HELP!—Weird Things Are Happening in Our Church

A reader recently contacted Average Us to ask about something that is troubling him about his church: a lot of abnormal behavior promoted as inspired by God. Knowing that I had once been a pentecostal pastor, He asked if I was familiar with this, and what he should think of it.

Since I have been asked about this before, I asked if I could publish our exchange for everyone’s benefit. The reader agreed to let me share his letter and my responses with you. For clarity, my responses are in green.

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Hi Lon,

Thank you so much for letting me write to you like this. I read your article on why you left pentecostalism earlier today and it really struck a chord with me.

Two years ago me and my wife moved to a new city. The church we’ve been attending has been becoming more pentecostal in this time. You often see ticks in some people such as head bobbing or twitching, pelvic thrusting and hand shaking. Also what they call tongues and murmuring. Less often you might see screaming, stamping, heaving, shouting and people getting slain in the sprit. The thing is I’ve never been convinced by the arguments for it or felt drawn or compelled to adopt behaviour anything like this.

As a former pentecostal, I’ve seen all this too. And done a lot of it, both in pentecostal Bible college and as a pentecostal pastor.

I came to faith in Jesus in 1979 via a pentecostal church with a good pastor in the American Assemblies of God denomination. It was the first church where I really understood the need for repentance from sin and faith in Christ. This pastor was a good man, preached the gospel, and as far as I remember, it was a good church. But, pentecostalism always leaves room for quite a bit of—I’ll choose my words purposefully here—abnormal behavior and aberrant beliefs. Even in this good church, there were always fringe elements pushing to have the latest thing from the latest “teacher” become the thing that drove the church. In the 1970s, the thing was the rise of prosperity theology. In the 1990s we saw the rise of the Brownsville “revival” which promoted and spread a lot of the abnormal behavior you describe. Your church may have all these manifestations for a while, a few years maybe. Then, people will figure out that there isn’t a lot of spiritual light or health in all that heat and they will settle down, or fall away. That’s the pattern. Always.

It’s important to know that pentecostalism was founded on acceptance of this type of thing as evidence of the presence of God. Pentecostals call it a “move of the Spirit” Who gives various “manifestations” of His presence. These “manifestations” change in extremity, and wax and wane with churches and movements and history. But the openness to it, and the desire for it is built into the foundations of pentecostalism. I think the healthiest pentecostal churches don’t have a lot of this. Where there is a lot of this, there’s also a lot of manipulation of people, and it’s very damaging to churches and individuals long term.

The first thing I would want to ask is.. how do you know when God is speaking to you? At a deep, internal almost primal level theres something telling me what I see is wrong and I should get out. I tell myself that God interacts with different people how he likes. Despite that I find myself walking out of church in a state of real hollowed out and profound darkness. A distance from God. I wish I could just ignore what I see and just hold it up as a mystery. My head and my heart tell me its wrong, its wrecks me inside, and I’ve been less and less involved with the church as a result.

“How do you know when God is speaking to you” is a very pentecostal frame of thinking. When I was pentecostal, I could never have given you a good answer to this. I would have told you to “Pray more.” “Search the Scriptures (for a “word from the Lord” for you in this situation).” “Learn to listen to the Holy Spirit.” But, all that advice would just confuse you with a bad mix of objective and subjective criteria for determining what you really want to know: “How do I know what God wants me to do in _____ situation?”

Today, as a former pentecostal who is now (full disclosure) in the reformed stream of Christianity (think, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Martin Lloyd-Jones, Michael Horton, Tim Keller), my advice is very, very simple:

God’s complete will is revealed in Scripture and in the ministry of Jesus. Fully. Finally. Period. So here’s what you do if you want God’s guidance in decision making (aka “know when God is speaking to you”):

1. Study Scripture for a lifetime and seek to be obedient to what you understand every day. (Note that this is vastly different from “seeking a word from the Lord” for today.) Over time, you will develop spiritual wisdom and discernment.

