I have had a variety of experiences with different churches. The alter call is not a single thing to a single church. I have found in fact they are quite varied. So here is a little of my journey via the alter call and then a little bit of what I think it ought to be.
Cherry Street Baptist – A place to get SAVED!
When I attended Cherry Street Baptist church in Springfield, MO the alter was a place to go forward to accept Christ. They had young men who were studying for the ministry at Baptist Bible College (BBC) who were recruiting a constant stream of new people into the church. These young ministerial students also were active in bus ministry, teaching Sunday School and developing things like “Friend Sunday” where everyone was supposed to bring a friend. But those other fellows were there at the alter ready to show you what salvation meant from the Bible and pray the sinner's prayer with you. There was probably 20 or 30 people who went forward for salvation or rededication to the Lord every week. The alter call was key, but it rested on a firm foundation of a steady stream of visitors and a sermon geared toward the alter call each and every week.
Revival and Camp Meeting – A place for special seasons of repentance.
When I moved to White Oak Pond Cumberland Presbyterian Church there was an alter call each and every week. Few when forward at the alter call except by exception. Someone new in the church might go forward to become a member by going forward at the end of a service. But then there was seasons where many went forward at an alter call. During a revival service perhaps many would go forward. When we went to church camp there was many who went forward at the camp meeting. There was a lot of emotion at these alter calls. I remember one particularly where there were two pastors who were calling people to come forward to pray and get things right with the Lord during a tremendous thunder storm. The lightening was not quite as loud as the preachers calling the people to repentance. The lightening flashed both from the storm and the preaching. It was a wonderful time of repentance and turning to the Lord.
Pentecostal Style - A place to meet the Lord.
I experimented for a number of years by visiting Pentecostal churches. Each week the alter took on the intensity that I felt at church camp with the storm flashing. But sometimes the intensity came from the spirit of the Lord and sometimes it just seemed manufactured. But one could go to the alter and pray about anything. It was not a special occasion to go to the alter but a part of the worship service.
California Style – A place to find out what your needs are and address them
In California my wife and I attended a Calvary Chapel. The alter call was one where you could go forward to pray, but there was an assumption that it was time for counseling as well as prayer. They did not count how many came forward, but they had people available for counseling and prayer. It was usually elders, elders' wives and other spiritually mature people. So the time at the alter was informal and often it was a place to seek counsel from a brother or sister in the Lord.
My current experience is that alter calls are rejected as being a part of the “other side”, Baptists and Pentecostals. But I see it as a healthy thing that can give people a chance to address their needs. It is a way to take care of small counseling issues without an office call to the pastor's desk. It is a way that people can talk to someone without making a big deal of it. I see alter calls should be done each week. No coercion present. Focus on counseling and prayer, not notches in the belt. Ensure that both men and women are available to pray with the people who come forward. They should be trained to know when a problem is larger than one little prayer after the worship has concluded. They should also know when to call in help from someone more capable. An alter call is one tool that is just giving people a chance to pray and talk.