A few tongues to set the mood?

by K.W. Leslie, 17 May

Tongues aren’t mood enhancers. They’re prayer and prophecy.

1 Corinthians 14.5-12.

One of the practices I see too often in Pentecostal churches is the very same one Paul and Sosthenes saw in the church at Corinth. It’s the use of praying in tongues as atmosphere. “Okay everybody, call out to God in your prayer language,” will be the instruction. (Sometimes with the caveat, “If you have a prayer language,” and hopefully they do.) Then everybody’s expected to pray, or sing, or make various joyful noises, in tongues.

What’s this all about? Well, tongues are prayer. So we’re praying, and prayer is good. Right?

Except that’s not entirely why they’re doing it. They’re doing it to set the mood. “Change the atmosphere,” might be another way Christians put it. Create a vibe.

Ostensibly it’s to call upon the Holy Spirit, ’cause he’s the one who empowers tongues. 1Co 12.10 Makes it more obvious he’s in the room… ’cause he’s working the room, in order to get all these tongues unloosed. Secondarily, once people realize the Spirit’s in the room, that God’s really up to something, their attitudes might change.

Plus there’s this false idea found among too many Christians that when we pray, we gotta be in the right headspace. We gotta “incline our hearts towards prayer.” We gotta psyche ourselves into feeling holy, or receptive to anything God might say, or at least banish distracting (or naughty) thoughts from our minds.

For many Christians, when we find ourselves in a church building where a whole lot of Christians are audibly worshiping, it feels… well, different. Otherworldly. Holy. They love this feeling. It’s part of the reason one of my Orthodox friends loves going to church: He doesn’t speak a lick of Russian, but the incense and all these guys praying away in Russian… it just makes him feel transported to a mystic place. Pentecostals also don’t mind not understanding a word. And honestly, they wouldn’t mind (well, much) if it turns out a number of these “prayers” aren’t even prayer, but Christians making funny sounds to the best of their ability—with no Holy Spirit behind any of it. I’ve caught plenty of Christians praying in Spanish, figuring none of these monolingual Anglos sitting by them would know the difference anyway.

Like I said, it’s about setting the mood. Evoking a feeling of the Holy Spirit in the building, empowering people to pray. So… now that he’s empowered the tongues, what’s he gonna do next? ’Cause his presence is here! He’s making the place holy! The Holy Spirit’s gonna do something!

So what does he wind up doing? Well, it varies by church. In most of the churches I’ve been to: Not a lot.

I mean, the church service was nice. The music was good. People came away feeling positive and uplifted. But what’d we see in the way of miracles? Prophecies? People getting cured of illness? People having life-changing transformations, like coming to Jesus, dedicating themselves to follow him better, making major life decisions? Well… maybe there was four or five of those. But that happens at any church; even among cessationists, who are pretty sure the Holy Spirit’s only job is to magnify your bible. If that.

Oh, I won’t even touch what the cessationists think about this practice. They got their own issues anyway.

Not really tongues gone wild.

Much of the mainstream teaching on tongues, and 1 Corinthians, comes from the cessationist worldview anyway. They believe God turned off the miracles once the New Testament was complete; therefore they treat 1 Corinthians as ancient history, not current directions on how to worship and minister. And even those who believe God never turned off the miracles, are still inundated by cessationist interpretations and commentaries… which mislead ’em into downplaying these gifts. Even despising them.

Thanks to them, I’ve actually heard Pentecostals teach, “Tongues is the least of the gifts.” Where’s that in the bible again? It’s not there. But they heard it somewhere—and aren’t aware it came from a doubter and unbeliever. Whose interpretations they still embrace, and never think to scrutinize. Whose attitudes about prayer tongues and prophecy tongues are like talking about syrah and pinot with a teetotaler: It’s all wine to him, and he doesn’t want any. And would really rather you not have any either.

Hence so many interpretations of 1 Corinthians are, to be frank, biased against tongues. They read the letter through a lens of negativity: The Corinthians must’ve been wild, out-of-control, fleshly, even pagan. That behavior needed to be stamped out, and still does; good thing Paul and Sosthenes wrote them this letter.

Except the apostles didn’t ban the practice of tongues. In fact they banned the banning of it. 1Co 14.39 What they wanted was a lot more self-control among the Corinthians: Think about what you’re doing. Is it achieving what you expect? Or is it just an excuse for self-indulgence? Is it building up the group? Why worship together if we’re not gonna grow one another?

And… and I’ll just quote the apostles; that’s easier.

1 Corinthians 14.5-12 KWL
5 I want all of you to speak in tongues; most of all so you can prophesy.
Prophesy-speakers are more valuable than tongues-speakers—
unless tongues-speakers interpret themselves so the church can be built up.
6 Now fellow Christians, when I come to you as a tongues-speaker,
how do I benefit you when I don’t speak to you of revelation, knowledge, prophecy, nor teaching?
7 Likewise any non-vocal sound: When a flute or guitar is played improperly,
how will you know whether someone played the flute or the guitar?
8 When an unrecognizable sound comes out of a siren,
who prepares for an emergency?
9 Likewise you with tongues: When you don’t give a word that’s easy to understand,
how will people know what’s been said? You’re wasting your breath.
10 May every kind of great sound in the universe be achievable!—nothing without sound.
11 Still, when I don’t know the meaning of the sound, it’ll be like saying bar-bar-bar to me.
The one speaking to me will sound like bar-bar-bar.
12 So with you, since you’re zealous for the Spirit,
be zealous for a church abundantly built up.

