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.
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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