Do you feel it?

Today I visited an Assemblies of God church. I have been putting off visiting Pentecostal churches because I am always afraid I might accidentally wind up in some really creepy “spirit” filled situation. I freely consider my concern excessive, and in today’s events there was nothing “creepy.” Not to my sensitivities, anyway.

Immediately after the warm-up singining someone spoke stridently in some other language. After a pause someone in the front of the church then spoke along these lines; I’m not quoting verbatim, but I am trying to be as accurate as my memory allows.

“A heavy cloud is over [this area], wanting to rain. It’s just full of rain, wanting to pour down. Examine your lives, dig in the dirt of your lives and prepare yourselves to receive this holy rain. I will rain down on you and you will be filled with my holy rain.”

Again, this is not a qoute, but it conveys what was said: imagery of rain, a positive tenor and a sense of promised blessing, but nothing concrete and nothing provable. In contrast to the stridance of the first speaker, this person had a bit of heistancy, sometimes seeming to search for words. When this person was done someone else in the back spoke immediately, forcefully (again, not a direct quote):

“This is not just for you, but I will fill the whole [area]. I have heard the desperate cries of the people and I will respond, I will rain my holiness down on the whole [area] and I will rain down living water, and others will also be filled through you.”

Once before I was in a meeting like this, and on that occasion I missed that the second speaker was supposedly interpreting the “tongue” of the first. I thought people were just taking turns saying whatever they felt like saying. But if this second person is offering the interpretation of what the first said in the unintelligble (to English speakers) speech, then I would grant that the minimum requirements for speaking in tongues have been met. There were not a bunch of people jabbering at once, and the interpretation offered was intelligble to the assembly.

With the particular requirements met, I do not offer an authoritative rejection of this speaking, as I might if I felt something was clearly and demonstrably against the Bible or even had provoked a strong sense in my own spirit of an offense to the Spirit of God and harm to his children.

But as my own opinion, I do not believe the Spirit moved those people. I think they spoke from their own turbulent hopes, dreams, and yearnings, and in giving voice to what they hoped God might do they were not listening to what God actually said he would do. I think the speaking in tongues at Pentecost was the speaking of different human languages by a crowd of people, so that to all observers everybody except the two or three they understood was speaking nonsense. Summarizing Paul’s lengthy discourse on speaking in tongues, I understand that it can include speaking languages that perhaps nobody knows; and it could even be that what is spoken has no value except as a personal experience of the one who speaks. This is not, by itself, some great evil. Rather than fretting about the strangeness of speaking in tongues, we ought to be concerned with what the effect is; and if it is nothing more than to promote vague yet enticing suggestions that God might be about to work, it is not accomplishing anything productive.

Even though I have little use for the speaking in tongues demonstrated on this day, that is not what will keep me from going back. More than anything else, the preacher’s practice of instructing everyone in the audience to turn to one another and mouth such inanities as “I’m glad I came to church today” that will keep me away. The music was too loud, and I regard background vocalizations (not musical counterpoint, but the “Yes, Jesus” sort of accessorizing) about as poorly as speaking in tongues. The message was inconsequential. We were advised to be like #220 sandpaper, not like #160. There is nothing heretical about that, and it’s true that there are fellow Christians who will rub us the wrong way, it just isn’t what I think of when I talk about studying God’s word. So even if you took away those pupeteering requests from the pastor, there is nothing to bring me back to that service; but that’s what I cannot begin to put up with. It places the burden on you to either go along with saying and doing something that you might not actually feel or believe, or else to appear as the cold, arrogant, uncaring sort of person who makes themself unwelcome wherever they go. Thank you, no.

Later in the day, David, who had suggested I attend the church, called to ask me if I had gone and what I had thought (he is on bed rest presently). I told him it had the strengths and weaknesses I expected, and as I paused to try to improve my words he went along telling me that sometimes the Spirit is so thick there you can hardly stand and sometimes its so dry it seems dead. Then he suggested I keep on going and see if things didn’t improve.

On the one hand, it’s reasonable advice–that is, you will get a better understanding of a place by visiting more than once. Of course this advice is ignorant of the real root of my issues with the church, but that’s as expected. The other hand of the matter is that this is classic lead-in advice; if you don’t get it or don’t feel it, well, keep trying, it will come to you. Yes, that’s rather what I expect. When the Holy Spirit is really just human emotion run rampant, sometimes it does take a while to loosen yourself up enough to play along.