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Sitting in the pews in a “charismatic” congregation can be a little overwhelming for a new Christian, not because the message is so poignant or because the pastor’s members turn their lives around. It is because the spirit seems to move on somebody every Sunday, and a whole lot of shouting and dancing moves service in a different direction, away from the program’s schedule. Something else happens when the spirit is moving in some churches: A member or maybe most of the congregation is “speaking in tongues.”
Now, to non-Christians, speaking in tongues can sound like jibber-jabber spewing from a holy, sanctified Christian. If you are near this person or around a crowd of spirit-talking church folks and you haven’t been touched with the “tongue of fire,” you may feel out of place, confused, unworthy, or even condemned. Well, settle your restless soul, as we learn about speaking in tongues.
On the day of Pentecost, the transitioning moment for Christians in the Bible, several prophecies were fulfilled, including the coming of the comforter, also known as the Holy Spirit. Acts 2 is the play-by-play of that great day. Three significant events happened: a sound like the blowing of a violent wind, tongues of fire came falling from heaven, then each individual became filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in strange languages.
According to John R. W. Stott, author of “The Message of Acts,” each event represented different movements of God.
“The noise like wind may have symbolized power … the sight like fire purity, and the speech in other languages the universality of the Christian church.”*
Theologians have debated the third event for centuries, attempting to explain the phenomena of speaking in tongues or glossolalia. It, in a technical sense, is basically the utterances of syllables and sounds unfamiliar to humans, which are often repeated in patterns.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine conducted a brain scan of people who claimed to be speaking in tongues. In their findings, people who believe they are speaking this spiritual language showed decreased activity in the area of the brain responsible for language and self-control. There was increased activity in the area responsible for emotions, however.
Some believe glossolalia is a supernatural manifestation of the Holy Spirit, possessing Christians with a spiritual language used in transferring a message to a congregation or for direct prayer to God.
Rev. Cecil Murray, professor of religion and chair of Christian Ethics at the University of Southern California, says speaking in tongues is a gift from God.
“It is true and for real, if it is taken true and for real,” he said. “It can be manipulated and imitated, but if it is a true visitation from the Holy Spirit that leads to ecstasy, that leads to speaking in a different language, it does not need to be denied.”
Because the Pentecostal movement is the fastest growing religious movement around the world, speaking in tongues has become common practice in Christian churches, but many traditional and conservative Christians still label the phenomena as part of a function of a charismatic church.
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14 that speaking in tongues is for the edification of the church, and if someone is truly uttering the heavenly language in the church for other ears to hear, an interpreter must be present to reveal the message to the congregation. Otherwise, the act is out of order or fabricated, Murray explained.
Anthony Pinn, a professor of religious studies at Rice University says although glossolalia is an outward affirmation of a spirit-filled believer, every Christian who is filled with the Holy Spirit does not have the gift.
“If you don’t speak in tongues, it means that you are not filled with the Holy Spirit with that particular form of evidence,” Pinn said, also revealing the gift is non-denominational.
So if you happen to be sitting on a pew one glorious Sunday morning, and the spirit is moving in the sanctuary, except in you, do not be alarmed, feel left out, or ashamed. You are not the forgotten, condemned Christian who needs more prayer.