The apostles’ objection was not that the Corinthians were swinging from the chandeliers, trying to out-shout one another in tongues at the top of their lungs, getting rowdy and punchy and showing off.

It’s that the purpose of tongues, from the time God created Adam with the ability to speak, is to communicate. And prayer in tongues actually does do that; but only with the Spirit. Only the Holy Spirit knows what we’re praying. Nobody else does. Nobody else can say amen to our prayers, because they haven’t a clue what we’re praying. 1Co 14.16 We’re not communicating with one another—which is the entire point of meeting as a church. Tongues build up the individual, 1Co 14.4 which means we can pray in tongues anytime and anywhere. But once we’re meeting in church, what should we be doing? Right: Group activities. Worship together.

And tongues is not a group activity.

I realize many a worship leader tries to make it one. “Everybody worship in your prayer language!” Give ’em freedom to cut loose in a way they feel comfortable… and let ’em really make some noise. But they don’t realize every time they do this, they’re repeating the Corinthians’ mistake.

Partly ’cause they’ve been taught the Corinthians’ mistake was to go buck wild. (And no doubt the Corinthians did get buck wild from time to time; I’ve seen how prayer meetings can get.) For them, there’s some order to their “everybody pray in tongues!” bit: They initiate it, they put a stop to it and move on; so it’s okay. They have order, whereas the Corinthians had no order. But chaos wasn’t really the problem. Thoughtless zeal was. 1Co 14.12

Wrong atmosphere. Wrong prize.

When a pagan enters the building—and if we’re doing our jobs as evangelists properly, this oughta happen on the regular—what will they think of tongues? Will they think it holiness? Or weirdness?

Clearly weirdness. Heck, many a Christian considers it weirdness.

1 Corinthians 14.23 KWL
So once the whole church gathered itself together, and everyone speaks in tongues,
and pagans or newbies come in: Don’t they say you’re mad?

Yeah, all the Christians who are used to this practice think it’s awesome, but all the newcomers think we just turned off our brains and started howling like berzerkers. Nicely-dressed ones, who thankfully don’t start killing, but still.

It’s why the apostles pointed out it makes way more sense for us to prophesy at them, and make them instantly realize God is in the room. 1Co 14.24-25 That should be the atmosphere we strive for. Revelation, not mystic babbling.

As for the regulars: When the pastors pause the service ’cause they wanna hear tongues, I remind you not all of us pray in tongues. The Spirit hasn’t granted everybody that ability. He can, but Christians are at various levels of maturity and ministry, so not all of us do tongues yet. Some of us never get mature enough, but that’s a whole other article.

And even among people who pray in tongues all the time, we can’t necessarily turn on the tongues whenever we wish. Yet I’ve been to many a prayer service where the pastor encouraged everyone to just start. Maybe he could just start; not everyone else could.

Leaders justify this behavior by claiming it encourages people to pursue supernatural gifts. 1Co 14.1 Well yeah, but if you actually read 1 Corinthians you realize there’s a way to encourage, and a way not to. The unintended side effect of taking an individual worship practice 1Co 14.4 and turning it into a group one, is that now they feel an inappropriate pressure to show off their worship. They want tongues because they wanna show others they can do tongues.

They’ll do one of two things: Learn to fake it expertly… or grow to desperately want the ability to speak in tongues. And not so much the Holy Spirit, who empowers the tongues. Not the closer relationship with God. Not the ability to minister to others in a more supernatural way. Not the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which helps us attain all these things. Not because tongues will ramp up their prayer life. They only want tongues, and want ’em so they won’t feel stupid when everybody else can speak in tongues and they can’t. They wanna fit in.

I can’t fault people for wanting to fit in. Instead I blame the people who create the unhealthy atmosphere, where people feel they don’t fit in. Worse, when the Spirit won’t grant ’em tongues ’cause they’re asking with the wrong motives, they’ll get frustrated and leap to all sorts of wrong, immature conclusions: “God doesn’t love me,” or “Maybe he’s saying no because I’m sinning,” or even “I caught somebody faking tongues! What if they’re all faking it?”

Any worship environment which demands tongues, is doing it wrong, and creating more chaos than they realize.

So here in 1 Corinthians, the apostles’ critique wasn’t about running amok. Nor was it meant to ban tongues. It was to point out how the Spirit doesn’t give ’em to us so we can make a room feel spiritual. They’re to pray, and sometimes prophesy. They’re for you, not the room. Leave the group out of ’em.

Instead, the group should worship in a way which can be done by the lowest common denominator. Everybody can sing (more or less); everybody can pray. Leaders can teach, prophesy, and intercede—and demonstrate how these things are done so everybody can learn to do ’em too.

But don’t demand gifted behavior of ungifted people. Keep the gifted folks on the sidelines. Let them use their gifts where appropriate. Those with the gifts can use them to build up the group. Think about the group. That’s always the point.