Monday, August 30, 2010

#189-Letting God Mess with Your Pretty Little Service

Author's Note: The impetus for this post came from my own thoughts, discussion with others in church, and some recent reading that critiqued the construction and reception of Hollywood entertainment. Joel was extremely helpful in offering criticism of the rough draft and expressed some serious doubts about the message put forth, though he eventually gave me the go ahead. Those doubts have taken root in my own mind, but I still believe that there's some utility to this post. My only hope is that before you agree or, more likely, disagree with this post, that you take a little longer than you normally would and mull it over some more. An author doesn't typically have such a luxury with his readers, but I suppose I can ask, anyway.

The Scenario: It’s a typical Sunday night service at your local church. The praise team is playing a great song, everyone is clapping and singing, and there seems to be a good spirit in the sanctuary. You’re a little over twenty minutes into the worship portion of the service and your internal clock is telling you that in just a few minutes it will be time for intercessory prayer to start—or so you thought.

All of a sudden, something happens! The music doesn’t stop, in fact it keeps going. Now, Sister A takes a glory lap in the altar. Brother X grabs a tambourine from somewhere and dances up and down his aisle. Two of the male youth are in a seeming contest trying to see who can jump the highest for Jesus and next to them are a gaggle of their fellows laying about in states of blissful torpor. Before long, the entire church has erupted into prolonged and passionate worship and you yourself are swept up in the same tide, dancing and singing praises to the Most High! You haven’t given much thought to what’s happening, you’re just praising, but for the sake of those unaware in the congregation, bewildered by what they see around them, the pastor is kind enough to shout an explanation:

“Oh, I’m sorry folks, sorry we couldn’t just let church happen AS USUAL, but God just showed up and He’s decided to take your cute, tidy little service and mess it all up! Why don’t you just let Him!!”

Aha! That’s what happened! As you walked through the carnage, after service, tiptoeing around the bodies strewn about like a battlefield, it started to come together and it all made sense afterward when you went with your group of friends to the postchurch meal. You all agreed that God just did something amazing, that His spirit really fell, that His power really showed, and that the service was awesome!

Commentary: What you just read was a very general first-hand description of something that happens quite often in pentecostal churches (The examples of people used above and below are not based on real people, but generated from stories related to me and the typical bric a brac of pentecostal life.) It is by no means an all-inclusive rundown of what occurs when the Spirit falls, but I think it’s safe to say that pentecostals love it; they love it when God takes over the service, when things go from the natural to the “supernatural” and they love that it’s completely unlike the “dead” services that other denominations must surely have (and that pentecostals sometimes secretly have also.) The idea hinges on the assertion that one form of service is man-made, and therefore ungodly, while the other is entirely Godly (which is good, in case you didn’t know). And you, too, can learn to appreciate and participate in this wonderful experience! long as you ignore those nagging questions in back of your mind.

You know the ones, they started off silly when you were young, like, “Howcome I get in trouble when I’m late for church, but God gets to roll in forty minutes late—or even go weeks at a time without ever even showing up at all?”

Then you mature and actually grow in your faith, you love God and truly seek His presence, but the questions still pop up and now they’ve changed. Your pentecostal conscience has by this time become quite strong, call it a super ego of sorts, but the sparring match between the two can snowball out of control if you aren’t careful.

“So, if God was in this service, does that mean He’s not in the other ones?”

Well that’s a simple one, of course He’s in every service. He’s omnipresent, He’s everywhere all of the time.

“Oh….well, if that’s the case, then why is it different now? I mean, what’s the factor that differentiates this type of service from any other?”

Because God is spontaneous like that! He does what He does, no way we need to or even could understand why or how.

“Hmm…but you know, I’ve noticed that it’s not so spontaneous. In fact, every time it happens, it’s preceded by the praise team playing a little longer than normal, then there’s kind of a lull in worship because the people are getting tired of singing the same chorus on repeat and then preacher starts getting animated and tells us that we need to dig deeper, that God’s doing something and that we’ve got to push if we want it to actually happen. Then a few people, and it’s almost always the exact same people, get really emotional and worship really demonstratively and it eventually spreads to everyone else. Then afterward, we forget that it started out like that.”

Right, well, you see what’s going on is—

“No wait, that’s not all. Why is it that it’s kind of always the same show? I mean it’s pretty much always the same group of high school girls that gather in a prayer circle and eventually collapse into a sobbing, hysterical mess, but everybody knows that with very little exception they’re all going back to living their lives the way they did before God took over this service—that’s why they’re going to be back sobbing again next time.”

Yes, but—

“also, if God’s really being powerful now, then why doesn’t Sister so-and-so get delivered from her emotional affliction? I mean, she’s back every few weeks in the altar with people praying for her, but then she continues to live out of wedlock with a guy who treats her like garbage? Since God’s here, why doesn’t he just pull a Maury Povich and tell her to dump that guy and try living a little more in line with the Gospel?”

It’s obvious you need to pray more. You’ve let some junk into your life and you clearly can’t perceive the true presence of God.

“But that’s just it, I’ve been praying, fasting, and reading my Bible and I’m beginning to wonder if this is really of God or if it’s actually man-made…..I Corinthians 4:20 says the Kingdom of God is power, not talk—if this type of service and everything that goes with it is really about God’s power, why is it so talky, so much about performance? And, in effect, it’s that discernable, exterior phenomena that makes a service change from ordinary to Godly…is that really the distinction and should we really live our lives between the peaks and valleys of revival services?”

