When the church finds you (Part 1)

“Depart, depart, go out from there! Touch no unclean thing! Come out from it and be pure, you who carry the vessels of the Lord. But you will not leave in haste or go in flight; for the Lord will go before you, the God of Israel will be your rear guard.” (Isaiah 52:11-12)

It was nearly forty years ago, feeling depressed and carrying loads of self-condemnation, that I tried and failed to find a church in or near my hometown that met my criteria. Instead, you could say that the church found me.

It’s been so long, I don’t even remember the exact sequence of events, only that a church about 45 minutes away had started an outreach ministry in my hometown that met every Friday evening on the third floor of a retail store building. It was basically a once-a-week coffeehouse, and about half a dozen church members made the trip down each week to help minister.

It was what persons at the time still called a “charismatic fellowship.” (I’m not sure what the 2020 designation would be since “charismatic” is a worn-out label.) I wasn’t completely unprepared for the way they did church because I had attended a charismatic Episcopal church in Baltimore while looking for work in the area in 1981.

What struck me first about that fellowship in Baltimore was the variety of persons that participated: black and white, young and old, button-down professionals and baristas and plumber’s helpers in threadbare-jeans.

Oh, and the intensity of their worship of the Lord. In fact, it blasted to smithereens my conceited idea that I couldn’t be satisfied until I found something “real” in a local church. Their love for God was so real that I wanted to exit the building like smoke rising up a chimney.

As a child, I was your basic grilled-Velveeta-on-Wonder-bread Presbyterian (it doesn’t have an article on Wikipedia, so you don’t have to look). The Order of Service was printed on a piece of paper with greeting-card-type religious artwork on the reverse. Asterisks served as stage directions for the congregation: * Congregation standing; ** Congregation seated; *** Feign interest (just kidding).

So, when I encountered charismatic worship for the first time, an instinctive reserve kicked in. I tried not to think about it, but I’m sure anyone else who glanced momentarily about the room would have seen the living statue that was me. Like a neon restaurant sign, the word that kept flashing in my mind was emotionalism, which was inappropriate for church (or so I was told).

Except that, as I re-read the psalms, which were a kind of guide to worship for the people of God centuries before Christ, I encountered a range of emotions, from joyous, hand-clapping exuberance to sober and serious contemplation of God and one’s own spiritual condition.

So there I was, by temperament a product of the sober-and-somber school of religious behavior, challenged to be something else when, like the Bereans, I examined the Scriptures to see what they actually said about worship (Acts 17:11).

This subtle shift—to the fear of the Lord rather than men, who I thought looked askance as I did at emotionalism—proved to be the beginning of wisdom.

Typically, it was the sober-and-somber crowd like me who applied the label emotionalism to the handclapping, arm-waving, shoutin’ Baptists whom we tolerated at arm’s length. But that isn’t what emotionalism is. After all, sober and somber are emotions, too, though superficially they appear to be the absence of emotion.

Like legalism or biblicism, think of the -ism tacked on the end as an indicator of something that overrides everything else, even the word of God. It’s controlling what God himself ought to be directing through his written word or by prompting of the Holy Spirit.

When we insist on reaching a certain emotional “temperature” each and every time before we characterize it as the worship of God, we are setting the thermostat, so to speak, not God, who is to be worshiped “in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23). And there are times when, in truth, we ought to be sober before the Lord over our present spiritual condition, not clapping and dancing.

Conversely, the sober-and-somber saints (like me at that time) need to abandon the either/or definition of true worship, where it’s a choice between emotionalism vs. ”reining in our emotions.” We should take our cue from Solomon, who recognized there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Eccl 3:4).

What both camps share is the tendency to usurp God’s authority to direct the worship of himself by setting the emotional thermostat low or high according to personal preference. In other words, both can be guilty of emotionalism.

And if chapter after chapter on the design of the tabernacle in Exodus, or the regulations of the priesthood in Leviticus, show us anything, it is that it is God’s prerogative to define and orchestrate how he is to be worshiped on every occasion, not ours. If you can’t let go of that, then you really haven’t found God’s church.

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