I spent many of my formative years in an assortment of Pentecostal churches across the state of Mississippi. They were the old-school, holiness variety, where matriarchs with tall buns would experience sudden shocks of emotion, standing, shouting, running all over the sanctuary, raining bobby pins wherever they went. On certain occasions, they would call those of us who were youth to join in, to experience what they experienced. We would come to the front and they would dab our heads with olive oil, urging the Spirit to pour out upon us, entreating us to give into a feeling they assumed we felt.
I did not do any such thing; worse, I felt compelled to do no such thing. I felt no explosive energy in my chest forcing me, almost against my will, to dance or shout or prophesy or speak in other tongues. I feared one of two scenarios: either I was unknowingly squashing that internal fire, “quenching the spirit,” or worse yet, I was not adequately sanctified for the Spirit to fill me. I was an unclean vessel, and so the Spirit would not come to fill me up. I was entering my teenage years, and I knew what darkness filled my soul, the way I now looked at the girls my age, the thoughts I now had about them. I could not worship the way the people in my church wanted me to, and I knew it was something that was wrong with me.
I was a sensitive child, but not overly expressive. I internalized things, and so I did with my inability to express myself in worship the way which others seemed to expect of me. I felt my feelings strongly, but I was not and am not overly prone to tears. This is not for any pretense of manliness, although I expect that intractable standard of Southern masculinity is more deep in my bones than I even now know. My own introspection fed into a recursive loop: I internalized my feelings, so I could not worship expressively without knowing I was faking it and, knowing that, I continued to look inward to find what inside me blocked that river of life from bursting from me like a flood.
We sang songs with lyrics like “we bring the sacrifice of praise.” Our God demanded a sacrifice, and we offered up our emotions in the form of shouting, in Jericho marches that took us around the sanctuary, and in dancing. I have no doubt that those who did these things did so out of sincerity, but I could not, so I suspected some sort of spiritual deficiency within myself.
Years later, I would find my self in a similar situation, with new faces demanding this same ransom. Instead of tall buns, they were goateed men with skinny jeans and guitars. They demanded I raise my hands and my voice and shout at the Lord so he would not pass me by, and only a desperate cry would make him turn his head. I stood by once again, but no longer willing to fake an emotional reaction I was incapable of.
Eventually, I found the Spirit working in me in ways that I never expected. I remember reading Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God in my home, reading about the breadth of God’s love, how it envelops us and invites us in, and felt an atomic explosion of joy in my heart. I discovered prayer book and contemplation and, in my time of prayer, with no one standing over me urging me, I prayed in tongues. I discovered that the Spirit moves in all sorts of ways to people with all sorts of dispositions.
For many of those who preach such expressive worship, they do so with the understanding that their emotions are a response to what God has done for them. The analogy goes like this, if you shout and get excited for football on Saturday, how can you simply sit on your hands for God when he has done so much for you than some sports team? This analogy assumes a great deal about how others watch sports. The little sports-watching I do typically takes place either in the form of either reclining or nervous pacing, with any shouting being nearly nonexistent. Something in my wiring makes such displays difficult.
Fortunately, there is no more sacrifices that we need to make. In Christ Jesus, the ultimate sacrifice has been made and praise has been perfected. As the theologian Marva Dawn has said, God is both the subject and the object of worship. Worship is not a work for us to achieve, but one accomplished already in our high priest Jesus, who now invites us to participate through the gift of the Spirit. So we do not need to compel one another to worship adequately, least God will not hear us or God will not be present with us. The God-Who-is-with-Us took on the weight of worship on himself in Christ Jesus.
Worship transforms us and reforms us, but God does not need our worship. God is complete in the fullness of the Godhead. God does not need our worship but we need to worship God. We need to worship God because we come to resemble the things we worship. When we worship the temporal things of the world we become like them, vapid and passing away; when we worship God, the image of God within us is restored and we are remade in his likeness.
God does not need your shout, but if God puts a shout in you, you better let it out. There is a place for that exuberant worship of the Pentecostal church. I still consider myself a Pentecostal and I celebrate the freedom for worship for those so inclined to worship with exuberance. For those of us not inclined to extroverted praise, we should have tools available such as the Book of Common Prayer and through the practice of silence. There is no need to forbid shouting or running the aisles. I celebrate the gift of those spiritual mothers and fathers in my life and I believe we need their voice in the church.
At Renovatus Church in Charlotte, it is a part of their manifesto that “liturgy and the primal shout” can coexist. I hope so, and I continue to work to reconcile these two seemingly irreconcilable things. This is part of the mission of my ministry, to bring together the oil and water of Pentecost and liturgy and fusing them together. At the foot of the cross, there is room for worshipers of all dispositions to gather and adore.