Listen, the problem here is—

(Excursus I: Sorry to interject, but a little explanation seemed appropriate. We’ve thrown around some Marxian analysis in previous posts and right about now seems an appropriate, if limited, application. If you’ll recall, drawing from Hegel’s dialectical model, Marx posited that eventually the inherent contradictions of capitalism would become so strong that at some point the system would collapse in on itself. This next segment of the interchange between spiritual introspection and pentecostal conscience is the point at which the internal contradictions become dangerously apparent.)

“Hold on, answer me this: which is more Godly? A really emotional service where lots of people get exhausted but they all leave feeling good about themselves or the baseline, middle of the road type of service where everything went steady and that, unknown to anybody else, one person decided after several weeks of hearing the truth to repent and commit his/her life to Christ? Which one is the occasion for a real party (Luke 15:10)? Really, why is the messy service so… tidy? So constructed and scripted?

In fact, it’s really not out of the ordinary at all; I know exactly what’s coming because it always happens the exact same way. In this manner, doesn’t “God” just become the verbal key to set off a celebration or the ex post facto justification?”

Whoa, whoa, are you saying what I think you’re saying? You don’t believe in God anymore, do you? You’re starting to doubt that any of what’s going on in the pentecostal church service is real at all; you think it’s all just an act and that, by proxy, God Himself doesn’t exist.

No, I can see where you’d draw that conclusion, but that’s not what I’m saying at all. Please understand me, I believe and know God can and WILL do His will in every service. I don’t doubt that His power is active and moved by faith in the raucous type of service also; He can move however and whenever He wants. What I am troubled by is the very act of identification, of naming one type of service “Godly” and hinging our spiritual life on it. What we’ve done is misplace the means for the ends; the process, that is to say the service itself, has become formalized beyond any self awareness on the parts of those in it. Our own opinions about what a Godly display of power should be has already predetermined what is and isn’t Godly before it actually happens. In short, the perception of the Godly service by which the church feels itself confirmed has been shaped by a predisposition even before the perception takes place. Are we so caught up looking, hoping, and waiting for what we know is a good church service that we lose out on so much of what God really has for us? I don’t know, what do you think?”

(Awkward Silence…….)

(Excursus II: If you’ve never had those types of questions, then this might not apply to you. God bless you, truly. If you have, then I honestly don’t know what to tell you, except to say don't walk away from this thing, but keep praying and searching for truth. If this post has come off as condemnatory, then chalk that up to the weaknesses on my part as a writer. The hope in writing this has been to bring about some self-analysis and discussion in the body of believers. Mainly this, are we missing out on what God could have for us by settling for what we’ve become comfortable with?)


  1. Asking hard questions is always seen as a personal attack, especially when the questions are asked of people who have shrouded themselves in a "no-questioning" layer of spiritual protection.
    Nevertheless, I see where you're coming from, and I admit that I've felt the same thing.
    That said, I do believe that God moves in different ways, for different services. I don't think that saying that God was "in our service today" is an equation with Him not showing up to others. It just means that we have to value and appreciate each service or gathering as its own unique and spirit-filled opportunity to minister to the lost and to each other.
    A high-emo reaction (from here on out, "HER") is not the ends that justifies. HER is more of a reasonable by-product of our understanding of His presence. We're not worthy, we know it. And so we produce HER to acknowledge that.
    But by focusing on the HER as the end-all-be-all is a misdirection on WHY we do this whole church thing anyway.
    Yes, we want God's presence, but we shouldn't be actively seeking out emotionality as the result. We should seek the true repentance and resultant life-changing as the result.

  2. Well done Chady. As I reflect on my early years in church, and all the times I jumped and ran around and acted like some kind of epileptic, I rarely recall really feeling God so much as I was paying attention to what was going on, and engaging in competition with my other youthful counterparts.
    That's not to say I didn't feel God, but I felt more when I prayed and wept in repentance, quietly, for no one to see. I see a lot of emotionalism as the fuel for my past H.G fits. The one time I felt God so undeniably potent was at a Winter Youth Retreat in 2008. On the first night the spirit filled the room so intensely that the majority of us were on our faces weeping. That night was also the occurrence of the only tongues and interpretation that I've ever heard that I have 100% faith in.
    To me personally, what makes that night special is that it was rare, unplanned, and spontaneous. It didn't come about via a song or a program. It just kind of happened when we all got in the same room. (Coincidentally it was a retreat of the two most liberal churches in my state. It was nice to see what could happen when we were free from judgmental eyes)
    But what sucks about this is that we try to break God down into a science. Song A plus Song B = anointing break out.
    When my good friends and I were running our section we tried to change the order of service and have music other than black gospel and we met a fight the likes of which Muhammed Ali never dreamed of. So much so that a very unwise youth leader said in a meeting "we've yet to have a move of God in one of these rallies"...aka we've yet to orchestrate an emotional response from our first responders.
    Correct me if I'm wrong but wasn't one of the major faults of the pharisee's that they thought they had God so broken down and predictable based on the formula (the Mosaic law) that they'd basically neglected Him altogether for the sake of their own comfort and tradition?

    I could go on, but I'll just say that I'm thankful that other people see through the facade and dare to ask the hard questions, like "Is it real, or is it contrived?"

    Thanks Chady.

  3. lol at "that’s why they’re going to be back sobbing again next time."