Some Non-Theological Thoughts on Singing in Tongues

Jean II Restout, 'Pentecost'

Jean II Restout, ‘Pentecost’

Some people wander into charismatic prayer meetings and worship services startled or distressed by the use of tongues for worship and prayer. They hear it sporadically break into the service by various congregants and all their ears catch are repeated syllables, sometimes sounding like some exotic battle chant and other times like gentle whispers of gibberish. Though I affirm the use of tongues for what is commonly known in charismatic circles as the ‘prayer-language’ and am a tongues-speaker myself, I can understand why some would dismiss this practice as nonsensical. It often sounds like foolish babble.

That being said, there is something about the corporate use of tongues in worship that is powerful. I have even heard this being admitted by some who are quite hesitant to believe the charismatic practice of tongues as an authentic charism, at least the one described by Paul to the Corinthians. Their theology may not much have space for speaking in tongues, or glossolalia, but they still come to admit to there being a heart-drilling beauty in the corporate singing in tongues, or ‘singing in the Spirit’.

I have heard stories of those converted to Christ by walking into a meeting where almost every individual made melodies in tongues. Their eyes, foreign to the work of Christ, could see a people swept up by the Spirit as these songs were poured out of them. Without a theology on glossolalia, those clueless souls knew something beyond them was occurring and the love and grace of God would well up in their hearts.

I have been in places where you hear singing in tongues and it can be a pleasant sound to listen to, but very few times have I heard the whole meeting caught up in singing in the Spirit. This phenomenon was quite common during the days of the Charismatic Renewal but sadly this rarely manifests nowadays in both charismatic and Pentecostal meetings. The few times that I have witnessed and took part in such deep worship, I was shaken up in the most delightful way. The praise band calmed down and the drums went completely silent. Only the guitar would be strummed or the keyboard lightly played. Somehow the whole body of believers knew that words from their mind could no longer be used and just about every individual would let their spirit dive in song. Despite every individual coming before the Lord with their own song, there was still somehow unity and oneness in this worship. The Spirit sowed every song together and birthed a new song.

My eyes danced around trying to capture a full picture of what God was doing among his people during one of those rare moments of singing in the Spirit. It was during an ecumenical retreat centered on teaching about our companion, the Holy Spirit. I saw people of all sorts of backgrounds, ethnically and theologically, united in this new song together. I saw Lutherans, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and all sorts of other streams in the Church flow together in worship. I sensed a freedom bouncing off every person as they enjoyed the barriers of language collapsing in their praise of God. My spirit leaped as I saw the curse of Babel is being done away with.

Just as powerful as those moments caught up in song was the moment following it all. The music completely died down and all the voices faded. A thrilling silence consumed God’s people, in awe of what he had just done. Overwhelmed and incredibly satisfied, some teared up while others had stretched out smiles and glowed with gladness. Though this holy moment probably lasted just a few seconds, time became meaningless and it almost felt like being caught up in eternity.

Such experiences have convinced me that tongues is not the fruit of a shallow spirituality nor is it purely birthed out of emotionalism, as many like to mock. I could go on and on about the theology of glossolalia, defending it as a good and perfect gift from above. I have done that enough in my life, though. What it does to God’s people is a testimony in itself. It may seem odd and even foolish but it is beautifully used by the Holy Spirit, and I have not only seen it transform corporate worship but my own prayer life. Because of that, I can only encourage people to pursue and ask God for this grace in their lives.

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