Leading Altar Music

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Leading Altar Music

Flowing with the Holy Spirit to Change Lives

What Is an Altar Service?
This may seem like an unnecessary question but we must start with it. Many leaders do not see the difference between an Altar Call and an Altar Service. This distinction is essential if we are to see the Lord accomplish what He wants to accomplish in our worship services. What is the difference?

  • The Altar Call is the appeal by the Pastor to the congregation for a prayerful response to the sermon. This is a focused appeal to a portion of the congregation for whom the message was designed. The Altar Call ends when the focus of the service shifts to the entire congregation and open-ended applications, not just those connected to the message.
  • The Altar Service is the intentional gathering of the whole church into the altars for concerted and/or individual prayer. The purposes of the prayer-time are open to the will of the Holy Spirit and the passions of the people. This time of prayer may be short or extended, but it is a time of direct openness to the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

The History of the Altar Service
The Altar Call was a development of the Revival Movements of the late 19th Century of evangelists like Billy Sunday, and D.L. Moody and extended by Billy Graham to the end of the 20th Century. The Holiness movement of the late 19th Century introduced a time of congregational prayer called “tarrying” as seekers waited for the experience of sanctification.

In the early years of the 20th Century, Pentecostals redefined “tarrying” as a time of prayer waiting for the Baptism in the Holy Spirit with the initial evidence of prayer in the Spirit. Over time, this practice evolved into a time of corporate prayer seeking for all that God had to offer the church. Gifts of the Spirit, calls to ministry, personal reconciliations, direction in life decisions from the Holy Spirit, and divine healings happened during altar services.

By the late 20th Century, many leaders became concerned about abuses and unscriptural manipulations in the Altar Call. In an effort to reform this practice, they decided not to have Altar Calls at the end of every service, something that was simply unthinkable a generation before. Unfortunately, they also did away with the Altar Service. With the disappearance of the Sunday evening services where more time was given to Altar Services, extended seasons of corporate prayer also disappeared from church life. The influence of “Seeker Sensitive” evangelistic services contributed to this loss.

The Altar Service is the Pentecostal contribution to the church at large:

  • The use of the Gifts of the Spirit in Worship comes from the Apostles.
  • The Altar Call is the contribution of the Revivalists of the 19th Century.
  • The Altar Service—the church at extended prayer—is a Pentecostal innovation.

This should not be lost! Let us explore how the Altar Service functions.

The Altar Service
The altar service is one of the most crucial times in the worship service. Everything that has happened before it, the worship and the message, makes a difference in the lives of the people when there is an effective altar service. The altar service is all about following the leadership of the Holy Spirit, leading smooth transitions from one moment to the next. We should avoid sudden changes in key or tempo or theme. Unnatural key changes, especially, should be avoided. This is functional music that must support the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the people without drawing attention to the singers and instrumentalists making it.

The Flow of Authority
At altar time, the worship leader is under the authority of the Pastor / Preacher who is leading the altar service and is an expression of the relationship between these two leaders. Each must be seeking the leadership of the Holy Spirit. The Pastor is in charge And the Worship Leader must be one song ahead, listening to the Pastor and the Holy Spirit. The Worship Leaders must work out a set of signals so that the Pastor’s wishes can be followed with minimal distraction. A good relationship will be largely unnoticed by the congregation; a bad one will be a distraction in every service.

The Flow of Sensitivity to the Holy Spirit
The Worship Leader must learn the ways of the Holy Spirit. He/she must know the Scriptures on the goals and purposes of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has three goals each time we meet for public worship.

  1. He exalts Jesus.
  2. He moves decently and in order.
  3. He seeks to edify the church.

Both the Pastor and the Worship Leader must be sensitive to “what the Spirit is saying” to the church in the service, gently seizing each moment of ministry. Sensitivity to the Holy Spirit begins in your heart, continues in your life style and culminates on the platform.

