Following Jesus to the Altar: One Pentecostal’s Reflection

Bearing the weight of a grief I couldn’t name, one Sunday I tarried at the altar, a classical Pentecostal phrase that involves praying mightily for a divine encounter with the Holy Spirit.  I stood, along with others, near the front of the worship space, my body enveloped by the band’s percussive rhythms and the praise team’s soaring vocals.  I, I’ve seen God do it, and I know / it’s working out for me. / It’s getting ready to happen. The entire assembly chanted the song’s refrain, again and again: It’s getting ready to happen, it’s getting ready to happen.  I wasn’t kneeling at a structure but standing, walking, rocking on my heels at the “altar,” a space that in most Pentecostal settings encompasses the center front of the church, stage left and stage right as well.

My moments of tarrying, or waiting expectantly, involved both the fervent hope for a divine encounter with the Holy Ghost, and a struggle with my willingness to surrender to the experience. And then it happened . . .

When you’re filled with the Holy Spirit, there’s an entire array of possible embodied expressions – raising hands, speaking (or singing) in tongues, shuddering or jerking, holy dancing, weeping, moaning, fainting, or being slain in the Spirit, which can put your body prone. (We sometimes call this, tongue-in-cheek, “floor duty.”) I began to “run the aisles,” as it’s called in Pentecostal practice, sprinting clockwise around the room’s periphery. I was in motion, yet somehow still “at the altar,” within the space of encounter. I wept as I ran, conscious of the Spirit’s presence and nearing the point of surrender:  I’ve seen God do it, and I know . . . it’s working out for me.  My run ended moments later as my body crumpled at the center-front of the worship space, where many others, too, labored under the power of the Spirit.  Some ended up, like me, on the floor, eyes closed, body shuddering, some speaking in tongues, others moaning deeply.

As I returned to waking consciousness, the deacons brought me water, and I sat up to drink it in the afterglow of this divine encounter. Bishop Levi then asked me in a whisper, “You got what you came for?”  He meant not just the emotional catharsis but the meeting of the Holy Spirit.

What, for Pentecostals, does it mean to follow Jesus? And what do expressive embodied encounters like the one I’ve described have to do with following Jesus? What are the ethical implications of such encounters?  Those are crucial questions, but first I want to tackle matters of definition and scope: What do we mean when we speak of Pentecostalism?  What are the boundaries of this confusing category? Who does it include or exclude?

As our year-long conversations have revealed, each of our respective traditions are diverse, even when that internal diversity is overlooked or suppressed.  But the Pentecostal world resembles the nightmare scenarios of Reformation-era popes who fretted about the fragmentation of Christ’s Body due to the anti-Roman revolts across Latin Christendom. Pentecostalism carries the spiritual DNA of sectarian Protestantism, with pronounced tendencies to splinter endlessly across countless vectors – doctrine and biblical interpretation, competing leadership styles, as well as around race, ethnicity, region, and national origin, as well as matters regarding access to wealth and other resources.

Is it even possible to speak of a coherent Pentecostal tradition? Do we mean “classical Pentecostalism,” a category that includes the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), the largest Pentecostal denomination in the U.S., the Assemblies of God, the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), the Church of God in Prophecy, the Apostolic Pentecostal Church, hundreds of smaller groups, and thousands of independent Pentecostal churches? Do we include charismatics in non-Pentecostal denominations? What about neo-charismatics? Neo-Pentecostals? What about Christians who belong to churches that fall between these categories?  No wonder some scholars have taken up the umbrella term “renewalist” to describe movements of Christians that emphasize the work of the Holy Spirit.

There are certain common experiences shared by many if not most renewalist Christians– family resemblances within this thicket of diversity. One of these resemblances is the experience of worship as a theater of divine encounter, a space of intense emotion and intimacy where God meets us at the altar.

I came into Pentecostal faith after decades inside and at the margins of the Episcopal Church where the “altar” is an object made of wood, stone, or other material, set within a designated space called the chancel. In Anglican settings, as in Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions, altars are also places of divine encounters, where Christians encounter God in the Eucharist.

Yet the Pentecostal altar is not just a place but a space within the assembly. To be sure, Pentecostal altars might include material objects such as a table or a prayer railing at the front of the worship space where the faithful kneel, but as an experience, the Pentecostal altar is more than that.  The altar is the space where Pentecostals learn what it means to follow Jesus through encountering the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. As the early Pentecostal leader William J. Seymour taught, the altar is where “the great Shekina of glory is continually burning and filling with heavenly light.”

Renewalist praise music has much to say about the altar as a dynamic space of encounter.  Take, for example, the Elevation Worship neo-charismatic ballad, O Come to the Altar.  The message is one of vulnerability, desire, confession, forgiveness, and the yearning for transformation: “Have you come to the end of yourself? / Do you thirst for a drink from the well? / Jesus is calling,” . . . “O Come to the altar / The Father’s arms are open wide,” “Bow down before him,” “Bear the cross as you wait for the crown.” The ballad is an old-school altar call dressed in new fashions, but God is calling these Christians not to a particular place, not to a table or a railing. Wherever in the assembly they’re standing, arms uplifted in a pose of surrender, they are at the altar, at the space of divine encounter. In a moment like this, the Holy Spirit is present in subtler ways than in my own kinetic experience that I related earlier.  You can see it in the arms gently raised, the flutter of an eyelid, the soft murmur of tongues-speech, the tilt of the head toward heaven, the tapping of the heart with the palm of one’s hand.

