Pastor Jack Hayford: “The Unalterable Need for Altars”

by Glenn on April 5, 2015

“The Unalterable Need for Altars” | Jack Hayford
Soundword Tape Ministry | 00486 | The Church on the Way | Van Nuys, California

When you grow up in the church and reach a certain, age, you realize that you have heard a lot of sermons over the years. The basic idea of a sermon is presenting a “God-breathed” text in such a way that life is spoken into the hearers. On an aesthetic level, the challenge for preachers is to create an experience for people with words that are memorable and remarkable.

Pastor Jack Hayford is one of those preachers whose messages routinely feel like a word from the Lord. In the days before internet streaming and mp3’s I collected quite a number of his messages on cassette tape.

I had a long drive last week and took along a recording of a message titled, “The Unalterable Need for Altars,” which I think came relatively early in Pastor Jack’s ministry at Church on the Way in Van Nuys, California.

I can’t find this exact message on his ministry site, but I think the material was significant enough in the life of his church that he returned to the theme later. Here is a 4-part reaching series on “The Altars of Abraham” and a related article.

 Some things I liked about the sermon.


1. He frames the message so well. There is something he wants to say, but he is anticipating unintended consequences so before he says what his message is, he takes moment to say what it isn’t. Pastor Jack doesn’t want people to avoid seeking counsel from his pastoral staff and counseling ministry. Further, he doesn’t want people not to share their burdens with each other and ask for support. But he is concerned (as becomes obvious in the sermon) that his hearers not miss an opportunity to trust God with difficulties in life.


In essence, his message is: There are times we need to appeal to the Lord. We need a personal encounter with God.

2. He was true to scripture. Pastor Jack turned to Genesis 12 & 13 for his text. These chapters tell the story of the first four times Abraham at specific times and places built altars to the Lord. It sounds like they had recently gone through these chapters in a mid-week service at the church and that he realized these chapters had something else to say.

I respect the way Pastor Jack balances his type of preaching. I think there is a place for expository, verse-by-verse style, preaching. But you don’t have to be rigid about this to be a faithful handler of Scripture. This was a sermon that used the story of Abraham to make the case that Christians need altar experiences in their lives.

Out of the passage, Pastor Jack focused on four altar experiences, each which said something about Abraham’s growing relationship with God. (In passing he remarked that he would use the name Abraham to mean both Abram and Abraham and that Abraham would have further altar experiences.)

The first altar experience is found in Genesis 12:7 and speaks about PROMISE.

“The Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him.” [NIV]

Genesis 12:8 tells about Abraham’s second altar experience. This one is about PRAYER and demonstrates Abraham’s increased intimacy with God.

“From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord.” [NIV]

The third altar experience is in Genesis 13:3–4 and speaks to PERMANENCE for the nomadic Abraham. He had taken a detour from God’s plan, which had nearly created some serious problems. This altar indicated that he was back in the place he was to be.

“From the Negev he went from place to place until he came to Bethel, to the place between Bethel and Ai where his tent had been earlier and where he had first built an altar. There Abram called on the name of the Lord.” [NIV]

Genesis 13:14–18 has the fourth altar experience, which is about POSSESSION.

“The Lord said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, ‘Look around from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.’ So Abram went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he pitched his tents. There he built an altar to the Lord.” [NIV]

Pastor Jack says that Abraham’s experience can be ours. He made the application that turning points come at altars. If you want to know where you’re going, look back at the altars, where things have been nailed down and settled.

A word about alliteration. I know people who get a little cranky when alliteration feels contrived or overdone. I liked Pastor Jack’s use here because it felt very natural.

3. He was poetic. I’ve heard people say never get in the pulpit without a metaphor. Here the truth of scripture became the metaphor. Pastor Jack took the explication of Abraham’s altar experiences and asked, “How do you build an altar?” He made three observations:

A. They are built from hard things—volcanic eruptions and temperature extremes. There are things that explode and break in our lives and we end up with hard things.

B. What do we do with these hard things in life? You arrange them in order before the Lord. That’s how you build an altar.


C. An altar is a place where blood is spilled and fire consumes the flesh. We wish there were no need for altars. Pastor Jack doesn’t want to speak badly of our humanity. At the same time there are things that need to be cut away from us and left at the altar.

4. He included some humor. Some of it was spontaneous. There was a moment of interraction with someone in the congregation. Couldn’t hear what the woman said, but it was delightful to hear the laughter and to sense Pastor Jack’s connection to his audience.

Later in the message there seemed to be more of a plan for a lighter touch. While he was talking about arranging the hard things before the Lord he riffed a little bit on some other things you can do with the hard things. You can lug then around, for example, or you can throw them at others.He recommends neither even though we routinely do them.

5. His time horizon was beyond the sermon itself. You would think there would be an altar call at the end of a sermon about altars. But no. At one point in the message he talked about a church that had an altar call every week. The whole church (which was small) would come forward to the altar every week but no one would stay long. Pastor Jack wanted something more significant. He wanted people to have a deep connection to the living God.


This message was inspirational in the sense of being life-giving and motivating. It was terrific. I love it when I am caught up both by what is being said as well as the grace and aesthetic with which it is being said.