The Flow of Music, Prayer, and Worship
These three elements, music, prayer and worship, must flow together for an effective altar service. An altar service flows in three movements:

Part One—The Beginning

  • It is connected to the message; the worship leader should find a song that matches the end of the Pastor’s message.
  • Many times an altar service begins with an invitation to the lost and transitions to an appeal to the church, usually solemn in nature.
  • The music should match the appeal and be quiet and unobtrusive.

Part Two—The Church at Prayer

  • This is a season of individual prayer at the altar.
  • The music should be quiet (perhaps instrumental) and supportive of prayer.

Part Three—The Celebration At some point, the altar service will change.

  • The theme will change from seeking God to celebrating the victory God wants us to have.
  • The emphasis will shift from personal prayer to corporate praise and worship.
  • The music must affect this transition. Gently, gradually, but definitely. Words need to be provided for worshipers. People are generally standing in the altar area.

To help music flow the way God intended, Use the natural flow of music in worship and prayer. Music flows naturally from chord to chord, key to key. This flow is called the circle of fourths/fifths:

  • C goes to F F goes to Bb Bb goes to Eb
  • Eb goes to Ab Ab goes to Db Db goes to Gb (F#)
  • F#(Gb) goes to B(Cb) B goes to E E goes to A
  • A goes to D D goes to G G goes to C

I organize my songs by these keys (major and minor): C / Db / D / Eb / G /Ab / A /Bb. During the altar service, starting from the invitation song, I look over my list for that key until I feel directed to the next song. If I do not find the next song in that key, I proceed to the next key in the circle of fifths and look for the next song. This is because the change to that key is the most natural and unobtrusive one I can make.

These are the principles I work by:

  • There are many songs that follow the theme of the Holy Spirit.
  • By using the songs found in the next key that follow the theme, I allow the God-created flow of music with the current flow of the Holy Spirit in that service.

Altar Music Changes Peoples’ Lives!
Well-meaning reformers have often eliminated the Altar Service from Pentecostal worship. They have done this without installing an alternative method of facilitating extended corporate prayer. I have heard it said there are no Altar Calls in the Bible. That conclusion is open to discussion. There is no debate that the Bible calls the church to pray and to pray together. This is what the Altar Service facilitates. Leaders should shake off the mistaken idea that Altar Services are somehow related to tradition or the methods of past generations. If the Holy Spirit still moves in response to the prayers of the church, we need to give time to those seasons of prayer.

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer

© 2018 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

Leading Altar Music


  1. Probably shaped my early years in Christ more than any pteacher or teaching.

    Soaking! Miss those days and suspect my grandchildren will never experience in the same way.

    • Thank you so much for this article. This has been lost in most churches today. And I’m afraid even in many of our individual private life, many have lost this personal touch of Holy Spirit. Your article explained this so bautiful.

  2. Sunday nights were once prime opportunities for spending time in the altars. People were filled with the Spirit, prayer for healing was ministered, encouragement was abundant, tears of repentance & brokenness flowed, lives were changed, families reconciled. I don’t bemoan the loss of Sunday night services, but in the age of multiple AM services, there’s so little time at the end of the Pastor’s message to conduct an effective altar response. This is regretful on many levels. How to reform the altar call when all we have is barely an hour?

    • We were a part of something very special and blest of the Lord with the old altar services. If we do not return to them, what can ever substitute for them? Is there a substitute for the church at prayer? Thanks for reading and commenting, Rex!

  3. I have shared with many people how you took us into the Throne Room so to speak every week. Those years were so transformative to my walk with the Lord and the intimacy that I felt was like nothing before or since except for an event in Orlando called Jesus 19. The anointing was tangible…just like what we were privileged to experience under your direction. Thank you

    • Kaye: Thanks so much for these comments. My goals were to exalt the Lord in all songs selected, to engage as many people as I could from all the generations present in the congregation, and to disappear as soon as possible into the revelation of the Lord Jesus. Those were great days for me, too!


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