Church used to be that place where people could risk going and presenting their absolute worst self, once a week, and be heard by people who would accept you back, through communion, into the community. Once a week you would have this kind of talk therapy where you told your worst story and you were loved despite your worst self. So you never developed this alienation and isolation that split you so far from your community that you could just walk into a McDonald’s and kill everyone.
Then church became that place where people went just to look good, and you didn’t get that release of looking bad once a week. In a way, the support groups and 12 step groups and phone sex chat lines, all these contexts in which people present their worst selves and find a community despite their behavior, these have become the new Church. These are the new escape valves where people go and confess and are redeemed by their peers.
Chuck Palahniuk is speaking here of his experiences in the Catholic church (the cycle of confession, communion, and worship), but it seems to me that the experience we had last night in the 3.5 hour service at Cornerstone Pentecostal Church probably qualifies as the former.
Pentecostal worship is difficult to explain (so are Chick Tracts — I’ll get to those later, because I found myself interpreting them in a lunch line the other day). This is due in part to my own ignorance, and in part because it is so outside of my own comfort zone that I’m not likely to try it often enough to resolve the ignorance issue. I can tell you what I saw and what I heard, and I know enough about what things are called to give them names . . . but if you go down the road of asking me if these same experiences were “real” or not . . . forget it.
Cornerstone currently has a revival minister from California in to lead the services, and I got the impression that the service is normally about 2 hours in length (this was also the point at which some folks began to bail), but one of the hallmarks of Pentecostal worship is that it’s not focused on the clock, but rather on the experience. (Technically, I think most churches would say they’re focused on the experience and not the clock, but you can certainly see, esp. in churches with back-to-back-to-back services that happen in the same space, that the experience is never going to go past the time limit. This is the distinction I’m trying to draw).
The service began with about a half hour of singing. Loud singing. The emphasis on volume in the music is something that transcends denominations, but the singers in this group also did quite a bit of jumping. That is, while they were singing, individual singers in the 12-16 person chorus would begin jumping in time with the music. A little like a mosh pit, but without crashing into others. Throughout the congregation, people would lift their hands, sway, clap (a very rhythmically inclined group), and occasionally someone would take a lap, counter clockwise, around the left side of the church (up the aisle to the front, across the left side of the front, down the left side aisle, out the back door, and back to where they were seated. Later in the service, the assistant pastor did four such laps, which was the largest number I noted anyone doing).
The visiting revival minister started his sermon on the point that we have free will. (There are two major schools of thought in Christian theology: that our fates are predetermined or that we have freewill). He argued that the idea of predestination (the Calvinist line of thought) is Greek in origin, and went on to exhort the congregation that life was not a matter of luck, or superstition, or fate (or fatalism), but that we each have the free will to choose between right and wrong. He began recounting a piece called “Reunited (and It Feels So Good)” from NPR’s This American Life, where in Ralph and Sandra, having lost their beloved, docile bull, Chance, determine to replace him by cloning “Second Chance.” The story takes a tragic turn, twice, when Ralph is mauled by Second Chance.
This ended up loosely related to the rest of the sermon, which riffed on the idea that once your “old self” has died to sin, you should let it lie, dead (and not resurrect it, like a docile bull), and that you can continually choose “new life” in Christ. He asked everyone to turn to Colossians 3:1-10 (no pew Bibles — nuts–we forgot again to bring one along), and he read it (complete with the evil concupiscence, which, in my mind, even though I love language, is a good reason to read pretty much any translation besides the KJV).
And this is where things, if you’re not from this kind of Pentecostal tradition, got weird.
The minister started really hollaring, and moved to what I call the “clause-punctuated-by-uh” form of preaching. Most people associate this will the tent-revivals of the midwest and southeast. It goes a little like this: “I am not going-uh to be superstitious-uh I am not-uh going to to carry-uh the foot of an animal-uh in my pocket-uh I am not-uh going to worry-uh about walking-uh under ladders-uh I am not afraid-uh of black cats-uh . . .” and this increases the congregational responses, including hand raising, verbal agreements, clapping, aisle running, and glossolalia. He riffed on various aspects of repentance, letting the “old man” die, becoming a new creation, and not committing old sins, ramping up the volume and intensity, then pausing (and wiping his head with his kerchief, and taking a sip of water), and then starting a new riff, from a normal speaking voice, and ramping it up again. Then he started finishing his riffs with, “ha-la-la-la-la-la-la-la” or “ha-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-bah.”
At some point, there was an altar call, but it wasn’t a traditional altar call, and I’m not even certain what words of invitation the pastors made to identify it. But suddenly, about 3/4 of the church left their pews and went to the front. It was so crowded, that many of them were back 3, 4, and 5 rows in the side aisles. The pastors continued to take the mic from each other, and exhort the crowd on different topics, going to individuals and praying over them, waving their handkerchiefs over groups of people, and speaking in tongues. (At this point, nearly everyone in the congregation was wailing, praying, or speaking in tongues. Michael leaned over and asked me if I saw the segregation: up front, all the men had gone to the left, all the women to the right. I hadn’t seen it). There were several people “slain in the spirit,” which means that the ecstatic religious experience they’d just had caused them to fall down. The pastor “cast out fornication” from somewhere in the group of young women in the front. The wailing on that side of the room increased. Farmergirl, full of green tea, left to go to the bathroom, and missed the exorcism on the men’s side. (I don’t know if they call it an exorcism or not . . . but I think “Devil; I cast you out, in the name of Jesus, be gone, Satan, be gone, be gone” qualifies as an exorcism. I’ll probably ask in my letter). A woman behind us began to speak loudly in a language I don’t recognize . . . many Pentecostal traditions believe in glossolalia, and not xenoglossia, so it was likely a “personal prayer language.” Shortly after, another woman spoke loudly in English, in the first person, but as the persona of God. That is, her “I” was not referencing herself, but God. I think this was “prophecy” (an announcement from God, not a prediction of the future, in this usage).
Somewhere in the middle of all this, the church’s pastor came down the aisle, and greeted us, saying, “It’s kind of different, isn’t it folks? Don’t worry, we can explain all of the things you’re seeing.” I smiled and admitted we are Episcopalians, and that I was feeling a little like “the frozen chosen” which is not a usual Episcopal designation. “We’re just a bunch of old rock-n-rollers,” he said, grinning, before he left to pray over others, and join the melee up front. He tailored what he said and how he said it specifically to us, acknowledging that our lack of participation was likely unfamiliarity with the style of worship (rather than lack of faith, say), and that we might be uncomfortable. This is a man who understands audience.
Three and a half hours after the service began, it concluded. Kind of. There were still people up front and in the pews when we left, but more than half collected their belongings and headed out the door. We waited for the pastor to put on his jacket and head for the back of the church before getting up to leave. Several people wished us well and each one invited us back, including the pastor.
There’s a lot of things about Pentecostal worship that I’m not comfortable with . . . for starters, I’m never comfortable with emotionalism (religious or not) . . . especially groups of people moved together in a crescendo-ing emotional response. But I would have been really disappointed yesterday had the service not included glossolalia, spirit slaying, exorcism, physical activity, and/or prophecy, because I’d hoped many of those elements would be present at the service. They were something I wanted Farmergirl to have exposure to during this project.