top of page

Speaking in Tongues

Back in the day, at the close of one of our four worship services on the weekend, someone suddenly spoke out in tongues for what felt like forever...though probably only a minute.


It was quite emotional and loud. I was in a back room getting ready to speak when I heard it. Our worship leader nervously paused for a moment and then closed in prayer, though the woman was still speaking. She slowed to a finish and then our worship leader said what we always said—“Turn and say ‘hello’ to someone before you sit down.”


The vibe in the room was, to say the least, uneasy.


Of course, depending on your church background, this is either a mystery, a big deal or a non-issue. The charismatics were probably thinking, “Finally! Now let’s get the interpretation…”. The evangelicals were wondering, “I knew it! I thought there was something suspicious about this place…”. And the clueless were thinking, “What the…? Is she having a nervous breakdown?”


Even more interesting to me was the “emotional field”, in psychologist Rollo May’s language, that rippled out. There was a palpable uneasiness. It was not just the fact it was a super rare occurrence (I couldn't remember that ever happening in a large weekend service like that—about 1800 people in the room), but accompanied with serious emotion. Imagine being at a family reunion in a local restaurant, everyone’s eating and laughing and telling stories and suddenly Uncle Frank breaks into a very emotional, passionate diatribe…in Latin.


Suddenly, the emotional field shifts radically.


Speaking in tongues is an important piece of the Christian experience. But it’s not without difficulties in practice; just look at the various theological viewpoints, not to mention the methodologies. Paul devotes three whole chapters to addressing its use, abuse and context in the Corinthian church.


Let me just preface this by saying I speak in tongues myself; it’s very personal and a critical part of my prayer life. But how it’s used corporately is debated, even among charismatics. And in our post-modern, dechurched and yet weirdly religious American culture, it’s even more strange when your weekend gatherings are designed to have a user-friendly invitational element, as ours were.


So getting ready to walk up and give the weekend message, my first thought was: “Uh-oh…we have some ‘splaining to do.” Then thought number two: “Oh. That’s me.” Third thought: “Dang. I’m giving a hefty message today about the theological concept of judgment. Plus, this?” Fourth: “If I brought someone for the first time today, what would I be thinking?” Fifth thought: “Do this in two minutes, change the vibe in the room…and move on.” Thought number six: “Am I spiritually discerning anything about this expression of tongues?” Seventh thought: “Wow, this is actually cool—an opportunity to teach on how to handle this.”


All in the matter of a minute.


My intuition was that this was more of a personal release from someone who was emotionally exasperated, and was giving personal expression to God from that…not a corporate message.


Anyway, after setting up the message, I mentioned how I needed to take a moment and ‘pastor’ what just happen. It was the classic elephant in the room. I briefly explained how we have a theology open to the gifts of the Spirit, but that the gifts work best in the right context and that it’s not a normal custom for us to use the gift of tongues in the weekend setting. I relayed that we believe the ideal place to learn and practice spiritual gifts is in your small group where there is relationship and accountability and that in a large gathering like this with people all over the map in their spiritual journeys and backgrounds, anyone can walk in off the street and say they have a message from God. It can quickly get confusing and disorienting.


As leaders, we have to carefully shepherd the mission God has clearly given us.


Leaders, we have a responsibility to navigate and interpret. These are unsolicited pastoring moments. It isn’t always pretty, it isn’t always simple and you’ll never please everybody.


Interesting postscript, though. Later that week, a friend called me who was on the prayer team that Sunday. He said a woman came up for prayer afterwards and said, “Uh, I’m the one who spoke in tongues.” He smiled and said, “It’s okay. What can we pray for you about?” She wept as she told them she was a struggling single mom, pregnant, and with news that her unborn baby had serious physical problems and would probably not live after delivery. She was in deep, serious pain. I have no doubt that she was crying out from that place.


And the truth is, most of us regularly project messages from God—even in English—through our own lenses.


Regardless, try not to miss those spontaneous, awkward teaching moments; it can be a powerful leadership/pastoral opportunity.



Dave Workman | The Elemental Group


Did you know The Elemental Group also works extensively with faith-based non-profits? Everything from fundability assessments to strategic planning to business development to grant-writing. Take a look at our menu of servicesfor both churches and non-profits at our website—an impressive scope of work along with clear, accessible pricing. Now that’s different!


  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • YouTube
bottom of page