A few weeks ago I talked a couple of Witches into going to church with me. It wasn’t technically a Pentecostal church, but a charismatic evangelical church. The problem is that many of my non-Christian friends have no idea what that means, but once I say ‘Pentecostal’, I see the light of recognition in their eyes. So I chose this technically inaccurate title because really, even without specifying charismatic evangelical Christian church, the title to this story is long enough.
For the uninitiated (no pun intended), Pentecostal is a Christian denomination in the same way as Wicca is a Pagan tradition. But there are Christians whose practices are similar to Pentecostalism and they are called “charismatic” or, as they sometimes call themselves, “spirit-filled.” Charismatic Christians often have their own congregations, but they can also be found dispersed throughout other Christian denominations, from charismatic Roman Catholic groups to subsets among the Amish (I was really surprised when I first encountered those!).
So why did we choose to go to a charismatic Christian church? I found out that a Christian (former?) friend of mine was spreading a theory about that. He is convinced that the reason Witches would expose themselves to the Holy Spirit in this way was to have our demons cast out in order to make room for seven times more (Matthew 12: 43-45). Well, an interesting guess, but not exactly our motivation (although as much as it amuses me to hear it now, I admit his theory would have made perfect sense to me not too many years ago).
My reason for going was far less theological. I have been talking and writing so much about my Christian experiences that I wanted to see what it would be like to be in a similar environment again. And, what’s even harder to admit, I kind of missed the experience of praise and worship. I thought maybe I could go and join the singing, block out the theology, and just experience what it was like to worship Jesus through praise songs again. Good gods, I was not prepared for how wrong I was about this.
The other two Witches joined me out of curiosity and to gain a better understanding of where I was coming from (I love my coven mates!). One of them, Autumn, told everyone it would be interesting ‘to see the Christians do magic’, which is a pretty good way of describing charismatic Christian practice, but I would have never thought of.
Charismatic churches are very different from a traditional Roman Catholic service or a Baptist church. There are few fixed elements, and even the length of the service is undetermined. It is all up to how the Spirit moves, and while the sermon and at least some of the music is planned, much is up to improvisation. Singing often spontaneously evolves into glossolalia, the speaking in tongues, whether a foreign human language or the tongues of angels. Supernatural gifts are encouraged and expected, and people pray for healing through the laying on of hands or prophesy to the church or over one another.
The church we went to is called Bethel Church and in keeping with their hipster domain name (www.iBethel.org), they have a reputation the world over for being the most cutting-edge spirit-filled community. The church also has its own school for teaching these practices, Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry, and people flock to it from all over the world. While we were there, I overheard conversations in at least a dozen languages.
I have known about Bethel for years, and heard stories of miraculous healings, of people set free from demon possession, of gold dust raining down from heaven during worship. Miracles are supposedly a daily occurrence, the Holy Spirit shows up and nearly everyone who goes has a transformative encounter with the Christian God.
I had been wanting to go on this trip for a long time and when an out-of-state Christian friend who is a big fan of Bethel came to visit, we packed our stuff and went on a road trip with just a day’s notice. I was nervous and excited to bring such an eclectic group, a Christian missionary, and a couple of Witches, one of which, Autumn Crow, had almost no prior experience with Christianity. I was particularly excited to have her along, not just because of her lack of experience, but also because of her ability to sense and sometimes see energy. Autumn graciously agreed to share her experience of our visit for this piece.
Autumn: I had heard a great deal about charismatic Christian “services” from Annika prior to heading to Bethel yet there was a great deal of trepidation on my part. My only experience with a similar sort of energy was in my youth when various teens around me proselytized unsuccessfully with little tracts and waxing on about how enthusiastic they were regarding their faith. At the time, I was an atheist and resented it, but at the same time feared that energy as something that I did not understand and that could be used to manipulate me. For quite a long time I was not accustomed to standing in my power, and I was worried that I would be swept up in the emotion and feeling of the religion and lose my own ability to judge what was right for me. So much of Christian belief structure is foreign to me, constraining, and in many cases, even offensive. And, even as I was riding up, now a Witch for 7 years and supposedly better versed in the ways of power and community, a lingering question was in my mind: is there something here that could negate all my own experience.