2. For every decision you face, look to God via the Scriptures. What does Scripture have to say about the options you face? About your motives in the decision? About his purpose for your life?

3. Where Scripture doesn’t give you explicit direction on a matter (and that’s 99.9% of the decisions you’ll ever make), ask God to direct you, and give you wisdom. Then, just make a decision. Be as biblically informed as you can. Use the best judgment you can. Seek godly advice when needed. Submit your decision to God. Trust Him in the outcome (whether good or bad or both). Know that He has given you both freedom and responsibility to live this way in the world.

I have gone to our church leader, he’s an strong advocate of it and asked him what should I do. He’s asked me to remain open to it and pray about it, I do and I the answer I feel is that its wrong. People in church, my friends, who practice it get edgy if I ask about their experiences too much. Whether its compulsive, a choice etc. I went to a mens group and talking to them I know it drives a lot of the men on the fringe further away from the church. I don’t want that. I’ve given up sharing my faith at work. I’ve ceased being involved in apologetics in my city because I have no desire to defend something that makes me feel so low. I skip church now. The me several years ago would challenge me but every lunch break at work I now sit at the back of my cities catholic cathedral just to be in a church setting which doesn’t make me anxious. I disagree with everyone around me there on theology but you can just sit there, its not over hyped and I feel like I can pray there. At the same time I don’t want to be wrong and scorn God. Despite that its getting to the point where I don’t even trust my own judgement anymore. My wife was raised pentecostal but even she gets disturbed by the stuff we see but doesn’t know how to explain it to me.

It sounds like this environment isn’t healthy for your spiritual life, at the very least, right?

I understand your anxiety about “scorning God” though. Another thing pentecostals are told over and over is, “Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit.” What they mean is, “Don’t question what’s going on. Just accept it. Uncritical, blind faith.” My wife grew up in a pentecostal pastor’s home, and she can tell you how manipulative and damaging that can be. It’s nonsense. Scripture gives us adequate direction and responsibility to “test every spirit,” and to “test prophecy” and “prophets.” Christian faith is a reasonable faith. God gives us evidences to believe in a resurrected Christ who saves from sin. We are under no obligation to take any spiritual leader’s word for gospel. As true protestant Christians we must uphold Scripture as “the only infallible rule for faith and practice.” (There I’m quoting an Assemblies of God statement of faith which is quite correct). I’d refer you to my comments above about God revealing His will in Scripture.

Why do some people seem so caught up in this? And is it weird I’ve never felt inclined to? What do you do in a setting where despite your best efforts your sincere convictions put you at odds with those in authority over you in church? The whole area gives me so many questions. I don’t doubt my faith but the faith I see others at church practicing seems so alien to my own. I’m living with a cognitive dissonance I’ve not ever experience before.

“Cognitive dissonance” is a good way to express what I was feeling before I left pentecostalism. I knew people wanted “the amazing move of God,” but I knew they needed the ordinary grounding in the Scriptures and spiritual disciplines. Some people get caught up in this  (I did too) because it can feel amazing to release emotions like that. We see others enjoying it. It’s just one, easy (but incorrect) step to say, “This must be from God.” I don’t necessarily think abnormal behaviors are from the devil. However, they can be used by him to impress the biblically ignorant with aberrant and dangerous beliefs. Confusion and distraction from the gospel are always his methods.

Anyway, I’m sorry for this lengthy email. If you have time I’d love to have your input – how do I speak to those around me who are pentecostal at church? I lead a small group but now I question so much about what I believe, should I continue to lead? I know the church won’t change, I can’t change it but we have friends there. Should we leave?

How do you speak to people in your church?—I can’t answer that well. It depends on what you want to say or ask. It depends on whether they’re willing to converse openly and lovingly with you. It depends on how much respect you’ve earned as a church member there. You may be in a position where it’s best to say nothing but “I’ve decided to leave” (if you decided to do so). I know from experience how scary that is, and how much it hurts to lose your community and find a new one.

I hope all I’ve said in this lengthy response will help you consider your final question. I’ll pray for you to think clearly, trust and submit to God completely, and decide freely without guilt.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I love reading your blog.

