Sunday, 3 March 2013

Elim Pentecostal Church

Sunday morning worship, 03 March 2013, 11.00am
Pastor: Gordon Allan

Charlotte Chapel isn’t the only church on the move. There’s been a grand game of musical churches going on in Edinburgh recently, and the Edinburgh Elim church is now in Morningside Baptist Church’s old building at Holy Corner. Morningside Baptist Church has bought the Methodist Central Hall and rebranded itself as Central: Jesus at the Heart. And if you’re wondering where the Methodists went, they’ve merged whatever used to happen at Central Hall with the congregation that’s been at Nicolson Square for almost 200 years. 

So Edinburgh Elim is in a new building and has a new pastor, and if its aim is to appear modern and relevant then it seems to be doing not badly for a denomination approaching its centenary. The music is provided by a “worship team” similar in style to Hope! Church but less bland and forgettable, and there were even two hymns I’d heard before – "Just as I am without one plea" and "How great thou art".

I’ve rehearsed my dislike for three-chord praise music and its insipid greetings-card lyrics often enough so I won’t do that again, but I never cease to wonder at the habit among evangelical worshippers of raising their hands in the air, palms forward like holy antennae as if it improves divine reception. I still chuckle at a Catholic friend’s mischievous comment “Grace Receptors: On!” in the face of this phenomenon, which I’d assumed was an optional extra, but one of today’s songs actually included the line “with our hands lifted high in praise” … and of course, most people did as instructed.

I’d been expecting a Pentecostal service to be a bit more hysterical than this one turned out to be. There were a few shouts of “Alleluia!” but none of the more excessive manifestations sometimes associated with the gifts of the spirit. This was Morningside after all, so one expects a certain degree of restraint and decorum.

Nevertheless, there was a man sitting a couple of rows behind who spoke in tongues, something I’d heard of but never actually heard done before. I will admit to complete ignorance when it comes to the linguistics of glossolalia, but I suppose it’s a human instinct to seek an interpretation of any speech-like noises we hear. The only words discernible to me sounded like “אבא בבקשה” (Hebrew: father, please), which seemed a suitable sentiment for prayer, but there are many more languages in the world than I have a passing acquaintance with and I’ve no doubt speakers of Russian, Hakka or Swahili might pick up on other syllables that seemed meaningful in their own languages. At the risk of being cynical, a magician might have heard, “Abracadabra” … who’s to say?

I spoke to this chap afterwards and he said he didn’t know what he said when he spoke in tongues, but he was undoubtedly grateful for the gift. He also offered to pray for me there and then, which was awfully nice of him, but I did find myself thinking back to what the pastor had said about the unsaved “wanting what they’ve got”. I can safely say that I don’t want to have an unknown language pouring out of my mouth willy-nilly – I’d rather know what I was going on about – but it must be quite something to have the faith and assurance they seem to enjoy at Elim.

The sermon was on Psalm 42, described by Pastor Allan as “a prophetic psalm, laden with godly hope”, so there was much talk of thirst and water, which led us to the “living water” of John 7:38 and possibly the best extended metaphor I’ve ever heard: “God put the plug in the bath of heaven. It filled up and overflowed and it’s been cascading ever since.”

The coffee flowed freely too, and everyone was friendly and enthusiastic without being overwhelmingly inquisitive. For the church visitor, there's a happy medium somewhere between being love-bombed and being totally ignored, and Elim's struck it. They seem to have a busy social agenda, lots of evening activities and so on, if that’s what you’re looking for from a church. And most importantly, they seem to be happy, which is more than can be said for some of the churches I’ve been to recently.

But I also heard something strange, something which I’d dismissed as a slip of the tongue when I heard it before at Holyrood Abbey: that God is “desperate” to hear from us. Desperation didn’t strike me as characteristic of an omnipotent god, but here it was again at Elim: “Jesus is desperate to invade our lives.” That’s two heavily loaded words in a short sentence. An invasion is a hostile act; nobody invites an invasion. Do you have to ask to be invaded or does it happen to you against your will? If he’s desperate to invade my life, and if he’s omnipotent, why doesn’t he just do it? I’d be powerless to resist. But here I am, unchanged. Maybe I ask too many awkward questions, or maybe I’m just so keen to discover the logic among all the babble that I’m failing to see the wood for the trees. 


