Sunday, October 30, 2011

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Undwellable City (30 second promo)

nice comments from my editor

Julie Little is my editor. She's done contract work for Westwinds for the last couple of years, editing several atlases for myself, Ben, and Jvo. She's very skilled and a pleasure to work with.

Julie's first love is fiction; so, when I decided to write The Undwellable City she was the logical person to call and ask for help. And she has been fantastically helpful. She sees holes in the plot, inconsistencies in the characters, and makes useful suggestions about conflict, tension, and pacing.

Plus she fixes all my spelling mistakes :)

At the end of editing part four Julie wrote me the following note. I don't normally like to post stuff like this, but I was genuinely touched by her kind words. I'm reprinting them here so I never lose them:

And the thriller continues! You are going to have people beating down your door to get to Part 5. Way to go; this is awesome stuff! I loved reading this. A true page-turner. You seem to know just where to twist the plot and leave the readers hanging, and you also draw on some very thought-provoking themes without beating us over the head with them. This character is so realistic, flawed, and human. I’m amazed at the world you have created and its spiritual parallels. You have a knack for novels, I think; maybe this is a new genre for you!

Pretty cool, huh?

Julie - whatever we're paying you, it's not enough

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Undwellable City: short film #1

The UnDwellable City

I've always been amazed by people's willingness to talk about movies, books, and television. Even bad movies, books, and television. Buckaroo Bonzai generated a lot of conversation. The new Conan remake got a lot of people talking. Twlight, The Shack, and The Five People You Meet in Heaven were all watercooler fodder for a long time.

I've written 1.6million words of pop-theology in my 6 years at Westwinds. 36 Teaching Atlases. 19 White Papers. Granted, I'm no John Donne or Thomas Aquinas...but the sheer volume ought to count for something.

It occurs to me that, had I written 1.6million words of FICTION instead of non-fiction, I might have had far more success in fostering conversation. And that's really what I want. I began writing Atlases so people could take what they experienced at Westwinds, digest it on their own time (and at a deeper level), and then live enriched by their new understanding.

But William Paul Young has been far more successful in getting people to do that with The Shack than I have with even my best stuff--Bleached, Sin Monkey, Monsters, Shadowing God.

So I've written a story, my first attempt at a novel. It's about a widower who takes the gospel to Atlantis and it's titled "The Undwellable City."

I originally began referring to the genre as "speculative theology" (a play on "speculative fiction," often referred to as SCI-FI or FANTASY). But speculative theology makes it sound like I'm going to pretend Jesus was an astronaut and Mary was his buxom barmaid. Instead, Jvo suggested I call it "anecdotal theology." I like that, a lot.

But the truth is that The Undwellable City is narrative theology in the strictest sense. I've taken God's story, and woven it together with the lives of real people in a fictional story. It's His narrative + our narrative; which, after all, is the basis for all good theology.

Jacob, my 7 year old son, provided the source material. Knowing I have a tendency toward abstract concepts and heady-ideas, I asked Jake what his 5 favorite things were to read about, play with, and pretend to be. As a result, The Undwellable City takes a "speculative theologian" and exposes him to Atlantis, sports, war, science, and zombies.

The Undwellable City will be released in 5 parts, beginning this Sunday, at Westwinds. Each part has been lovingly illustrated by my friend Heidi Rhodes and beautifully laid out by our mutual friend Carrie Joers. Davey Buchanan, my long-time mentor and coach in the world of new media, has spent hours developing a short-film//fictional documentary series about David Mann (the principal character), and we'll be showing these films around the winds as well.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


During WWII 300,000 British troops were trapped at Dunkirk by the Germans with the sea as their only escape route. There is no boat big enough to hold 300,000 people; but those men were evacuated safely because the British Navy supplied many little ones.

One church cannot effectively change all of Jackson County, let alone all of southern Michigan or the Midwest. It will take many churches. Some of the churches that will make a difference will be unlike Westwinds; but other churches will need to be tailored, like Westwinds, to the world of Google, Facebook, and the iPhone. We need more churches reaching the spiritually curious, those disenfranchised with organized religion, the intellectuals, and the creatives.

The best way to reach new people is through new churches. For example, did you know that, on average, the older a church the less effective it is in introducing people to Christ? So, if a church is 50 years old they introduce 1 new person to Christ, on average, for every 90 members. That’s a growth rate of only 1.1%/yr. A church of 10 years averages 1 new Christ-follower for every 7 members (14%/yr), and a church of 3 years averages 1 new Christ-follower for every 3 members (33%/yr).