Thank you. That means so much. Grace to you, Lon

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If this conversation intrigues you, please join in (respectful comments only, please), and share with someone you love and are concerned about.

Thank you!

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13 thoughts on “HELP!—Weird Things Are Happening in Our Church

  1. Very interesting. I’ve never been a member of a Pentecostal church. My only experience with it was when I was in Houston, going through cancer medicine. We tried lots of churches while we lived there. Yes, we even went to Joel Osteen’s church. (That place makes me sad.) My favorite church down there is “Houston’s First Baptist Church”–it’s Beth Moore’s church.

    Anyway, we heard about a “healing service” going on at some charismatic church. I went. And the only thing I can really remember was the pastor asking for anybody who needed to be healed of anything to come to the front. He lined us up–maybe 30 of us–shoulder to shoulder. He had a team of large men who would stand behind the people in need of healing, and he stood in front of each person. He had told us that he was going to stand in front of each person, ask them what they needed, then pray for them. I think he then touched their forehead. He said, “Don’t be afraid to pass out at that time. If you need to pass out, that’s alright–it’s just the Holy Spirit doing a little surgery on you. There will be men behind you who will catch you if you pass out, and they won’t let you get hurt.”

    I am a Christian. I believe that God can do anything–including healing somebody instantly like that. But something about that setup just seemed… I don’t know, like they were misinterpreting the Bible or something. Out of that 30 of us, about half of the people fainted after he prayed for them and touched their foreheads. I did not. I can recognize things like mass hysteria and the placebo effect when I see them. I really do not understand the unforgivable sin. I’ve heard Baptist preachers say that in not accepting salvation from Jesus, you have blasphemed the Holy Spirit and thus cannot be forgiven. I’m not so sure they are right about that. But I mean zero disrespect to the Holy Spirit when I equate some of those passing outs to the placebo effect.

    God didn’t heal me instantly that day. I went through all the brutal medicine. I equate going through modern cancer medicine, which truly is barbarism (hacking out tumors, poisoning the body, and burning the cancer), to the best medicine of the day that King Hezekiah went through. We all know that putting some mashed up figs on top of a giant tumor (or possibly festering bacterial infection or parasitic infestation) didn’t do jack to cure that illness. But the trust in God did. He got 15 more years. And now–9 years later–I am healed, to the glory of God!

    • And what a beautiful example you quote from the Bible. I don’t think there was anything specifically miraculous in Jesus’ saliva either. And yet we know, that when he spoke those words, all the matter and energy he created (which we call “universe”) obeyed His voice. Miracle. Only word for it.

  2. Nine years ago I left our AOG church. The last 4 years at the church were brutal. The church relationships were a mess, the pastor left, and they hired a pastor who taught that a practicing Buddhist did not have to accept Christ because He was already inside of him. And everyone, board and all, seemed fine with this. I am still broken, and still cannot trust any Church, regardless of the denomination or non-denomination. My fear is that all churches are really clubs that they want you to join, and pay a minimum of 10% to be in good standing with them. I was a tither, and much more, and gladly gave. I always prayed that it would go to God’s intended purposes, and I know God answered that. I finally allowed myself to see the truth, studied tithing in the scriptures and it has nothing to do with Christianity. All I have is the Lords, and I give as I purpose in my heart, and to who I purpose to give. This AOG church, prior to the last hired pastor, was very much into wanting people to outwardly express praise by shouting, dancing, tongues, and being slain in the Spirit. I am a backward person, and I quietly praised the Lord. Often the music leader would scream at us for not being demonstrative. I cannot understand why I allowed myself to be abused every week. Why did I believe that to disobey theses “leaders” equated to disobeying God! What is wrong with me?!? I too, don’t know how to know what God wants me to do, even today. Do I have to ask God what to do about everything? I make a hundred decisions everyday. I have no idea if they are exactly what God wants of me.
    I come to this website every week, thank you for it. God bless you!

