Historically, an altar has been the table or structure on which a sacrifice is offered. In the liturgical Christian groups, such as the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, the altar has been the table upon which the bread and wine are placed during the celebration of the Mass. For liturgical denominations, the Mass represents again the sacrifice of Christ for the world. Strictly speaking, United Methodists do not have an altar in this sense. The Methodist tradition has been to have a Lord's table or communion table upon which the elements are placed during the service of Holy Communion. In recent years, with the building of United Methodist churches with "divided chancels," the communion table has often been referred to, albeit incorrectly, as the altar. The word altar has been used in another way in United Methodist tradition. Often, those in the congregation are invited to come to the altar for prayer or for special services such as baptism or reception into membership. Here the usage means that people are to come to the chancel rail. Altar in this sense has symbolic meaning.
Source: A Dictionary for United Methodists, Alan K. Waltz, Copyright 1991, Abingdon Press. Used by Permission.