In our contemporary context, 80% of people come to faith in Jesus Christ through churches less than 2 years old. If we believe in the mission of God to heal the world, and we believe that the local church is the way God plans to see it done, then we’ve got to do a better job of planting churches.

There are many ways to start new churches, but – contrary to popular opinion – finding some lone church planter to go off by themselves into a new city is the least effective. Conversely, the most effective (and least risky) kind of church plant is to create a franchise.

This is the same idea we see so often in business. For example, after a frustrating vacation stuck in too many dirty, sour motels, a Tennessee businessman came up with a novel idea: a network of family-friendly hotels across the country, all with the same name. We know this network as the Holiday Inn, and people loved it right from the start – a place where you could always count on experiencing the same quality and find a core of common features, such as an on-premises restaurant and a child-friendly environment.

That’s what we want to do with Westwinds – we want to create franchises so people can go to a variety of locations and experience Team Jesus, Westwinds style. In the church world, we refer to that as becoming a ‘multi-site’ congregation, and there are currently over 2,000 multi-site churches in the USA alone. In contrast to beginning a new church from scratch, a multi-site expansion keeps the overhead costs low (the same staff can be utilized, the same resources and materials) and quickly overcomes the hurdles against which most new churches struggle (such as mission, vision, core values, and strategic alignment). A multi-site church benefits from the wisdom and experience of existing elder and finance teams, policy and procedures, as well as having a strong, built-in missional DNA.

With a multi-site church you get the excitement of a new church start, with the stability and excellence that comes from existing church success.


low risk, low cost

brand new church, with a trusted brand

new church vibe plus big church quality

sharing resources (atlases, satellites, staff, budget, elders/finance) shared DNA/core pre-established network for problem solving increases total number of seats available during optimal worship times enables untapped talent – new opportunities for ministry and involvement

After reviewing these simple facts, I can’t help but wonder: If this is the most effective means of introducing new people into the kingdom in America, and if we can do it cheaply, locally, and without much risk, why wouldn’t we? We’ve got free space on the second-largest traffic route for 20miles (1825 Spring Arbor road, where we’re renovating our youth center). We’ve got top level staff and professional grade resources. If anyone can think of a good way to do a new thing it’s us.

Nothing is stopping us.

Think of it this way: Jackson has a great pizza parlor, Klavon’s, where everyone likes to eat Chicago-style pizza. But Klavon’s is just one spot, and it’s way out in Rives Junction. If Klavon’s wants to find 1,000 new customers they’re going to have to be in more than one location. A new location, even one fairly close, gives Klavon’s the opportunity to gather 1,000 new pizza lovers.

That’s what we want to do. We can’t make a bigger Westwinds, but if start another one we get our bests opportunity at introducing 1,000 new people to Team Jesus, Westwinds’ style.

One final thought: becoming a multi-site congregation is a cool idea with some neat potential, but it’s not an end-unto-itself. It’s not even a strategy for growth, but a way for our church to keep on growing. What truly stimulates growth is our commitment to shadow God and heal the world. That’s what fuels and funds transformation in the lives of real people, and that’s what will fuel and fund the transformation of our church in the future.

The new Westwinds campus!

it feels like i haven't blogged in a LONG time. sorry about that.

part of the reason concerns the changing landscape at westwinds. we've been working hard since january to prepare for the opening of our new campus: 1825 spring arbor road (at the hub). services will be held there every sunday morning at 10am, in between our regular 9 am & 11 am services on robinson road.

because so many of you have asked, i'll do my best to field a couple of common questions about the new campus:

1. who will be speaking there?
- myself and ben. simply put, there are 12 opportunities to speak in a typical (4-week) month. i will be speaking 9 of those times and ben will do the other three. on most sundays i will speak at robinson at 9, drive to spring arbor to speak at 10, then back to robinson at 11. some days, however, i'll just do one campus or the other, as will ben.

2. who will be doing music?
- jvo and chad. jvo will be overseeing the music at both campuses, but chad will be leading at the hub 3 out of every 4 weeks. on the odd week of the month chad and jvo will rotate.

3. will the hub be very different from robinson road?
- yes and no. what we do at robinson, we will do at the hub. it will still be westwinds - complete with weirdness and wonder - but, by virtue of the fact that the room is different and the location is different, we anticipate that the new campus will take on a life (and to some extent a personality) all its own.

