NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- The first time the Rev. Dwight McKissic ever spoke in tongues, he was a seminary student, praying on his knees in his dorm room.
"Strange sounds begin to come out of my mouth," McKissic said. "The only thing I could think of was, I was either losing my mind or this is what the Bible calls speaking in tongues. I wasn't trying to do it. It just happened.
"It's this sense of being intimate with God," said McKissic, who is now a Southern Baptist minister in Arlington, Texas. "It's different, but not necessarily a better way to pray."
Southern Baptists have long viewed speaking in tongues with ambivalence, not exactly condemning a practice that's mentioned in the Bible, but not allowing it from its pastors and churches.
But now, as Baptist churches become more accepting of charismatic forms of worship, some are asking the denomination to clarify its position: Is it OK for Baptists to speak in tongues?
McKissic is at the center of the debate, recently sending a letter to the Southern Baptist Convention's president and executive committee, asking for church leaders to clarify the convention's position.
The nine-page letter was in response to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary's refusal earlier last month to post on its Web site audio and video recordings of McKissic's sermon at the school's chapel, in which he describes experiencing a "private prayer language."
Leaders at the Fort Worth, Texas, seminary said the statement conflicted with the SBC's International Mission Board, which voted in November to ban missionaries from speaking in tongues in private. Previously, missionaries were discouraged from speaking in tongues publicly, but private prayer was not monitored.
Dissenting bloggers in the denomination, who have been credited with helping propel the little-known Rev. Frank Page to election as convention president in June, have criticized the mission board's decision.
Speaking in tongues is common among Pentecostals, whose more exuberant brand of Christianity is spreading in the U.S. and in countries where Southern Baptist missionaries work.
There are different understandings of the practice, which is believed to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. It commonly sounds like a series of nonsense syllables strung together rapidly in a song or chant.
Curtis Freeman, director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke University Divinity School, said Southern Baptists and Pentecostals are competing for the same converts, but Baptists have traditionally seen the practice as undermining their belief in biblical authority.
"There's a kind of theological division," Freeman said. "The focus of Baptist piety tends to be on Jesus and the Bible, while Pentecostals are more focused on the Holy Spirit."
Freeman said many Southern Baptist churches in recent years have become more charismatic-friendly, with more praise-and-worship music, singing choruses and lifting their hands at worship services.
McKissic, a seminary trustee and pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, said missionaries should be able to speak in tongues privately and that nothing in the Baptist Faith and Message, the denominations articles of faith, or Bible is at odds with what he said in his chapel sermon.
"I recognize this is a thorny, uncomfortable issue for all of us, but righteousness and biblical integrity demand that we deal with this issue," McKissic's letter states.
Kenyn Cureton, vice president for SBC relations, said the executive committee, which met last month at SBC headquarters in Nashville, did not address the issue because it is "not official and therefore pending business at this point."
McKissic said if the executive committee does not act, he would make a similar proposal at the SBC's convention next year in San Antonio, Texas.
Pentecostals believe speaking in tongues is a sign of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes this speech is translated publicly by another person, while at other times it is a private prayer language that McKissic describes.
Soon after the International Mission Board's vote last fall, bloggers jumped into the debate - the most notable being Wade Burleson, a pastor from Enid, Okla., and a member of the mission board.
Burleson was reprimanded by other board members for writing about the board's internal debates on his blog and threatened with removal.
Burleson said the issue was not whether most Southern Baptists agree with McKissic's views, but whether his sermon can be viewed by the public.
Freeman, from Duke University, said most in the SBC's "new guard" led by Page are likely to be more "charismatic-leaning" and open to charismatic practices like speaking in tongues privately.
"Page and the others I think want there to be a bigger tent in the SBC," for it to be more inclusive, Freeman said.