    • I am so sorry that your church experience broke you so. But please don’t let your bad experiences convince you that the church is a purely human and purely evil institution. Jesus himself gave us the Church for the building up (“unbreaking”) of his body. There are churches that will nurture your life and faith. There are “true” churches that (according to Protestant theology) rightly preach the gospel in every sermon, rightly practice the sacraments, and rightly practice church discipline. In my experience, they are very hard to find, but I have attended several. Warning!—these will never be “the happening church”, or the church with the best music, or the church with the most dynamic preacher, or the biggest, or the smallest. They will simply focus on the one truth and one power of the gospel to change lives and give true hope to people who have been too ready to grasp at any kind of false hope. Again, I’m so sorry for your experience so far. But, I pray you find a church that you could safely, and contentedly call, “home.”

      Epilogue: I just shared your message with Dawn. She really encourages you to read Michael Horton’s 2014 book, Ordinary. I have read part of it as well, and highly recommend it as being sound, wise and extremely relevant to the story you shared. I also suggest you download a single 42-minute podcast sermon by Time Keller, Your Plans; God’s Plans. It addresses the whole “how-should-christians-make-decisions” issue. It was very helpful to me personally.

      • Thank you so much. I will look for the book “Ordinary”, and will download the podcast later today. Thank you for your encouragement. I know there is no perfect church. And I am trying to begin attending again, within the last 2 months, after so many years out of church. But I feel so suspicious, and I don’t want to feel this way. I love the Lord God, I love Jesus Christ, and I love the Holy Spirit. I pray and read my Bible, and I hope He hasn’t given up on me. Bless you and Dawn.

  3. of course He hasn’t. The covenant in His blod is proof of that. At the same time, he does want you to experience the ordianary means of his grace. And you know what that means: corporate prayer, hearing the gospel preached from the whole Bible, and receiving the sacraments… in other words, church. God bless.

  4. We left but God orchestraed it for us.

    You could almost say we were part of the “in crowd” with five other couples as we were good friends of the pastor and had kids the same age etc. We would socialise together outside of official church stuff. Our pastor had been a fantastic preacher but he started going weird, saying things that I’d never heard before (and I’ve been a Christian my whole life). I don’t know how but one of the other couples figured out that it was emergent thinking and once we started researching it, we were horrified. They tried to confront him but it didn’t go well. We didn’t know what to do. Like your letter writer, this church was our family; this church was the most loving, caring church that I’d ever been involved with. However God moved providentially for us. My husband was offered a job overseas and we took it. We left the church without having to break any relationships.

    God’s care continued. In our new country we didn’t have transport on Sundays and we had to find a church within walking distance. On our first Sunday, we thought the worship was very traditional but when the pastor got up to preach, we almost cried. Hearing the word of God preached was like rain on parched ground. Suddenly we realised we hadn’t heard the word of God preached in years.

    God changed our theology a lot in our time overseas. We would come home for holidays and visit our “home church” and even the kids would turn and look at us and whisper “where does it say that in the bible?” I would sit there looking at all the nodding heads and wonder if I would have been nodding too if we had never left. Horrors!

    After three years we returned home without a job. We knew we couldn’t worship at our home church anymore but none of the local churches was a lot better. Once again God intervened and we had to move away for a job. God has been very good to us. I know we have been spared a lot of pain because of what God did for us but I would still say to your letter writer to leave, just leave. Your spiritual health is too important.

    • What a wonderful story. You’re right, God spared you a lot of pain. Not everyone receives a “smiling providence” in these situations. But I’m glad you did and that you recognized it. Thanks so much for reading and sharing. Please pass this along to anyone you know would benefit. God bless, Lon

  5. Hello Lon,
    I know this maybe totally unrelated to this particular topic now, but I read your article about how/why you left the Pentecostal church and I started looking for your email address. I have some questions and challenges. But if I’m not allowed to request or have your email address, i will just ask my question here. I’d wait for your response. Thank you.

  6. Pingback: The Spiritual Health of Pentecostalism — Part 1 | Average Us

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