I knew I was a bad Pentecostal when I was 15.
Traditionally, Pentecostal conversions involve weeping, speaking in tongues, and losing motor control. Sanctification, or the healing of one’s soul, also occurs in these experiences, so the God who “wrecks” and “slays” the believer also heals what he just shattered.
This God scared me, but I wanted that healing for my anxious, insecure, and fatherless soul.
I wanted to know this God, but he sounded too wild. I wanted healing, but I wanted God to meet me where I was instead of forcing me into his heavenly realm so he could tear me to pieces.
Yet in my Pentecostal tradition, a charismatic experience was the only true way to encounter God, and Winterfest was the best place to find him.
Winterfest was the ultimate Pentecostal revival and unofficial initiation for the high school members of my youth group. I remember seeing videos from the previous Winterfests, showcasing fun days spent at Pigeon Forge adventure park and passionate nights being “slain in the Spirit.” Despite my initial discomfort with such public displays of spiritual affection, my curiosity got the better of me, and I signed up my freshman year.
However, despite my surface level of eagerness, I was still skeptical. There was this wrestling within me between my desire to encounter God and my fear of God’s nature. Besides a life-wrecking God, this God was also known as Father. I figured if my real Dad could decide to leave me, this Father God could, too. When we finally departed for Winterfest one early Friday morning, our pastors promised us that we would experience great things from God. I secretly doubted that God would show up for me.
The weekend culminated in an intense sermon given by a fiery pastor, his powerful message amplified by four JumboTron screens. I knew the man had set the stage for a true Pentecostal conversion and felt the passionate emotions rising within me. I saw the people around me reacting properly, rushing to the altar, falling on their knees and stomachs, sobbing and speaking in tongues, some too overcome by the Spirit to make it to the altar and collapsing in their seats.
But the Pentecostal switch didn’t flip in me. Despite the passion and conviction I felt, the “real” experience wasn’t happening. I was on the outside looking in at this ecstatic group as the Spirit rained down on them, thinking God had abandoned me once and for all, just like my Dad years before.
I was lonely in this crowded arena, so I sulked away to an emptier part of the stadium and made my own solo efforts of prayer, petition, grumbling, and probably swearing to God. I begged for the love and presence of God that supposedly never failed, left, or gave up on me. I had lost my earthly father; had I lost God, too?
Eventually I did find myself on my knees and crying, but instead of tears of spiritual ecstasy, mine were tears of abandonment and loneliness.
In my desperation, my high school small group gathered around me. I felt their hands upon me, heard their whispers of encouragement and love, just as I had during our weekly meetings. I found myself surrounded by the ones who knew the pain of my father’s absence, my own insecurities and crushing anxieties. When I opened my eyes and saw them around me, I heard the words in my heart that began to heal my wounds of abandonment: You are not alone. I am here. I will always be here.
These were the words of God, who I so desperately wanted to meet but feared. And instead of wrecking me with his presence, he quietly met me where I was in my stadium section, surrounded by a group of people who loved me.
Compared to the people around me, this experience was unremarkable, but I finally felt the peace of the God who met me where I was. I realized I never needed to go to Winterfest, because God surrounded me in the love of this little community before I even left Virginia.
Although I didn’t remain in this spiritual ecstasy, or the Pentecostal tradition, forever, the God who surrounded me that night never left. That night, I learned that God is bigger than the Church’s expectations. This God showed me that I didn’t need to be wrecked; I needed to be loved, and my pain needed to be held. Today, this God reminds me that healing is a life-long process, not a once in a lifetime event. This God stays with me through it all, and sometimes, this God shows up in small groups instead of JumboTrons.
My journey began in healing. And in healing it will continue.