After being raised in Catholicism, I converted to fundagelicalism in my teens–going through the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) to a far-right denomination called United Pentecostal Church International (UPCI) in short order. I was more or less there until my mid-20s. I’ve noticed that a lot of folks don’t know what that’s like, and certainly nobody’s got time to actually go hang out at a church service to do field work. But I’m not going to show you the sausage on toothpicks! Oh, no. Instead, I’ll show you how that sausage gets made. Here’s what a good old-fashioned rowdy Pentecostal revival is like–and why. Today Lord Snow casts his baleful gaze at a dying part of the Christian experience.
Gimme That Old-Time Religion.
While I was raised a Southern Baptist (more or less), I would often visit Pentecostal churches in my old Kentucky home, and I tell you, Tim, they were always a blast. Oh, the theology is thoughtless, the morals are primitive, the music is mind-numbingly repetitive and the overall atmosphere is Low Church to a subterranean degree … but few things are as entertaining as watching old country grandmas bounce around, hootin’ and hollerin’ and literally convulsing with “the spirit.” And the fun only increases if they’re snake handlers (Jamie Coots was born and died in my hometown), for obvious reasons.
The first UPCI church I belonged to was one of the biggest in the Houston area. It was located near one of the downtowns in an urban snarl of streets, feeder roads, stores, and churches–oh, so many churches. The rent was probably incredibly low; that’s the only reason I can see for why our church was located right there and nowhere else. Very few of the people who attended there actually lived anywhere near the building.
Instead, most of us came from suburbs around there–Friendswood (founded by Quakers, who were officially part of the Religious Society of Friends), Sugar Land (founded as–you guessed it–a sugar plantation), Pearland (called so because–yes, see, you’re getting the idea), and the like. I never lived closer than a half hour’s drive from it–and lacked a car for at least the first few years of my membership there. I was far from the only young person in that position, so often people carpooled or fetched friends (and potential new recruits). Going to that effort made reaching its crowded, poorly-designed, poorly-maintained parking lot feel like a real achievement.
Sunday nights were especially crowded, because people were coming for the weekly blowout performance. Sunday mornings were usually fairly staid, and that’s the one that visitors usually came to see. Sunday nights were for members themselves, and they expected fireworks without fail.
A Monument to Excess.
I can’t say that my group was all under-educated; many members were high-end professionals in very high-end fields: medicine, physics, education, engineering, you name it. The social and nominal leaders of the church were all decently-well-educated, though pastors and preachers tended to have only Bible College degrees (a Bible College is to a good seminary what ACE homeschooling is to Phillips Academy–and the picture only gets bleaker for women1). But the rank-and-file certainly tended not to have any education at all past high school degrees, if that, with finances reflecting the same.
And yet our church looked like a monument to excess. Painted pure white, with two-story columns, edged in metallic gold and blood red, it was a visual explosion of luxury and excess in the middle of a neighborhood that was itself quite low-rent and humble (UM-bull, as we pronounced it, thanks to a nearby-ish suburb called Humble pronounced that way, in the same way that people living around Illinois often misspell the name of a certain bubbly French wine).
The inside made that explosion into a conflagration. White marble tile, more columns, huge paintings of Jesus and people clinging to crosses in rainstorms, dark wood elements, and blood-red runner carpets made the place look like a particularly ostentatious funeral home, as one of my non-UPCI friends, Mike, said during a visit. But to people who attended there, it was the visual representation of what they regarded as their spiritual wealth.
Its sanctuary was luxurious as well–padded blood-red pews and kneeling benches, thick blood-red carpeting, and everything else either white or gold with those same red accents, with hanging chandeliers and a cunningly-disguised sound system. The church’s light-and-sound setup was tucked away behind glass above it all against the back wall, and the AV guys could control outputs with the touch of dozens of dials and switches. I saw it a few times and thought it looked spectacularly high-tech for a church whose pastor refused to allow any electric instruments or drum-sets onto his stage for fear of inviting Satan into our midst with an unwitting “demon beat.”
Typically, the music minister was already up on stage to direct soft, instrumental playing from the musicians. It sounded a bit like hymnal music, but I could almost never identify exactly which hymn it was. The lights would always be just bright enough to be able to find a seat and identify faces–it was like going into a movie theater; it set expectations.
It’s All About the Audience.
I’m telling you all of this for a reason.