4. will there be childcare/kids' journey at the hub?
- yes, but only up until kindergarten. if your children are age 6 or older, then robinson road will likely serve your family better.

5. i'm new to westwinds. which campus should i go to?
- go to the hub. new campuses are the best place for new people to get plugged in and involved in hands-on ministry. you're far more likely to make friends and get connected at the hub than at robinson.

hope that helps!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Jewish Legend

whenever i come across old stories like this one i try and jot them down (in contemporary language) as quickly as i can. i discovered this little gem while researching the parable of the good samaritan:

In the old stories, whenever someone died they contaminated the land. Consequently, as people neared death, their families often fought about which land they would contaminate.

Two priests were arguing about this issue, specifically about the boundary between the Temple and the City. They argued about which of these places would become unclean, if someone died on the border between them. The Temple priest claimed that the House of God could never be contaminated. The City priest claimed that God would spare His people from contamination.

To settle the debate, the City priest grabbed a young man from the market and plunged a knife into his chest while straddling the border. As the young man lay dying, the Temple priest stood before the people and posed the question: what has now been defiled?

But the young man's father was there. He ran to his son, screaming that he was not dead. The father held his son and forced the people would bear witness. He cursed the priests. He told them: my son will not die, and his wound will never stop bleeding, until you recognize that loving religion is no substitute for loving another human being.

Because the priests failed to perceive the father's wisdom, just as they failed to perceive their own sin, the City and the Temple both drowned in the blood of the son.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

my friend, eric jones

my friend eric died this week. it was too soon. he'd been fighting cancer for a long time. he lost that fight, but he won many others.

he fought to demonstrate courage to his children. he won that fight.

he fought to show his wife he loved her with every breath.

he won that one, too. he fought to keep his faith, his hope, and his dignity alive. he won that triple crown, uncontested.

he fought to prove that, though cancer may have claimed his health, it has no defeated his spirit.

he fought to prove that life is worth living, that the people around us matter, and that the way we conduct ourselves while suffering counts for a great deal.

i'm going to miss you, hell-fighter. but i know you're in better place. "to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord" paul says in 2 corinthians 5, and i know you're there and even now your being transformed from this fragile form into something far superior. again, paul says that our perishable bodies will be transformed into heavenly bodies that will never die' (1 Corinthians 15).

death has come and done its worst, but you endure.

we'll see you soon.

Friday, July 22, 2011

the problem of evil (teaser for this week's installment of "funny you should ask")

The Problem of Evil from Brandon McCarrell on Vimeo.

feeling much like my old self again...thanks for asking

wow. i'm a little surprised that so many of you read this. i'm doubly surprised at all the texts and phone calls and emails making sure i'm alright.

i'm alright. i promise. no craziness detected :)

after a couple more days at home, some late nights, some minor work urgency, and some time devoted to a passion project, i feel much more myself again.

albeit, myself at 100 degrees.

Monday, July 18, 2011

feeling a little weird...

i've been feeling a little off my game since leaving for vacation. i didn't quite feel right the whole time i was away, and that feeling has intensified since returning home.

sorry if any of you have been casualties of that.

i'm doing what i always try and do when i feel a little off kilter: shut up and not do anything stupid. it's good advice. i often give it to others. i mostly give it to myself.

in the midst of feeling like a C- version of dave mcdonald, i still want to exercise A+ discipline. even if i don't feel amazing, i want to protect those around me from any moodiness, melancholy, or malaise.

i'm writing all this (which is information i typically consider "too private" for places like blogger and twitter and facebook) because of a comment someone made to me today at church. they were talking about how *perfect* i am (their words, not mine!) and about how i must never struggle with anything in life - especially not anything emotional.

we all struggle. sometimes we lose. but we should never stop fightingt.

this too shall pass. it always does. don't sweat it in the meantime.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

pentecost sunday (today's sermon transcript)

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Acts 2.1-4

Pentecost was the name of an ancient Jewish feast associated with the Exodus. Fifty days after the first Passover Moses ascended Mount Sinai and received the Torah (the Jewish law). This occurred just as the grain was being harvested; so the Hebrew people took the first sheaf of grain, known as the “first fruits,” and offered it to God.

From the beginning Pentecost was about the law and the harvest. The law was associated with fruitfulness because of what it produced in the lives of the righteous. Yet it was also compared to fire because of its tendency to burn away unrighteousness.