Annika: I thought it was amusing how worried Autumn was about the experience. I have known this kind of energy my whole life and couldn’t see how it could feel so threatening. My only worry was whether I would still pass as a charismatic Christian, or if I would be identified as a Witch. But then I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to pass. A part of me was so curious to see how I would be treated if they knew I was a Witch. I wasn’t afraid of the reaction I’d get if I was outed, but I also wanted to know what it was like simply to be in this setting again and maybe participate in worship. In the end I decided to hide my pentacle necklace under my shirt, and I tried to blend in, hoping my nervousness wouldn’t show.
Autumn: My first impression of the grounds and facility was one of surprise. Annika had covered in depth some of the things I might see, how people would likely react to me, and so forth, but the grounds of the church as we approached had a vibe I was not expecting. The architecture and layout was something like the United Nations combined with a modern high school with a sprinkling of the Google campus. Flagpoles lining the “Avenue of Nations” seemed to shout out the place of the church as a meeting for the entire world, and the landscaping and parking lots were meticulously maintained. None of this quite prepared me however for walking in the door and seeing what I now refer to as the “Sacred Starbucks” — the Christian themed coffee shop ‘HeBrews’ complete with pastries, snacks, and little tables. Everything meticulous, corporate, and professionally designed. This place had money. And it was not afraid to use it.
Autumn: It was pretty clear from the Sacred Starbucks that this was not going to be what I was used to in a spiritual experience. But, walking into the sanctuary nevertheless felt familiar in a way. The room clearly doubled as a high-school gymnasium, with dark paint and paneling almost cloaking the folded up basketball goals. The bleachers at the rear gave a good vantage point to see the service, and for a moment, there was a certain familiarity: big tech conferences and events also have rock music, professional lighting, darkened surroundings, and giant TV screens to zoom in on what is happening. My experience in Silicon Valley had made the room somehow seem more familiar. But that familiarity was quickly blown away by the beginning of the service.
Annika: Walking into the sanctuary felt very familiar. A big stage with a worship team getting ready to start, a small podium in the middle, and two large screens on either side. Lights focused on the stage like in a rock concert, electric guitars plugged into fancy amps, lyrics projected on the screens: time to bust out the ear plugs. Emergent Church meets charismatic worship, both as I have always known them. I wondered if I’d know any of the songs, and I readied myself to open to the experience. I wanted to sing along and participate in worship the way I always had, just as if I was still an evangelical Christian.
Autumn: I was unprepared for the volume of the music and fortunately Annika came to the rescue with the ear plugs. I noticed that the crowd, some 400 people or so, immediately joined in knowing the words — but there were giant lyrics on the stage in case you were unfamiliar. The songs had a driving beat and had a tendency for soaring lyrics and chord progressions, clearly intended to lift people “higher”. The lyrics themselves were fairly repetitive, saying: “Glory to God,” “Jesus you are the only one,” “All my love for Jesus,” and variations on these themes. Periodically between songs, individuals would come up to the mic and encourage people to give even more of themselves up, more of their love and their spirit, because Jesus is the only way, and so forth
Annika: Only Jesus, only you, you alone, no one else… Have the lyrics always been like that? I don’t remember it that way. Every song was about Jesus and this One God alone and no one else EVER. I leaned over to my friend who was raised Christian and asked him if he remembered it this way. He shook his head emphatically. Apparently the focus on only Jesus had increased since we both left. I knew there would be some mention of Jesus’ exclusivity and I was prepared to translate it into some kind of monistic theology, but it was far too pervasive. I couldn’t get past the insistence of absoluteness and exclusivity.
For a while I kept thinking that maybe the next song would be different and I could join in, but it never changed. I felt a sadness wash over me, a loss. I wasn’t going to be able to participate in this no matter how much internal translating I would do. This really wasn’t for me anymore. I felt excluded, left out, the sense that I didn’t belong. For me that was unexpected and surprisingly unpleasant. It was one thing to not join by my own choice, but this expression of worship felt so unwelcoming. I looked over at Autumn and saw that she was observing everything very carefully and was deep in thought. I couldn’t wait to find out what her experience was, if she could see the energy being moved, and what her interpretation would be.
After the service, Autumn and I compared notes and compiled them into another conversation which I will be posting here as part 2. We reflected how we each sensed and saw the flow of energy. We also looked at how differently we heard the message of the sermon, what parts of it confused us, and how we were able to make sense of it together.
In Part 3 we look at what happened our second day at Bethel when we were led into the healing rooms and had hands laid on us to perform miracles and received prophecies spoken over us.