On the latest episode of TNT I was asked to quickly define ‘Glossolalia’ a.k.a. speaking in tongues. I said some things in that opening segment that I want to clarify here.

Here are 4 thoughts:

Initial Design 

The original miracle that we read about in Acts 2 and the story of Pentecost is that people heard the gospel message in their own tongue. While the speakers, filled with Holy Spirit power, were unaware of the language they were speaking, the hearers were not.

This is a significant point because the original miracle of speaking in tongues was an outward-external boundary crossing event. It was missional. It would be one thing if the gift of tongues was that I could suddenly speak French and knew what I was saying. But that is not how it happened. The miracle is not on the part of the one speaking but on the side of the one hearing. Tongues wasn’t about the speaker … it was impactful for the hearer.

Change Is Not Bad 

Most contemporary pentecostal manifestations of glossolalia are no longer boundary-crossing missional expressions. Modern tongues speaking is almost exclusively within the context of ecstatic worship services and are meant to edify the person with the gift and the Lord who they are praising.

Now before anyone becomes defensive … keep in mind who is saying this. I am not a conservative at any level. I am always calling for the faith to be updated and modified. I am convinced that the church is called to adapt and evolve in order to accomplish in our culture what Jesus did in his and the early churches did in theirs.

I don’t think that change is a bad thing – quite the opposite. We are called to continual change.

The only reason that I bring this up is to clarify that what is called ‘speaking in tongues’ today is not exactly the same thing was happening in scripture. In scripture it was a missional move – an external focus – that crossed cultural and linguistic barriers.

This is what we call ‘historic drift’.

Master Signifier 

How we see speaking in tongues today often accomplishes the opposite of that original aim. Speaking in tongues is now an internal matter – not out on the streets but inside a house of worship.

Speaking in tongues is also no longer missional (external in focus) – for the hearer – but is actually an internal matter of both personal edification and (here is the important part) belonging to a community.pentecost01

When glossolalia is held up as a mark of validation it become a boundary marker (or master signifier) for who belongs to a given group. When the sign is a validation or litmus test for membership, it has ceased to be what it was originally designed for and has become something else.

That is all I am saying. Speaking in tongues today is almost never the same thing that we see in the Bible. It has largely become a master signifier for membership in pentecostal-charismatic communities.

One of the reasons I believe this to be the case is that our churches have not been boundary-crossing missional organizations. They have become internally edifying communities of belonging – which is not a bad thing! It’s just not exactly the same thing that we see in Acts 2.

The Opposite of Cessation 

I was asked by our guest on the podcast if I was a cessationist. I said that I am the opposite of that. I believe that the revival of tongues (most point to the Azusa Street Revivals of 1906 as key moment) in the 20th Century to be a genuine work of God’s Spirit. I know that in many parts of the world – especially areas in S. America, Africa, and Asia – that the pentecostal expression has been a wild-fire of renewal for the church and has been a primary force in its mission and zeal.

In saying that I also want to point out that glossolalia doesn’t only happen in Christian contexts. It also manifests with Hindu gurus, in the syncretistic Haitian religions, and in shamanistic spirituality around the world.  Why do I bring this up? Because I think it important to clarify two things:

  1. God’s Spirit is not only at work in Christians. So much of what we have inherited in Christendom and Colonial frameworks does not allow us to recognize this.
  2. Glossolalia is something that humans experience in ecstatic worship.  It is not super-natural. It is quite natural.

Being that glossolalia is neither exclusive to christians nor super-natural, I think it would be interesting to ask what role it might play in crossing boundaries for our multi-national, cross-cultural, inter-racial, bi-lingual, pluralistic world of the 21st century. What if we confessed that speaking in tongues had become a master signifier and returned it to it’s original missional design where the focus is not on the speaker but the effect it has on the hearer?

I have often been in meetings, cities and seminaries where over 100 languages are represented. It has stoked my imagination for what a new-type of glossolalia could mean for the church to come.

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