A disappointing visit to a charismatic church

Charismatic, Pentecostal churches are growing fast worldwide, and only a bit slower in the U.S. For those unfamiliar with these terms, “Pentecostal” refers to churches or religions characterized by an emphasis of speaking in tongues, baptism of the Holy Spirit, healing, prophesying and exorcism. The word comes from the Pentecost described in the Book of Acts. Webster defines “charismatic” in the context of religion as “describ[ing] Christian religious groups whose members believe that they can communicate directly with God to receive help and guidance and the power to heal others.”

“In the U.S., Pentecostals represent 5 percent to 12 percent of Christians, depending on the measurement used,” according to the Hartford Seminary. “That figure is outnumbered only by Baptists, Methodists and Lutherans.”

“The growth of Pentecostalism in Latin America is estimated to be at three times the rate of Catholic growth,” theWashington Post recently reported. “Non-Catholic believers now account for 2 percent of Latin America’s 550 million Christians. Today, Brazil not only has more Catholics than any other country, but also more Pentecostals, reflecting Pentecostalism’s astonishing global growth.” Amazingly, this is a movement that started just a little more than 100 years ago.

Recently, I attended a service at a prominent local charismatic Pentecostal church. I’ve visited this church several times before, but always seem to come away with more questions than answers. It appears to defy the advice given by Pentecostal writers who urge practices these churches should follow to be more welcoming to guests.

Assemblies of God Theological Seminary’s J. Melvin Mingin an Enrichment Journal article titled, “Helping Outsiders Become Insiders,” cites studies of five fast growing Pacific Northwest churches representing four denominations and what made them grow. He lists similarities the growing churches shared in how they welcome guests, including greeters in the parking lot, hosts at the front doors to make people feel welcome, a visible hospitality or welcome center, bulletins with a simple but clear order of worship, and a reception after the service for guests to meet with church leadership.

This church had more than the usual number of problems, but many churches are guilty on one or more of these counts, and in order not to single one out for special scrutiny, I’ve chosen not to identify this one. I arrived at the church about 10 minutes before the service started. I saw no parking lot attendant or greeters before or after the service. I entered the church through the main front entrance and no one greeted me. People were ordering and enjoying coffee from the coffee stand, yet no one seemed to notice me as I entered. Next, I proceeded down the hallway to the auditorium yet no one greeted me in any way. Entering the auditorium, I picked a seat in the middle section toward the back of the church.

The worship team, finished with their practice, was on the platform forming a circle for prayer, which lasted until just before the service. I like the practice of asking God’s blessing on the musical portion of the service. Musicians and singers can get hurried forgetting to do so, but I believe it’s important, both for the participant and the observer. The service began with music performed by this worship band of six, and continued for more than a half-hour. In starting, the leader said, “we encourage you to stand,” a positive request; usually I hear “stand” or “please stand.” The lights were turned way down, highlighting the band performers, a tip the music was primarily a performance. On the positive side, I noted their sound levels were down significantly from my previous visits, rarely exceeding 100 decibels. Toward the end of their set, one of the musicians broke down, tearfully talking about having a bad week, and that she was “impressed” to perform again the song they’d just sung. This brought back memories of an inspirational gospel-bluegrass “sing” I’d attended where the performing group played their last song over and over again, with tears and crying.

After concluding, the music group continued playing behind the following speakers. Personally I dislike this practice; it seems many contemporary churches have transitioned into a soundtrack mentality. Doing so tends to create primarily emotional — versus rational — responses, whether it’s an altar call, an appeal for funds, or prayer.

Someone, who did not give their name (a poor practice in any church), introduced the various speakers. The first offered words of encouragement, urging people to “fall in love with Jesus.” The next encouraged people to, “Take a moment and engage God where you are,” but by raising their hands to show it — strange jargon for a visitor new to this church. The speaker after that gave her testimony, and started singing “You are awesome in this place,” telling people to stand and welcome the Lord with mighty hand-clapping. A final speaker spoke about evangelism. Altogether these speakers lengthened the service by about 30 minutes, without, in my opinion, adding substantial value.

Finally, the ushers were asked to come forward to receive the morning offering. All were told that “giving is a holy moment,” and we would not be asked to come forward to give this morning. Instead, large buckets were passed. Next, a series of video announcements were shown about a variety of church-related activities — a break from the more common practice of holding such announcements until the end of a service, where they are less disruptive to the flow of worship.

The pastor was finally introduced with this strange announcement “Put your hands together and welcome our pastor ______.” I can’t even begin to imagine Jesus, the Apostles, or Paul being introduced this way. His 45-minute sermon was delivered dynamically — and mostly extemporaneously — with much walking of the platform. I enjoyed the sermon, but it was overly long and I was distracted by the repeated used a key phrase — also the title of the sermon — throughout the sermon; I counted 15 times he said this phrase, but it may have been more. No matter how good the sermon was, this phrase wore on me. Another irritant was an audience member kept saying, “wow!” or “oh yeah!” throughout the entirety of the sermon — in sharp contrast to the rest of the congregation, which was mostly unresponsive.

Many churches, not just charismatic ones, forget the basics when it comes to holding church. I wonder how many more guests might become members of churches like this if they were just treated in a more friendly manner. Based on how this church treated this guest, it will be a much longer time until I revisit them.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words toletters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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