authority over a subordinate. Example: The presbytery lays hands on the head of the minister in the act of ordination. In Genesis 48:14, it is recorded:

And Israel stretched out his right hand, and laid it upon Ephraim’s head, who was the younger, and his left hand upon Manasseh’s head, guiding his hand wittingly; for Manasseh was the first born.

These were Joseph’s two sons who were being blessed by the “Laying on of Hands upon their head” because of the spiritual authority of their grandfather Israel. The same idea seems to be indicated in Paul’s first letter to Timothy.

Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands, of the presbytery. (I Timothy 4:14) I’ll never forget the feeling I experienced when the presbytery of our local district laid their hands on my head at my ordination into the ministry. A power was transmitted through me that I could feel from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet. I wept uncontrollably in the presence of God.

Like rock music that is sometimes hard to define (But I know it when I hear it), so it is with the subject of laying on of hands. From my childhood to this present day, there is something very special that takes place, when men of Spiritual Authority lay their hands on “my head’ and pray for me. On the other hand, when the same has been done by a saint, even though his intentions were sincere, it has always been a very awkward feeling. Every time I see it done,(to me)it doesn’t look right. There is an authority that comes with a ministerial calling that saints do not have.

Something that concerns me, especially at the camps, and conferences that I’ve attended, is the steady flow of people (children included) who are not in the ministry, taking their liberty to lay their hands on the heads of seekers at the altar. I’ve watched this at times become a contest of power which did more to hinder the seekers then help them. I’m in no way suggesting that every person who has done this had wrong motives. Neither am I saying that God hasn’t honored their sincerity.May I suggest something that I feel is more appropriate and in harmony with the scripture? Also, it will eliminate the risk of a hungry heart who is seeking God from being distracted by a continual flow of people laying hands on his head at will and not necessarily God’s.

It is our policy that only the ministry lay hands on someone’s head; a sign of spiritual authority. However, as a brother to a brother or a sister to a sister, the saints pray for the seeker, saint, or even the ministry by laying their hands not on the head, but on the shoulder, back, arm, or hand. Also to avoid possible problems, we ask that men pray for men and women pray for women. Realizing there are exceptions, common sense and Christian courtesy and conduct need to apply. We have found this policy to work very effectively, without minimizing in the least, what God desires to do through the laying on of hands. It does however reduce greatly the risk of innocent hungry hearts who are praying to God from being mishandled by the novice, or those who want to demonstrate their spirituality by the constant misuse of their hands on people’s heads.

Our motive and desire to be an effective leader at the altar is to glorify Christ. Like the midwife, we are there to assist people in
their quest to experience the Lord Jesus Christ in the power of His resurrection. We should strive to minimize what we do, and maximize what He (God) does. If people speak with tongues, let God give them the language. If they are going to shake or spin, let God do the shaking or spinning. If they are going to fall out, let it be because God laid them out by His power.

There is no part of our service, or any place in the church where leaders need to be leaders any more then at the altar. Pastors,
trained leaders at the altar are so important to a growing revival church. Doing things decently and in order has never stopped a genuine move of the Spirit of God.

In closing, let me assure you this chapter was not designed to hinder you who are altar workers or to keep new converts from praying with people. It was designed however, to give some suggestions and practical helps on the subject. I trust we accomplished our goal. Thank you for your time and prayerful consideration. May we all continue to see new babies born into the Kingdom of God. I remain your brother in Christ.

This article is from: Ohio Apostolic News, August-September, 1991.

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