Saturday, October 20, 2012


For the past month I have been attending a Lutheran church. That is a huge change from what I spent four years attending, an Assembly of God (Pentecostal) church. It still feels kind of strange but I really like it. The service itself is pleasant, the fellow college students have shown themselves friendly and approachable, and the pastor is an intelligent person. I go to a Lutheran church, but I don't yet consider myself a Lutheran. The doctrines and service formats are a bit different from what I'm used to.

When I was getting ready to leave for college, I had actually decided I didn't want to stay in a Pentecostal church. The reason behind this is actually a bit complex and I haven't told many people about it. In the past just thinking about it was enough to give me a headache but since I've gotten out of the Pentecostal style of worship, I've felt a lot better about it.

I want to make this disclaimer first: I am not against the Pentecostal denomination. I believe they are just as saved as any other Christian denomination that preaches salvation through Jesus. I hold no ill will toward Pentecostalism or their beliefs. I do not intend to offend or upset anyone with what I write here.

You have to understand what Pentecostal worship is like. The general belief about that denomination is that the worship tends to be exuberant, with events that are claimed to be supernatural often happening. Sometimes they are, sometimes they're not. In the church I spent three years attending, that was certainly true. The typical worship segment was loud and emotional. Sometimes the singing would take up the entire service, omitting the sermon. People would shake, shout, speak in tongues. During prayer times it wasn't uncommon for people to be slain in the Spirit, which was once explained to me as a person's spirit drawing so close to God that their physical body is overwhelmed. Another explanation is that the power of God, via the Holy Spirit, is coming on a person so strong they fall back from being overwhelmed by it. This practice, by the way, doesn't appear in the Bible and thus is suspicious to many. Worship was an emotional and energetic time.

For most, anyway. Then there was me. In the four years I attended an Assembly of God church, I cried twice during worship. I don't exactly remember the reason for why I teared up the first time, although it had to do with what I felt was my calling to work as a teen youth pastor. The second was at a revival event in Oklahoma my youth group was going to. I had recently gotten into a relationship and was very nervous about it - my first time dating since high school, and also the first time since becoming a Christian. I cried harder and longer than I had in a very long time. I wanted to make sure that the relationship was part of God's plan for my life, because I take them quite seriously. Relationships aren't games, my friends.

But those two events were the exception and not the norm. Usually during worship I'd sing along, even after the same verse had been repeated five times (that's not an exaggeration). I'd stop singing when the music went into the slow, quiet mode where people were "deep in worship," as some might call it. I don't care for the quiet, slow type of music, especially not for worship. Still, when so many others were having these emotional, powerful experiences happen to them, I'd just be standing there, waiting patiently for things to move on.

And honestly, it caused a feeling of - what would the word be? Inadequacy? - in me. I saw all these things happening around me and wondered, "Why isn't this happening to me? Am I not worshiping God properly?" The assumption seemed to be that if you really worshiped God, it was possible that these amazing, supernatural experiences would happen to you. That freaked me out. I didn't like the idea of me suddenly beginning to speak in some language I don't understand, or falling to the ground under a divine power. As a Bible nerd I understood the mechanics and purpose of these things, but that didn't make me any more comfortable. For an example that makes this strikingly clear: one night at the revival event my youth group mentioned, there was a period where the evangelist who was preaching would put his hand on a person's head and pray for them. This almost always led to being slain in the spirit. Everyone in my youth group (including the youth pastors) were slain - twice. Except me. I was the only one who wouldn't even go up to the guy until afterward. Even then, the most I was comfortable with him doing was shaking my hand (which he did three times, which I've found to be amusing. To this day I contend he snuck in the prayer with those handshakes).

I've been repeatedly told the addage, "God is a gentleman." He won't force us to do anything, nor will he go where he's not wanted. This means that, if I didn't feel comfortable putting myself in a position where I could suddenly break into a new language or be slain in the Spirit, God wouldn't force it to happen. I understood that, but it put me in a frustrating catch-22: if I didn't want to put myself in a position where the supernatural could happen to me then it was alright, but that would mean I would have to refrain from "properly worshiping," which defeats the purpose of even bothering to sing!

I have raised the topic up several times over the years, and the responses have generally gone in one of two ways:

  • First, people often responded by saying "Worship isn't just about the singing, it's about how you live your life." Yes, I understand that, I promise. But that doesn't really address my issue. What was I supposed to do when the music was being played? Twiddle my thumbs? Sing along and hope nothing weird happens to me?
  • Others will say that people respond to God in different ways - which is true. Some are hyperactive and emotional, others are subdued and express their faith through carrying out duty. I'm the latter. Although a valid answer, it couldn't get rid of the inadequacy I felt.
Perhaps as a result of this distress, I started studying Pentecostalism more and how it relates to other denominations. In an unusual case of me esteeming tradition, I believe that the older denominations notable for their more liturgical, structured service - Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, etc. - are closer to the truth than younger ones, since each break may correct wrong theology but also introduces error itself. I was able to look at the approximate starting dates for several denominations. Pentecostalism can trace its beginning to Los Angeles in 1906. 1906! Barely more than 100 years ago. I don't really like "new" things when it comes to spirituality. Pentecostalism formed almost 2000 years after the resurrection of Jesus. That just doesn't sound valid to me. Plus I know it's way different in style than the more traditional church types, which causes me pause. The Baptist church fares a little better, starting around 1609.

My interest turned toward the Lutheran denomination, which formed as a result of the Protestant Reformation. It's the oldest Protestant denomination (as far as I know). Although I wanted to try something closer to what had formed out of the early church, I wasn't comfortable with Catholicism. Its theology differs from my Protestant background in more ways than I liked. What I had in mind was something antique in nature: piano-led hymnals, monotone speaking, sitting and standing at predictable times, etc. However I knew it was wise to check out several churches before deciding on a single one. I resolved that once I arrived at college I would look at some of them. And part of that resolve was to stay away from Pentecostal churches, the brand that had given me grief for so long. Methodist, being closely related to Pentecostal, were also out of my list.

There were only two churches close enough that I could walk to in under a half hour: Southern Baptist and Lutheran. I liked both of them, but after praying and soul searching I settled on the Lutheran church. I think it's been a good choice. Although the doctrines are a little bit different from what I used to, overall I really feel right at home in it. I didn't know how to describe the service format, but terms like "liturgical" and "high church" are used. Yes it has a more structured form than what I've experienced for years, and does involve sitting and standing, but it's hardly lifeless. The pastor is vigorous in his preaching, though not to the point of being excitable and shouting, and the people are kind. It's a happy place, not a mundane place. The prayers are structured, but it's not terribly different from what I've seen over the years in the AG churches. There is plenty of singing, and the contemporary service I attend does use modern music. It's not hyperactive, but also not dull and boring. Many do sing along with the musicians, including myself. I don't mind singing loud enough to be heard if I know a song - this is probably one side effect of being Pentecostal for four years!

I think there is still some adjusting to this I need to do before I can comfortably call myself "Lutheran."  Right now, if asked, I would term myself "denominationless," because I don't hold to any particular one. But all in due time. This is my story so far.

Nothing in this post is intended to make any person, group, church, or denomination look bad. These are simply my personal experiences, and they do not characterize any person or group as a whole.

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