Strange Lyre: The Pentecostalization of Christian Worship

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It’s hardly disputable that global Christianity has been overwhelmed and colonized by the Pentecostal and charismatic movements. After Roman Catholicism, the Christianity identified variously as charismatic, Pentecostal, Prosperity Gospel, or Latter Rain (with all its permutations and differences) makes up by far the largest percentage of what is classified as Christian. In just over 100 years since its beginnings in Azusa Street, California, it has come to dominate Christianity, and particularly the Christianity spreading in the Global South and and South-east. The growing and new-born Christianity in South America, Africa, and south-east Asia is overwhelmingly of the Pentecostal kind.

Non-Pentecostals, or cessationists as they are sometimes called, have dwindled into the minority. Very few voices have been raised to counter the theological distinctives of Pentecostalism: an emphasis on the supernatural sign gifts of the Holy Spirit, a belief in the baptism of the Spirit subsequent to salvation, and assorted novel views on healing, prosperity, and spiritual warfare. A notable exception was John MacArthur’s 2013 Strange Fire conference and subsequent book. By and large, cessationists simply accept their minority status, and defend their theology when asked.

But perhaps far more insidious has been the quiet takeover of Christian worship by Pentecostalism, even in those churches that reject the theology of continuationism. Worship forms are far more portable than doctrinal statements, and tend to insinuate themselves gradually and quietly. A popular song, emerging from Pentecostal or charismatic roots, finds a home in cessationist circles, because its theology is either orthodox and acceptable to cessationists, or sufficiently banal to fit in almost anywhere. This is not intrinsically problematic; it simply illustrates how worship forms travel across denominational lines in ways that sermons and Bible studies do not. Of course, some of the the most distinctive Pentecostal acts of worship remain out-of-bounds for cessationist churches: praying in tongues, announcing prophecies, public laying on of hands for healings or exorcisms. What arrives incognito is the Pentecostal understanding of the act of corporate worship, with its accompanying postures, approaches, and expectations.

As cessationist churches post vigilant patrols at the doctrinal boundaries, but offer open borders to charismatic songs, music, forms of prayer, and overall sentiment, a quiet transformation takes place.

As cessationist churches post vigilant patrols at the doctrinal boundaries, but offer open borders to charismatic songs, music, forms of prayer, and overall sentiment, a quiet transformation takes place. The result is a church that is cessationist on paper, but increasingly charismatic in sentiment and outlook. It is not long before this begins quietly reordering the discipline and ultimately, the doctrine of the church from within. Charles Hodge predicted as much: “Whenever a change occurs in the religious opinions of a community, it is always preceded by a change in their religious feelings. The natural expression of the feelings of true piety is the doctrines of the Bible. As long as these feelings are retained, these doctrines will be retained; but should they be lost, the doctrines are either held for form sake or rejected, according to circumstance; and if the feelings again be called into life, the doctrines return as a matter of course.”

But what can the “Pentecostalization of worship” refer to, if we have removed the overtly charismatic acts of praying in tongues, healing, and so forth? In a series of upcoming articles, I will argue that Pentecostal worship has a matrix of distinctives that is a clear break from historic, Protestant worship, or even the worship that preceded it. These distinctives are not unique to Pentecostalism, and some of them originated before it existed. Nevertheless, they represent much of the esprit de corp of self-identified Pentecostals when it comes to worship, and certainly represent an innovation in Christian worship. I suggest these distinctives are:

1. A populist approach to tradition, art, and the ecclesial authority.

Populism rejected expert opinion in matters of theology, church order, or music, and promoted the intuitive feelings of the common man as the arbiter of decisions in church. Not what had been curated by centuries of use, or chosen by men trained in art and theology, or known to challenge and discipline those who submitted to it was to be included in Christian worship, but what was experienced as immediately intelligible and accessible, or found to be widely popular by people of all states and tastes. Pentecostalism has been, and remains, overtly populist in outlook, approach, and sentiment.

2. Praise and worship theology.

This is a peculiarly charismatic approach to worship that believes in an almost sacramental view of music, and a tangible experience of the Holy Spirit’s presence. By means of successive phases of music and songs, often repetitive and unbroken in sequence, worshippers can be led deeper and deeper into the presence of God, until worshippers experience the presence of God in felt, experiential ways. Certain kinds of music or prayer will bring about God’s presence, the way the Mass brought the body and blood of Christ to the Table.

3. An emphasis on extemporaneity and intensity.

Pentecostalism’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit often includes the belief that spontaneity and extemporaneity represent yieldedness to the Spirit, whereas what is prepared, scripted or planned represents “the dead letter” or “quenching the Spirit.” Working hand-in-hand with extemporaneity is intensity, the belief that real spiritual experience is found in the closed-eye, swaying search for intense intimacy with God, often felt in deeply personal, and even private ways. This intensity is what aestheticians and philosophers refer to as Dionysian, as opposed to Apollonian sentiment.

As we will see, each of these three represent a break from historic Christian worship, which emphasized both beauty and simplicity, maintained a Gospel-shaped worship service, and sought a carefully planned, corporate, and Apollonian expression of worship.

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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.