Where I visit a charismatic church that expects to encounter God at any moment — and it feels a bit like riding a roller coaster.
Walking in and sitting down in a new church feels a bit like buckling in for a roller coaster ride. You know what I mean. That feeling where you have no sense of the path ahead and the roller coaster cars are creeping upward toward an inevitable crest and plummet into the unknown. Click … click … click … here we go.
At the second church on my trek, I arrive a few minutes early and find my place toward the back, in a row of old Lazy-boy rocking chairs. Even though I am am generally up for whatever a Sunday brings, I still feel a little bit like an uninformed passenger, leaning back into gravity as the track clicks forward. There are no worship programs handed out at this church. No instructions on the wall. In their artistic and informal sanctuary space, these people expect to encounter God, no obvious scheduled agenda or pre-service explanations given.
The praying church resides in a historic building across from the city park on the same street where the Farmer’s Market sets up each Friday. Built in 1890, the simple one room church building was the longtime site of the funeral church I attended last week. In the 1990′s, that congregation outgrew the building and moved across town. Eventually the praying church moved in. I know of three other churches in town that exchanged property or moved into each other’s buildings. In a way, churches in this county resemble hermit crabs who switch shells as they grow.
The renovated building is now a prayer center open Sundays for a worship service, and every day of the week from 10 am to 10 pm for anyone to stop in and pray. Inside, your grandmother’s gold print 1970’s couches and leather chairs offer seating in a coffee shop section. Most weeknights, ‘soaking worship’ times are set aside in the sanctuary “Living Room” where live acoustic music happens, or recorded music runs. The stated long-term goal of the praying church is to eventually have the prayer facility open to the public 24-7. As one of the pastors explained,
“People need to have a place to go where they can just BE with God … where they don’t have to talk to a pastor or behave a certain way. Most churches are open on Sunday and have office hours, but don’t provide a place to just hang.”
The praying church encourages all forms of spiritual gifts (including prophecy, speaking in tongues, and healing) in order to edify people and encounter God. Ministries have names like “Dream Interpretation” and “Prophetic Ministry”. Visiting speakers often come from Bethel Church, the charismatic mega-church and equipping facility in Redding, CA. Oft-quoted are spiritual leaders like Graham Cooke, or Bill Johnson. The praying church expects to hear specifically and personally from God on a regular basis, intentionally pursues joy, claims God’s promises, and believes in the miraculous healing work of Jesus Christ. Sunday worship is an eclectic mix anywhere from casual street clothes to full-on Easter dressy. They speak boldly against Satan, laugh often, and say AMEN more in one Sunday than I’ve heard in a lifetime.
Side Note: Right now, my more ardent and conservative protestant reader-friends are tsk-ing the idea of dream interpretation and Googling the sources I just named to find any way the praying church might be incorrectly interpreting Christianity. I’ll be here when you get back.
I sometimes use the praying church’s coffee shop couches during the week to quiet my brain, and pray, or write. This is a familiar dwelling spot, even though this is my first time visiting on a Sunday.
The Music Begins
I calmly situate my notebook and cross my legs pretzel style and rock in the creaky beige Lazy-Boy. 50-75 miscellaneous chairs and various bean bag or pillow seating are lined up in an L shape around a small stage. The praying church people arrive comfortably late, greet each other, mill around, smile, hug each other like family. Several minutes after the hour, the music starts and I am immediately surprised and engaged. The sound system is state of the art; even with my hearing impairment, I hear details in words and notes. The worship leader and band are extremely talented, relaxed, easy like seasoned musicians.
This Living Room service is full of open and reflective response time for communion, for thought, for music, and for conversational teaching at the end of the gathering. During worship, congregants are invited to get up and take communion at a small makeshift table up front, whenever we feel ‘led.’ The worship leader fills extended vamp sections with impromptu melodies of prophetic prayer and petitions. Some people stand. Some sit. A line of willing partakers file up front and take a piece of bread and a sip of grape juice. The service is not timed down to the minute. Come what may.
I observe the unfolding events from my comfortable chair. I have a plan to enter each of these unfamiliar little mountain sanctuaries with a calm exterior. I maintain a certain outer shell, for objectivity’s sake, of course. This is a writing project after all.
But, this church worries me a little bit. They leave so much open Spirit-filled space. Anything could happen.
And the roller coaster goes, “Click … click … ”
Somewhere at the center, I know I am vulnerably soft like the yellowy yolk of an egg. In churches with tightly scheduled, down to the minute this-then-this-then-this worship services, I expect to be able to sit and participate in a manageable way. But in places that leave plenty of room for response, I have kind of an issue.