After the Ascension 120 disciples gathered together for prayer on the Day of Pentecost, during which time the Holy Spirit descended upon them in a new way. Everyone would have been aware of the connection between the law and the harvest. They would have known - independent of fire and wind and tongues - that a new law and a new kind of harvest were breaking into their reality.

When Moses ascended Sinai he received the law, which he then brought down to the people. Christ also Ascended, but into heaven rather than a mountaintop, and he has sent his Spirit to replace the law of Moses.

The coming of the Spirit at Pentecost was like a new Sinai.

But Sinai wasn’t the only episode from the First Testament to rhyme with Pentecost. In Genesis 11, for example, all of the world’s population gathered together and attempted to build a tower leading straight to heaven. It’s not that they wanted to invade heaven, so much as they want to prove their equality with God. In judgment, God dissembled their language from one common tongue to many disparate ones. As a result, the people could no longer understand each other.

In Genesis 11 God supernaturally diversified language, but in Acts 2 God supernaturally unified language. Not wholly, but representatively. Now, instead of human beings reaching up to identify with God, God has come down personally to identify with us. He has sent His Spirit to provide us a comforter, an interpreter, a guide, a healer, and a counselor.

We also see the Holy Spirit in the First Testament coming on particular people at specific times for unique tasks. For example, the Spirit filled Bezelel with skill, ability, and knowledge to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver, and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship (see Exodus 31). Likewise, the Spirit empowered cowardly Gideon – the least among all men in his tribe –to become a mighty leader and judge (see Judges 6-8). Samson, too, is a baffling tale in which an ordinary man is given superhuman strength when the Spirit comes upon him (see Judges 13-16). Isaiah proclaimed good news to the poor in the Spirit’s power, and prophesied Christ’s coming (see Isaiah 61, 40, 53).

The coming of the Spirit at Pentecost was also the fulfillment of an ancient promise. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel prophesied that God would one day replace the law ‘written on tablets of stone’ with a new law ‘written on the hearts of men.’

I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.

Jeremiah 31.33

The Spirit was seen as the means to experience abundant life now more than ever before. This is the fulfillment of another ancient promise, made through Joel:

I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

Your sons and daughters will prophesy,

your old men will dream dreams,

your young men will see visions.

Joel 2.28

The Day of Pentecost was a special event, but not entirely unique. Both prior to and following Pentecost people were filled with the Spirit and empowered as witnesses for Christ and his kingdom. In fact, Luke describes nine different instances of people being filled with the Spirit in his writing (Luke 1.15; 1.41; 1.67; Acts 2.4; 4.8; 4.31; 9.17; 13.9; 13.52). This demonstrates that Pentecost was a continuation of God’s long-term mission to heal the world. The only difference was the distribution method.

Pentecost is about the transfer of the Spirit from Christ to the disciples. During his earthly ministry Jesus was the sole-possessor of God’s Spirit, but at Pentecost he re-distributed God’s power to his followers. When Christ told his disciples he must leave but they should not be afraid, he was referring to the fact that he would Ascend to the Father and send the Spirit in his place. Christ told them they would be clothed with power from on high. This promise is consistent with his commissioning of the Twelve earlier, when Christ gave them authority to heal diseases, cast our demons, and exercise power (see Luke 9.1-6). They became partners with Christ colonizing the Kingdom of God on earth. Through this transfer the disciples become the heirs and successors to the ministry of Jesus. Because Christ poured out the Spirit on them, the disciples can continue God’s mission to heal the world with the same resources as Christ himself.

I like how Brian McLaren, in his book The Secret Message of Jesus, has conceptualized this:

If you get a glimpse of soldiers in camouflage sneaking through the forest, if you notice planes from an enemy country flying high above us, if key political leaders in your country disappear or are mysteriously assassinated, then you might suspect that an invasion is coming. If bullets start flying and bomb sirens start going off, your suspicions will be fulfilled. Another nation, let’s call it a kingdom, is preparing to invade and conquer your kingdom.

But what if the kingdom that is invading is a kingdom of a very different sort? What if the invasion is one of kindness and compassion rather than force or aggression? What if sick people start getting well suddenly and inexplicably? What if rumors spread of storms being calmed and insane people becoming sane again, hungry people being fed and dead people rising alive from the grave? Couldn’t this be the sign of a very different kind of invasion … the coming of a different kind of kingdom?

