Cessmaticism: The Strange Hybrid of Contemporary Christian Worship

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We began this series by making the claim that Pentecostalism has quietly (or not so quietly) colonised Protestant worship, even in those churches and groups that explicitly reject Pentecostal theology. We have described the distinctives of Pentecostal worship, not in terms of its views regarding the operation of the charismatic gifts, but in terms of its focus on intensity, spontaneity, and its distinctive “praise-and-worship” theology of worship. It now remains to make the case that these approaches are widely shared and practiced in non-charismatic, or cessationist circles.

In the first place, there is little doubt that what is prized as “intensity” in Pentecostal circles is fairly well accepted as a laudable goal in cessationist evangelical circles. The move towards intensity is seen in many a non-charismatic church’s method of singing one song after another, in rapid succession, only the occasional musician’s deejay vocals over the bridge intro. The practice of singing five, six, or more songs one after the other, apart from causing some of the elderly to just eventually sit down during the songs out of sheer pain and frustration, is closer to the “flow-like” worship of Praise and Worship theology than like a thoughtful response to God’s Word. The choice of songs also appears suspiciously like the Praise and Worship, Five-Stage theology of the charismatics. Beginning with upbeat, thanksgiving songs, reaching a crescendo of triumphalism, and then gliding down into the zone of breathy, ‘deep’ songs of intimacy just before the offering or sermon.

A second mark of the takeover of worship by charismatics is that non-charismatic evangelicals are drawn to rather uncritically embrace the music of charismatic songwriters. Of course, several of the modern hymns written by those in openly charismatic circles (such as Sovereign Grace) or “cautious-but-open” circles qualify as decent or even good hymns, having both theologically sturdy lyrics and readily likeable and singable melodies. There is little wonder that many of our churches sing them, for their lyrics are often without cliches, and their music answers to 21st-century musical sensibilities.

The problem is not the contemporary nature of these songs. It does not matter if a song was written in 221, 1021, or 2021, as long as it is true, good, and beautiful. The problem is not even the charismatic commitments or associations of the songwriters. Enough beautiful hymns were written by people whose theology we do not all share, for example Charles Wesley, Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, Paul Gerhardt, or Frederick Faber.

The problem is far more that that on the spectrum of Apollonian to Dionysian sentiment, they probably lean closer to the Dionysian side, at least musically. This is not surprising, given what we have seen regarding Pentecostal approaches to emotion and intensity. In a non-charismatic church, skilful musicians can interpret some of these songs and hymns in a fashion that communicates sobriety and modesty, and so may make these works practical and helpful for a church seeking reverent worship. This is something that Luther did with the secular tunes that he employed as hymns. Thoughtful pastors can thus use these alongside a healthy diet of excellent, classical hymns, that balance out the passionate, Dionysian element, both musically, and lyrically. My own church has attempted to attain this balance.

In practice, this is not often what happens. Instead, I’ve witnessed first-hand at least three results. First, there is a push to perform these songs with the kind of t-shirt-and-jeans folksiness that seems to accompany the more passionate nature of the music. That produces the very opposite of disciplining these hymns into a more sober form; it ends up re-shaping the whole music team into a less formal, more band-like atmosphere. For good reason: some hymns simply don’t suit the “worship-band” and some hymns simply don’t suit an organ or a grand piano and strings. If some hymns seem like they belong in a tux, and others seem like they belong in beach shorts and sandals, there’s probably something to that. We’d do well to ask exactly why that is, and not dismiss the question while sprinting off to buy a Fenderstratocaster for the dudes up front.

Second, the more these Dionysian-dominant songs are sung, the more they tend to choke out older and classical hymnody. Unless the pastors have a strong sense of what music communicates, they will be led by the same appetitive pull that passion-centred music has on all. They will see how much the congregants enjoy such songs; they will interpret this enjoyment as “connecting meaningfully” with the music, and notice how the visceral response is absent in some of the more Apollonian classic hymns. They will take the lyrical content as the entire meaning of the hymn, and the music as the amoral preference of the congregation, and eventually allow that preference to dominate. Consequently, classic hymns will steadily die out. If left to a popular vote, popular entertainment will win against serious formation one hundred percent of the time, and Christian songs shaped into the saccharine forms of pop-rock will trounce older, sober tunes every time.

Third, because of this choke effect of charismatic-type songs on older hymnody, the congregation finds itself increasingly cut off from the tradition of Christian worship. They do not know it, but they are drifting further from the worship lingua franca of their forebearers, and becoming cut off from the images, metaphors, and language of centuries of Christian worship. That alienation goes deeper than memory of hymn lyrics. It is a growing alienation from the very rhythms and shape of historic Christian worship, a growing distance from the affections that Christians have shared for centuries. Without the Christian tradition, there is nothing to balance the congregation from the excesses and blind spots of contemporary Christianity, so the worship errors of our day (narcissism, sentimentalism) are only compounded and reinforced each week. Within a few years, the congregation is now a strange animal. From the pulpit, they may still be perpetuating an ancient, confessional doctrinal tradition. But from a liturgical and worship point of view, they are radical innovators: they cannot trace their worship practices further back than a few decades. They may believe very similar things to their confessional forebears, but there is little doubt that they feel very differently than their ancestors did about those same truths. Their affections have been catechised with the passionate music of pop-rock, which has shaped their very posture towards the truth they profess. They may be non-charismatics with their lips, but their hearts are with Pentecostal worship. The mind may be cessationist, but the imagination is charismatic.

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David de Bruyn

Pastor New Covenant Baptist Church, Johannesburg, South Africa

David de Bruyn was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he now pastors New Covenant Baptist Church and resides with his wife and three children. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). David hosts a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa, serves as a frequent conference speaker, and is a lecturer at Shepherds Seminary Africa.