For all fundagelical leaders’ pretensions about hating modern contrivances, they are very quick to leap upon anything that will help them manipulate their audiences. For all fundagelicals’ insistence that they practice that “old-time religion,” as the famous and favorite old gospel song goes, what they actually have is quite modern–and quite psychologically-manipulative. It’s ruthless cult programming hidden behind a twisted folksy Jesus Smile.
And fundagelicals look forward to this burst of manipulation every Sunday night. Often I heard people talking about it like it was water–something essential that was needed all day and every day, but which they only got a few times a week, and only to their fill once a week. These services were revivals in a real sense, except instead of getting tons of new converts, which is what revivals were technically about, we were getting renewed spirits.
The way that the Christians around me talked about Sunday night services makes total sense, if you consider what a fundagelical’s life is like the rest of the week. People need this relief so much that they don’t even notice that from start to finish, a fundagelical church service is generally about manipulation.
It’s not even just about manipulating people to donate money till it is past hurting them.
It’s about everything.
A Life, in Boxes.
People in my church were very severely constrained in their daily lives (if they followed the rules; I was shocked to discover, toward the end, that many faithfully-attending Pentecostals did not). They had to dress in particular ways. They had almost no choice at all regarding how they did their hair or what they wore on their faces. They followed rigid, steel-tight gender roles. They were not allowed to own televisions, nor to attend any civic functions meant for enjoyment, nor to see movies or visit amusement parks. Arcade games were strictly off-limits. (Atari technically existed, but this was slightly before Nintendo burst onto the scene. Both were forbidden.) They were not allowed to curse, to drink, to imbibe mood-altering substances of any kinds, nor to pursue non-Jesus-centered recreational activities.
Worst of all, we were surrounded by what we called a worldly culture (the term means anything that isn’t completely centered around the kind of Jesus that the Christian in question worships). Though nominally ours was still the most Christian-dominated culture imaginable, it was the wrong kind of Christianity. We had to trudge through science being real, through people telling us all the time that we were factually incorrect about, well, everything, and even through mockery of our antiquated social stances.
Imagine living like that all the time.
And then imagine that there’s one huge emotional catharsis blowout coming one time a week where you can let your hair down and really let go of it all and have that big screaming freakout you’ve been holding back all week long.
That’s a fundagelical Sunday night service in a nutshell. That’s how fundagelicals survive. It’s that fresh burst of reinforcement they need to struggle through another week. If they didn’t have it, they know they couldn’t maintain their adherence to rules that strict.
Worse yet: They assume that other people are just as constrained, and that their various choices of where and how they spend their time reflect similar desperate needs to blow off steam. They’ve idolized that Sunday night blowout, and they assume that everyone else idolizes their big interests into similar blowouts. Further, fundagelicals take for complete granted that their big blowout is more rewarding and rejuvenating than any other type of blowout that the world likes.
The Psychology of a Sunday Night Blowout.
That’s why, from the moment someone steps through the church doors of a fundagelical church of a Sunday night, they are going to be manipulated in every way. Congregants all have their little rituals they do before getting to church–the showering, the dressing, the preparation, the drive. And then when they arrive, the soft hush, light hymnal-ish music is playing, and even the scent of potpourri/incense/room freshener used prepares the senses. It’s an ambience that is expected and that never changes. And Christians themselves rarely do either; they talk to the same people when they get there, and usually sit in much the same places if they can.
The service itself begins in same manner. In my church, it began with a quick listing of church business and then a song, usually one that stressed service, or humbleness (UM-bull-ness), or obedience. Often, the pastor would allow a visiting minister or missionary to speak about the great Wonders And Totally Miracles Happening Elsewhere afterward. This early part of the service wasn’t usually very rousing–not yet. A huge big blowout at this point wouldn’t be useful to the church leaders, so I only saw that happen a couple of times over the years. Usually it just got people in the right frame of mood to sit through a long sermon.
The sermon itself was where the audience became primed for the catharsis to follow. Sunday morning sermons, again, were staid, often just one step above a Sunday School class in terms of the emotional release involved. But Sunday nights were the nights when we thrilled to the biggest and worst conspiracy theories of our age, where we trembled to imagine the Rapture happening Any Day Now™, when we were horrified at grisly verbal descriptions of Jesus’ suffering and what Hell was like. This was the night when we exulted in everything we believed being totally true and for realsies–and when we could imagine ourselves the victors in the great fight between us and the world.