This is how I’ve come to understand the signs and wonders of Jesus Christ. They are dramatic enactments of his message – the message of the kingdom spread in a media beyond words that combine to signify that the impossible is about to become possible, the kingdom of God with its peace, healing, sanity, empowerment and freedom is available to all here and now. Signs and wonders unbolt the mechanisms that tell us what is mathematically and practically possible and impossible. They make way for faith that is something new, unprecedented and previously impossible is now on the move. They tell us that we are being invaded by a force of hope, of group of undercover agents clouding goodness.

Being filled with the Spirit always had a prophetic dimension to it. That’s not to say that everyone is supposed to be a prophet, simply that Luke makes a connection between the ministries of the First Testament prophets with that of the church.

Prophetic ministry is eschatological, concerned with how things end up; supernatural, concerned with things that cannot be seen or measured; and universal, meaning it is no longer available to only particular people at particular times for particular tasks. It is for everybody. Our job is to keep our focus on the future (eschatology), while mindful of people’s hidden motivations and machinations (supernatural), telling everyone (universal) the good news of the gospel of God.

Many of us try to so this on our own, but that is always doomed to fail. We don’t have sufficient strength or will to change. We need God’s help to become godly. That’s why God sent His Spirit. The Spirit empowers us, providing us with a pervading sense of God’s presence. The Spirit works by changing the way we think. This doesn’t happen overnight.

In N. T. Wright’s book Simply Christian, he writes:

Once we glimpse this vision of the Holy Spirit coming to live within human beings, making them temples of the living God which ought to make us shiver in our shoes, we are able to grasp the point of the Spirit’s work in several other ways as well. To begin with, building on the startling call to holiness that we just noticed, we see right across the early Christian writings the notion that those who follow Jesus are called to fulfill the Law.

The word used to describe the Holy Spirit in Biblical Greek is the word paraclete, which means advocate - one who pleads a client’s case before a court. The Spirit is our supernatural Counselor. When we become Christians the Spirit of God comes to live in us. When he does, he begins to communicate with us so we learn to understand the “voice” of God. Typically that voice is understood as a sense of direction or a strong conviction that we ought to act in this way or not this way. It’s not so much a question of the Spirit saying: do this, or do that. It’s much more a recognition that our whole lives need to change in such-and-such a way. We test those feelings, those impulses, and those compulsions against wise counsel and against Scripture.

When we know his will and act accordingly, the Spirit’s action in our lives produces positive results known as the Fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5.22-23). The Bible defines the fruit of the spirit as love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, and self-control. Because Jesus said “you will know a tree by its fruit” then we can test ourselves, based on our behaviors, to determine whether or not we’re growing in godliness. We must learn to adjudicate our behavior based, striving for lives of virtue and good character in response to God’s movement within us.

Most of the time God speaks to me through nudges, or promptings. They’re little ideas that pop into my head about something I might say or do, a gentle push to step outside my comfort zone. I have learned to understand the prompting of the Spirit, typically, as a sense of direction or a strong conviction that I ought to act in this way or not that way.

In our backyard we have an electric fence dug into the ground for our Bernese Mountain Dog. It’s attached to a device on the collar he wears, and if he ever crosses the threshold of the fence, the device vibrates on his neck. The closer the dog gets to the boundaries of the fence, the more the device begins to beep a warning. When the dog is warned, he backs away from the boundary marker because he doesn’t like what happens when he crosses that line.

In many ways the conviction of the Holy Spirit is like the warning beep on that device – the Spirit speaks to us, reminding us of who we are and what we’re supposed to do in this world to shadow God. If we disregard the Spirit, we inevitably end up with results we don’t like. He doesn’t zap us or shock us or hurt us, but the consequences of crossing God’s boundary lines are always unpleasant and include things like broken relationships, broken dreams, and broken hearts.

In reality, the Spirit is working in us to change who we are completely. That usually begins with small changes that grow into larger ones. You will discover all kinds of nuances, too, the more attentive you are to the Spirit. You will make discoveries and observations about the world that are God’s unique gift to only you. Pay attention to them. They are God’s gift to you and you’re meant to share them as your gift to others.

Of course, the primary purpose for the Spirit’s coming was to empower us to witness. The Spirit hasn’t only been given so we have power to change, but was also given so we have power to change the world. We’re meant to testify to those around us that God has something better in store for them than the life they’re already living. And, just as the ministry of Jesus had been inaugurated in the power of the Spirit, so was the ministry of the church.