  1. The last church I attended regularly was an Elim church. It didn't end well. You can read the story here, but the comments on that post say more than the article itself.

    1. If we asked fewer questions, Gordon, I dare say we'd both still be happily clapping along. "Walking away from church" and the two further posts about your deconversion sum up what many must have experienced, but I wonder how many would describe it so well or admit to it so openly. The comments by the pastor in question and by "Believer" have a horrible ring of familiarity to them; clearly it makes some people's faith feel stronger if they can hit a man when he's down, recently set adrift and grieving for something that used to make sense ... until the morning you woke up and realised it had all stopped making sense.

  2. Even after a few years have passed it still hurts. Its rather like a bereavement. I have since come to a position where I do try to follow the teachings of Jesus, and I do believe in the spiritual, but with a good deal of skepticism.

    I would quite like to go to church occasionally, but as a divorced dad its the only day of the week I get to see my kids (between 12 and 7 - which makes going to any church service very difficult).

  3. Hi there,

    Came across your blog recently - what an interesting read! I've been quite entertained, both by the antics you've encountered in churches (Elim's where I spend my Sundays by the way) and your witty commentary! I realise you've got another purpose behind all this though - I hope you won't mind if I comment on the odd post here and there (probably again on this one at least) as I trawl through your church crawl.

    All the best, Alan

    PS. Please feel very welcome to drop back in at Holy Corner any time. We've got flowers now too. :)

  4. Thanks, Alan. Glad you're enjoying the blog, and you're very welcome to comment on posts old and new.

  5. God is “desperate” to hear from us....yes, I've heard similar thoughts expressed in church circles more than once. My own guess is that the word "desperate", when used in this context, is in many cases likely to be a spur-of-the-excitable-moment advance on a thought more akin to God/Jesus "longing" to hear from us. Slightly gentler, and in the context of the speaker believing, say, in a personal and parent-like God waiting for a long-promised conversation with a much-loved child, perhaps an understandable sentiment.

    As for “invade" - own theology more comfortably hopes our LORD to be a gentleman rather than a marauding hoarde!

  6. I suppose it does make a bit more sense if you put it like that. Poor old God, sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring, but his children are all too busy having fun to remember their old Dad.

    It brings up the question of who prayer is for. It's not really God who needs our prayers - he's almighty enough to get by without them - but we need to pray for our own sakes to remind ourselves of our relationship with him and of his commandments. In that sense, he could wish earnestly that we pray to him because of the good he knows it would do us. But this isn't a sentiment I've encountered often in this year's churches.

  7. I like your imaginative interpretation of my ramblings. I can picture the scene now! You missed out pipe, slippers and long woolly beard though. I wonder if 1 John 3:1 describes a similar scene, minus the telephone.

    "It's not really God who needs our prayers" - I agree with you - well, nearly. Thinking it through, on the one hand an all-sufficient God, as you point out, materially, or perhaps non-materially, needs nothing that we could offer. But on the other, if such a God also instigated mankind with relationship in for example, if we take that same simple scripture above, and reckoned it a fair reflection of the christian God's nature, intentions, thoughts - Father, child, love - words which we humanly find difficult to separate from some level of intimacy - then the father in me can imagine that he maybe he does 'need' prayer after all.

  8. 1 John 3:1-3 was the text for the sermon at the FP church in Inverness. Nothing cosy about their god, that's for sure. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Central: Jesus at the Heart, which to my mind is far less appealing. I can cope better with the idea of a big, distant deity than with the guilt and codependency of a dysfunctional family relationship.

    And if my html has worked, there should actually be links in that comment :-)

  9. Links worked. :)

    Funnily, I was going to add a questioning note to my last reply - something about how christians interpret the practical meaning of bible verses like this in quite different ways. But now you've given me more homework and I'll need to read your FP & Central post properly - watch out for a reply in one of those.......once I've finished reading 5th March.

  10. Holy antennae, love it!