When the final song came up, we were good and ready for our promised blowout. Hell, we were lucky to get that far sometimes. Sometimes the sermon itself would get someone completely over the edge and they’d burst into super-excited shouts of glossolalia, which of course then needed to be “translated” by someone else or else it was of the flesh, which was bad (the same display performed around many others doing the same thing, or else in complete privacy, was a totally different form of tongues-talking; that did not require fake-translation). And the translation might trip someone else into an early release of catharsis, and then everyone would be screaming and shouting “in tongues” and dancing around, at which point the band would start playing and the person giving the sermon would pull back–mission accomplished.
Either way, an altar call was issued at the end of the sermon for those who either had been moved to convert or rededicate themselves to Christianity, after which new converts might end up getting baptized in the pool right above the choirloft. Altar calls might last hours past the sermon itself, which lasted about an hour as it was if not longer. Sometimes everyone was already at the altar praying anyway, so the call itself was more of a formality than anything else. Often someone straining to receive the infilling of the Holy Spirit would find it at a Sunday night altar call–sometimes after straining to reach that cathartic peak for hours, being rocked back and forth by peers who were inadvertently providing all the coaching that new person needed. (If you just thought of some parallels, you’re certainly not alone.)
All through the altar call, the final song continued to play. That last song was often something simple and easy-to-remember, with choruses that varied very little. It was also rousing and almost martial in tone, and it had predictable results. Eventually the singing would stop, but the musicians remained while anybody was up front still. Ambience was of paramount importance. (The first time I experienced group prayer in a totally non-church environment, it had a seriously deleterious impact on my faith.)
I didn’t usually participate in altar calls. I don’t like being touched by people I don’t know well, and I was scared to death of being jabbed or stomped on amid the frantically-thrashing crowds I saw up there. Usually I sat nearby and prayed or else read my Bible or talked quietly with friends. Biff spent all the time up there that he could, so we often wouldn’t be out of church until 10 or 11 that night.
After the Blowout.
Afterward, everyone left feeling emotionally drained and topped-up all at once, ready to face the coming week. All the emotions we’d felt were chalked up to the Holy Spirit moving among us, which was, we felt, all the PROOF YES PROOF we needed that our belief was propped up by reality.
Nothing was further from the truth. All that had happened to us could easily be explained by basic group psychology and cult manipulation. The music, especially, set it all up and then brought it home. There was nothing divine or supernatural about it!
Worst of all, not a single person there suspected our folksy, kindly, elderly pastor of being that kind of ruthless manipulator and cunning snake-oil huckster. I look back at it all now and I’m still stunned that I didn’t catch any of the signs of it until long after my deconversion. It’s simply so insidious and so incredibly extensive that many people deconvert amid mounting emotional distresses and even mental illnesses, and are complete wrecks even if they escape a formal diagnosis of something. Unpacking the brainwashing we absorbed while we were fundagelical can take years–and it can feel a lot like playing a nonstop game of “Real or Not Real?” with everyone and everything around us.
And that’s okay.
Today Lord Snow Presides over the brutal psychological manipulation of the average everyday Sunday night fundagelical church service.
Next time, we’ll be looking at Lawrence Krauss and how his denial letter illustrates the way that power operates in any broken system. And then we go on to the Israel Boner and other such assorted delusional beliefs of fundagelicals. See you then!
1 When I was Christian, I didn’t know many young women in college. I was one of the few, perhaps the only one–and since many of the women my age wanted to obtain the Happy Christian Family Illusion as quickly as possible, my choices were seen as foolish, maybe even dangerous. They wanted babies immediately and a single-earner household, with everybody immersed in religion. At most, women might enter the Bible College seeking a certificate for being a pastor’s wife; the certificate involved etiquette, business classes and typing, Bible verses that applied to women, and training in playing the electronic keyboard; and no, I’m not kidding. They did not allow women into anything more rigorous–except for my best friend Angela, who had to have a letter from our pastor attesting to her “godly and submissive” character before she was allowed to sit in on doctrinal courses.
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Lord Snow Presides… is our weekly off-topic chat series. I’ve started us off with a topic, but feel free to chime in with whatever’s on your mind! Lord Snow is my sweet, elderly white cat, who presides over my household like a great-grandfather over a family reunion in the summertime.