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Acts 1.8

The Spirit of God gives us both the desire and the ability to tell other people about Christ. This doesn’t mean you have to force feed them your religious beliefs. On the contrary, the most compelling thing you could ever do is tell someone about your own spiritual experiences. Tell them how you felt, tell them the parts you still don’t entirely understand, and be honest about how strongly you feel now. This is called witnessing – when you tell other people what God had done for you. Evangelism, on the other hand, is when you tell other people what God can do for them. The Bible tells us there are people with the gift of evangelism (see Ephesians 4; 1 Corinthians 12), but all believers are required to witness (see Matthew 28; Acts 1). So you aren’t required to tell people what God can do for them, only about your personal experiences. In fact, if you don’t have the gift of evangelism and you feel like you’re supposed to “evangelize,” you probably run the danger of coming off as confrontational. However, if we are obedient to the Second Testament text and share our story with words like – “this is what Jesus Christ has done for me,” or “this is how I experience the power of the Holy Spirit,” or “this is how I know God,” then we can be sure of two things: first, nobody can argue with you or doubt the validity of your experiences; second, no one feels threatened or boxed in by your religious rhetoric.

In all our discussion about Pentecost we’ve skated around one of the most significant facets of this story. It concerns glossolalia, or “speaking in other tongues.” Luke tells us the disciples were supernaturally gifted with the ability to communicate in languages they had never learned. Tom Wright makes a fantastic point concerning the gift of tongues in his commentary on Acts.

It is precisely part of being a genuine human being, made and renewed in God’s image, that people should do that most characteristic thing, using words and language, in quite a new way. We are called to be people of God’s word, and God’s word can never be controlled by rationalistic schemes, or contained within the tight little frameworks that we invent to keep everything tidy and under control.

Because this issue has often been divisive within Christianity, I want to take a few moments and address its contemporary use.

What exactly is speaking in tongues?

Speaking in tongues is a kind of prayer, one of many different forms listed in the Second Testament. Sometimes these tongues turn out to be actual human languages (see Acts 2), like a Russian who spontaneously begins to speak Chinese without ever learning it. Sometimes these tongues sound inhuman, almost like gibberish (see 1 Corinthians 13). Sometimes the person who speaks in tongues knows what they are saying and can interpret it, but not always.

This kind of prayer was, and is, powerful. It evokes the presence of Jesus, celebrates the energy of the Spirit, edifies individuals, and guides Christians concerning how they should pray.

If you think of face to face being the highest form of interpersonal conversation, and of friends who are joined at the hop, and lovers whose hearts are joined together, than I think it’s entirely appropriate to conceptualize tongues as a Spirit-to-spirit connection between God and us. It’s that moment when, instead of getting tripped up by words I think might be inadequate or fear that I might say something inappropriate, tongues allows me to simply open my heart to God and pour everything out before Him.

Tongues is a sign that God’s Spirit has been poured out on humanity, and particularly on those who were least expected to be included in God’s kingdom. Gentiles, for instance, were baptized in the Spirit before the Council of Jerusalem even officially welcomed them into the church (see Acts 10.44-48).

How does tongues help?

We are all limited by language. The average American knows about 4500 English words. Some people, of course, know considerably more. Englishmen are famous for boasting about Winston Churchill’s 15000-word vocabulary, but whether you know 4500 or 45000 there’s still a limitation to what you’re able to articulate. We all know this. We know what it’s like to be at a loss for words, to have nothing to say, or to find ourselves speechless.

It’s precisely those instances for which praying in tongues is most useful.

In worship we often find ourselves calling out to God, extolling His many virtues. But there comes a point in which I, for one, begin to feel a bit silly. Once I’ve told God He’s awesome about a hundred times I find myself reaching for other words. Somehow, Lord You’re the Grooviest doesn’t quite seem to convey what I truly feel. Tongues is a very useful tool for expressing my feelings to God in these moments.

Other scenarios for which I find tongues useful include those times when I’m afraid, or stressed out, or feeling confused, or even apathetic. In moments when I don’t know what to say or what’s wrong, I pray in tongues. I pray in tongues everyday, usually in my jeep or sometimes while walking up and down the halls at work. I’m careful to do this privately because of Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 14, but also out of respect for others whose experience with God differs from my own.

