Church attendance wasn’t an option for me growing up–not that I minded all that much as I really enjoyed going to our small, rural Pentecostal church. It was rather exciting. If you are familiar with Pentecostal worship styles, especially as they were expressed during the eighties and the nineties, then you know exactly how exciting they can be. This was before many of the modern church growth movements convinced Pentecostal folks to tone things down for the sake of becoming more “seeker friendly.” And yet there are some reading this who will likely boast “We’ve never changed and don’t intend to do so!” And I agree. There is something to be said for consistency, and ,indeed, if folks can get excited about a “pig bladder” being passed from one person to another, then aren’t they entitled to a little enthusiasm when it comes to their religion?
Growing up, I was there for every moment of enthusiasm expressed at appropriately opportune moments, and I was also there when the demonstrative outburst weren’t so apropos. For instance, sitting on the front row at my Pentecostal church (yes, I was that enthusiastic kid) it was not uncommon to see folks literally run down the middle aisle “shouting,” which was a euphemism for losing basic motor functions as one became a literal puppet of the Holy Ghost. And, sincerely, my intention isn’t to lampoon anyone’s experience, but how else can some of the machinations that I witnessed be adequately explained to the uninitiated? Some of the expressions of faith were “wild,” while others were more subdued, but all of them were usually out of character for those who had fallen under the influence of the Holy Spirit, or at least that is who we blamed or credited; I suppose it depends on your perspective. In our church we were forbidden to dance at the high school prom, but if on a Sunday night or at the conclusion of a youth camp, involuntary jerks, rhythms, and other gyrations were perfectly acceptable and even laudable. And like I imagine dancing at the prom to be, as I never went, these dance moves were most often accompanied by music. John Travolta may have had Saturday Night Fever but we had Sunday Night Fervency!
Upon reflection, I witnessed some strange iterations of these worship styles, including spinning in place like a top, a group of women being wiped out like bowling pins as an aisle runner failed to navigate a corner, and one particularly energetic man who could put olympians to shame with his inspired back flips. I’m still not sure what to do with a lot of the things I witnessed. I sometimes joke that we were but one more worship chorus away from someone bringing out the snakes to handle. An actual practice by some Pentecostal types based upon a questionable passage from the gospel of Mark.
As a young adult, I became a traveling evangelist who was a featured guest speaker in many of these types of churches, and as such, it was my job to inspire and even incite such behavior. Now as an uncoordinated person with little to no talent as a musician or singer, my options were limited. Rhetoric was my goad of choice when it came to inspiring the faithful to perspire in their enthusiastic acts of worship. I would often reference the antics of contestants on The Price is Right. If you are familiar with this show, contestants regularly get very excited with being told to “Come on down” and exhibit unusual enthusiasm at the prospect of winning a washer and dryer. “If these folks can get excited for a washer and dryer, how much more should we get excited for Jesus!” I proclaimed this with no reluctance even though these churches were prohibited from watching television. But ironically, every one seemed to get the analogy.
I now understand that much of what we called “Pentecostal worship” was actually poor attempts at cultural appropriation. A featured style among African Americans and prolifically exhibited at The Azusa Street Revival in Los Angels at the beginning of the last century, acts of worship that included manifestations that Ian MacRobert describes in The Black Roots and White Racism of Early Pentecostalism in the USA as “African primal religion [that] was danced and sung, beaten out in the rhythms and tones of ‘talking’ drums, the swaying of bodies and the stamping of feet, painted, cast in brass and carved in wood, ivory, clay and stone, enacted in ritual drama.” Upon visiting the Azusa revival, Charles Parham, a white racist competing to be recognized as a founding father of Pentecostalism, would dismiss what he witnessed there with the colonizing terminology of “crude negroisms.” And later, the humble leader of the Azusa revival and son of former slaves, William Seymour would be all but forgotten and treated with disdain by modern white Pentecostal proselytes. A sad microcosm in a history of marginalization in our Nation. But it is revealing, as historically white folks often attempt to rob cultures of their heritage and try to reimagine these gifts in ways that are devoid of spiritual life resulting in cheap imitations that are comical and often just ridiculous.
Much of the behavior that passed for worship is now somewhat abandoned, updated with excellent musicians, talent singers, and gifted communicators. But it is hard to unsee the root even if the fruit is now carefully manufactured with slick productions, flashing lights, and occasional smoke machines. Church as we have come to know it, is now just another consumer commodity to be compared, shopped, and discarded for a newer model and flashier product. What may be well-intentioned attempts to recapture perceived spiritual power and cultural relevance as it is read in the biblical Acts by twenty-first adherents to Apostolic religion, comes off as strange and eccentric at best and just plain weird at worst. Often requiring as much interpretation as the unknown tongues that are spoken in the services. Sometimes this leaves me with a longing for the small Pentecostal church of my childhood, which was, by comparison to the sleek oleaginous productions that pass for church today, somewhat enchanting. And always entertaining.