In more classical Pentecostal style, the late Gospel singer LaShun Pace sings about the fire of the Holy Spirit in Is Your All on the Altar:  “You can only be blessed and have peace and sweet rest / when you yield to Him your body and soul,” reminding the assembly that the altar is a place of expectation, waiting, a place of surrender and reception, before it becomes the place of transformation. The Spirit burns away sin and whatever pain and burden we bring to sacrifice upon the altar.  (For Pace in that moment, it was the grief she carried from the recent loss of her daughter.)

As a theater of divine encounter, the Pentecostal (or renewalist) altar can be a “transgressive space,” a term Gastón Espinoza has used to describe the altars at Azusa Street, the 1906 Los Angeles revivals that helped put the Pentecostal movement on the Christian map.  As Espinoza argues, Azusa Street’s altar was transgressive for many reasons, not just because of its intensely embodied practices but also because black, white, Latino, and Asian-American Christians gathered there.  Together. Transgressive indeed, this race-mixing in Jim Crow America, and certainly one of the reasons the earliest Pentecostals were despised by the mainline white Protestant establishment. Azusa street represented a fleeting but powerful moment of cross-racial comity, itself a sign of life.

The altar where I first experienced the baptism of the Holy Ghost is a transgressive space, which is why I use the provocative language of “flying the freak flag” to unabashedly embrace Pentecostal ideas and (especially?) actions that might puzzle or even repel others.  The explosive global growth of renewalist versions of the faith continues unabated, yet I’m under no illusion that most American Christians will soon dance in the aisles, even though that’s exactly what they do at Middle Church, one of the old Dutch Reformed Collegiate congregations in New York City, historically one of the least renewalist places one could imagine.

Neither in my experience nor in my conviction is being “filled with the Spirit” an end unto itself.  It’s nothing short of earth shattering – or should I say ego shattering? –  that the indwelling of the Holy Ghost leads to self-transformation:  God is now within me, or at least within my metaphorical heart!  Personal transformation also holds within it the potential for the transformation of the Christian assembly, and indeed the community beyond.  In other words, spiritual transformation can and should have real-world effects.

In a Pentecostal world of such bewildering variety, it’s not surprising that there are disagreements aplenty about those real-world effects, as our present American moment demonstrates.  Renewalist Christians have been among the most ardent proponents of the prosperity Gospel, and the most fervent supporters of Trumpist attacks on American democracy, racial equality, and gender and sexual justice.

Yet there are other Spirit-filled Christians who preach and practice a version of renewalism that is wildly different in terms of everyday ethics.  For instance, my Pentecostal life is centered in communities affiliated with the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries (TFAM), a network of mostly queer and mostly black Christians described by the anthropologist Ellen Lewin in her recent book, Filled with the Spirit. TFAM has deep roots within the largest black Pentecostal denomination in the U.S., the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), in part because our founder, Bishop Yvette Flunder, emerged from that tradition. At the same time, the congregation I serve is also associated with the United Church of Christ (UCC), a mostly white liberal mainline (or oldline?) denomination where some local congregations – surprise! – are increasingly awakening to Spirit-filled worship.

How queer is that context?!

This isn’t the place to recount the history of how TFAM and other queer-positive groups emerged from classical Pentecostalism, but in shorthand:  a Spirit-filled community of people rejected the demonization of gender non-conforming people and sexual minorities. They offered instead a vision of church as a place “where the edge gathers,” as Bishop Flunder puts it, a place of radical inclusivity open to people whose churches had marginalized or expelled them.

Many renewalist Christians would regard the communities where I worship to be a wellspring of satanic rather than sanctified power. They’d be repulsed by doctrinal transgressions, no doubt, but what would likely rankle them most is that we understand gender diversity and sexual difference as God-given, precious, holy.  Our praise and worship are a reversal of the experience of some whom have endured the trauma of exorcisms – out, foul spirits of homosexuality! – and expulsion from churches and families.

Renewalist Christians are a Spirit-loving people, yet as scripture tells us, it’s imperative to test the spirits. What are the everyday ethics of Christians who claim the moniker Pentecostal? What is the fruit of the Holy Spirit?  It’s not running the aisles, speaking in tongues, or exhibiting other charisms at the altar, though these embodied experiences are, for some of us, harbingers of the Spirit’s arrival. But they are certainly not what it means to follow Jesus. Paul’s words to the fractious communities he addressed in Galatians gives us clues about how the apostle understood everyday Christian ethics:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

At the altars of TFAM communities, here in the United States, in Kenya, Uganda, and the U.K., I’ve witnessed my Spirit-anointed Bishop prophesy the coming of a third Pentecost, one more expansive than St. Paul’s wildest dreams, more inclusive and transgressive than the second Pentecost at Azusa Street.  The “fresh wind” of this Third Pentecost, Bishop Flunder says, is an invitation to all of God’s people – everyone – to work together for the spiritual, emotional, and material flourishing of all people.  After all, isn’t that what love is?

Bishop sings it better than I can ever say it, in her sermonic riff on a classic Pentecostal praise song,  I Hear the Sound of Pentecost

I need some people to believe with me . . . that the power of love is stronger than the power of hatred, and the power is peace is stronger than the power of war. And if you believe with me, and trust with me, our voices will connect, one person to another and another . . . God is greater than the power of the enemy.

That prophecy makes me dance with joy at the altar, as I await this Third Pentecost, grateful for the radically relational pneumatology that undergirds it.

Somebody shout Hallelujah, please.