Finally, I often employ tongues when I’m praying on behalf of someone else. Sometimes I’m driven to pray for someone whom I know barely at all. Sometimes I pray a long time for people who need healing. Sometimes I pray for someone I know very well but that God brings into my mind for no readily identifiable reason. Rather than guessing what they might need prayer for, or even repeating my desires over and over again to God, I pray in tongues. That way, I can pray for a long time and experience a sense of God’s presence and awareness concerning both the people in question and my own heart in submission to Him.

What about Paul’s teaching on tongues? Doesn’t he limit that gift?

Paul is very clear about the silliness of excessive tongues in church services (see 1 Corinthians 14). He makes it very clear that a bunch of people all speaking in tongues in a public meeting will be of little benefit to one another unless there’s someone to interpret (vs. 27). However, Paul also makes it clear that tongues shouldn’t be prohibited (vs. 39), since he himself speaks in tongues more than all his peers (vs. 18) and strongly desires everyone to exercise and utilize this gift as well (vs. 5).

How do we receive the gift of tongues?

Tongues isn’t for everybody. Those who are gifted with the ability to pray in other tongues shouldn’t feel special, or more holy, or more privileged that other Christians. However, I have noticed that certain people greatly desire the gift of tongues. They have an inborn sense that tongues is for them, as if it’s the perfect tool for their spirituality.

If that’s you, here’s how I suggest you pray to receive the gift of tongues.

First, ask God to give it to you. Tell Him why you want to pray in tongues, and spend time each day asking for God to fill you with His Spirit in this new way.

Second, get around other people who pray in tongues and ask them to pray for you. This might be a little scary at first, and they might even give you strange-sounding advice, but that’s okay. Keep your focus on Christ while they pray for you and continue asking God for the gift.

Finally, take opportunities during worship services to begin verbally thanking and praising God in your own words, rather than just the words from the music. In my experience this is often where people first begin to pray in tongues, almost as an afterthought. They get so caught up in the presence of God that they forget their desire for the gift. That’s entirely appropriate. Remember that the gift is meant to help us know God.

God is the point, not tongues; so keep your focus on Him, not on it.

One last thing...

Luke uses exciting imagery to describe this supernatural encounter - gale force winds, moaning noises, flickering dashes of flame - but we shouldn’t get too caught up in the details. His point isn’t pyrotechnics, but spiritual transformation. They’re not the event, just the effect. The real event is the coming of the Spirit in this new way. The wind and the fire are unpredictable, wild forces; but based on other accounts in Scripture we know that God equally appears in serene, gentle manifestations as well (see 1 Kings 19 for the story of God coming in a whisper, not a whirlwind).

I do find one of these details of some consequence, however, and that is the nature of tongues of flame. The image that Luke has in mind is something like fiery teardrops placed over the head of every person present. The purpose for the image is to show that one single fire has sparked many different flames. The flames rest on individuals, but they all come from the same place.

It occurs to me that many different denominations, tribes, and church cultures have different views on the Day of Pentecost. Some give it greater weight than others, some provisionally ignore it, and some elevate its importance to that of the cross. Some emulate it as precisely as possible in their worship gatherings, and some disregard it altogether for fear of excess, while still others try and continue ministry in that same spirit without worrying too much about all the particulars.

These differing practices are like the tongues of fire falling in the upper room. Provided no one quenches the Spirit (see 1 Thessalonians 5.19), or fails to test the Spirit (see 1 John 4.1), or refuses to control themselves while experiencing the Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 14), we’re best to understand that our differences of opinion and theology concerning the precise nature and practice of Pentecost should be considered second or third-tier Christianity.

I pray in tongues. You may not. So what?

You pray in tongues and find it to be the single most important part of your prayer life. My friend John does not. So what?

Be humble and gentle, patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4.2-5

God is at work. He is filling up the empty space inside of us and transforming us into faithful emissaries and dignitaries of His kingdom and His mission to heal the world. We need the Spirit to equip us and guide us and change us so we can better cooperate with the Father.

We must always be asking the Spirit for insights as to the behaviors, judgments, and postures that cause us to eclipse Christ instead of shadow him. When we do clear away the stuff, however, we uncover our “new humanity,” as Paul calls it. That new humanity speaks to the very heart of this issue of spiritual transformation, because, as the saying goes, once out with the old, back in with the new.

That’s the purpose of Pentecost: power to change, and power to change the world.