Before I explain, you need to understand. I have lived most of my life in church cultures that believe inner emotions are generally suspect and intellect should always be trusted as bedrock container for faith. The Problem: I have something Spirit driven that doesn’t fit in a container. Now and then, certain sacred things crack through my shell and cause my contents to emotionally spill all over the place. The usual suspects are great music and unexpected stories of mercy or redemption. These things touch my core and bring tears in a manageable way. However, on the rarest occasions I am rendered helpless.
Sometimes certain truth or Jesus words cause an inner tremor deep in my chest like the approach of distant thunder. A cry begins to pound hot behind my eyes and it feels like my soft spiritual underbelly is exposed. In those moments I typically end up weeping with an odd weighty joy that is followed by some moment of clarity like a shooting star or ignited flame.
In those cracked-open instances, I have come to believe that God’s Spirit is alive at my soul’s most malleable center, mega-phone in hand, with Truth not just for me but for all of us — truth that God wants to to speak and be heard. And it gets loud but never audible; big, but small enough to doubt. And those messy moments of revelation always require a thread of faith to speak out loud because they are usually gone in an instant.
For lack of better words, I call the incidences Sobbing Prompts because they precede some kind of clarity. Maybe other religious language would name them as prophecies or visions. In any case, to be clear, they don’t happen very often. And who knows, maybe they’ll never happen again. I can’t know because I can’t conjure them up. But they’ve happened enough to be recognizable.
Maybe that sounds crazy and you want to unsubscribe or un-follow right this instant. So be it. It’s ok.
Remember, I’ve spent most of my church time in pews and matching stackable chairs. I get it. For the most part, my past experience in conservative evangelical churches hasn’t given a lot of room to explore or affirm my weird sobbing visions. But I am starting to embrace them as a gift to share, rather than a burden to be hidden or tolerated.
As I visit these churches, part of me wants to altogether avoid the vulnerability of an all-out Sobbing Prompt among people I don’t really know. But another piece longs to be touched, cracked open, unleashed.
On this mountain church trek, I hold the two in tension and try to maintain a general posture of openhandedness — with a trust for where God may be leading, without concern about outcomes.
Puppies and Dancers
As the music continues, a group of 3 or 4 little girls in dresses move up to an empty space in front of the communion table and spontaneously begin to dance to the worship music in a small cluster. Unplanned. Free. One smiley girl notices a sad boy in the front row and offers him a communion cracker as solace. The girls twirl and sway and step and sit down, then resume and repeat. A little girl walks up the row holding a puppy the size of a tea cup, and situates herself up front matter-of-factly for the duration. As the piano and guitar quiet down, the dance unexpectedly pares down to one dainty grade school girl in a print dress Laura Ingalls Wilder would wear to a picnic. My well-managed exterior begins to crack.
The music seamlessly shifts to a song with one repeating phrase and the graceful blonde girl swirls with her arms outstretched.
I am not alone …
You will go before me
You will never leave me
I am not alone.
The dancing girl swirls freely as the lyrics pour over the room. Pricked by the reality that I am again alone in a room full of people on this quest for my own sense of community, the manageable form of sweet tears start to swell.
When I walk through deep waters
I know that You will be with me
When I’m standing in the fire
I will not be overcome
Through the valley of the shadow
I will not fear
I am not alone
You will go before me
You will never leave me. *
I cry quietly, touched by the personal goodness of the lyrics. And these familiar words come to mind:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; And through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, Nor will the flame burn you. “For I am the LORD your God, The Holy One of Israel, your Savior”
“I will never leave you or forsake you.”
A gracefully aged woman with coiffed hairspray hair and dressy Southern Baptist Sunday clothes has been pacing the aisles and floats around the room. She is extremely thin and moves the way tall reeds bend and flow with the wind. She holds a tambourine tied with a flow of colorful ribbons and peacefully dances in shuffles here and there with the music. I sense her close presence and notice she has moved to stand next to me. I think she is praying over my tears. But she doesn’t intrude. She is simply present. Near.
And I feel infinitely un-alone.
I rock in my chair, aware that I am soundly placed in sanctuary, grounded. I am centered like a dot in the middle of life’s timeline, between a young girl and an aged woman who dance in the presence of God. Their whirling presence testifies that God’s Spirit is always available, near, no matter the unknown waters, dangerous fires or shadowed valleys we face.
Coming Up …
Up next from my praying church visit: An interview with the pastor, and a surprising response to your hard hitting question about homosexuality.
Get a Note from Me
Hey, if you enjoy this series, why not subscribe? When there is new content on the blog, you’ll get a weekly update PLUS a personal behind-the-scenes note to subscribers from me. It’s a Saturday thing. SIGN UP in the absolutely private and secure form, HERE. ~KjL
The Worship Song
“I am Not Alone” by Kari Jobe. No commercial infringement intended. All rights reserved.
“Familiar words” — Referenced from the Bible:
Roller coaster image from The Cleveland Blog