The Praxis of Music and Song in the Pentecostal Worship Experience

Spontaneity, variety, and liveliness: these words immediately come to mind when one attempts to describe the Pentecostal worship experience. These three attributes of the Pentecostal worship experience are best captured in what is probably the most celebrated component of a typical Pentecostal worship service: the music and song. When considering the place of music in worship, Pentecostals would emphatically agree with Robert Webber when he says that “music is the wheel upon which the Word and Eucharist ride.”[1] As Webber notes, music is not an end in itself and, for Pentecostals, the end to which music leads is a personal, emotional, and transformative experience with God. The exalted status of personal experience in Pentecostal worship discloses its heritage in the nineteenth-century Holiness movement with its stress on personal conversion.[2]

In Pentecostal worship, music is “liturgically patterned” to form a “ritual pathway” which facilitates a personal experience with God.[3] This liturgical pattern begins with exuberant, upbeat songs of praise which declare God’s attributes, express thanksgiving, and re-orient worshipers’ minds to focus on God.[4] Praise songs are followed by slower “worship” songs which encourage worshipers to “reflect on God’s goodness and mercy towards them.”[5] Pentecostal song and prayer converge as the congregation sings songs of worship and adoration to God – not merely about God. This liturgical pattern is sometimes characterized as the “Temple Sequence” in which worshipers are led from the outer courts of praise to the inner courts of thanksgiving and into the Holy of Holies where they are transformed by God’s presence.[6] However, as essential as music is in facilitating this ritual pathway of personal experience, the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in those who sing and play is of ultimate concern. As they sing, Pentecostal worshipers call upon the Spirit to inhabit their praise and take all authority to lead, empower, and receive their worship.

The use of music in worship provides a lens to examine a broader theology of Pentecostal worship. First, singing reveals the divine-human interaction that serves as the foundation for all worship experience. In one sense, the song is a human response to divine presence and action throughout creation as a whole, and also in the personal lives of the worshipers. At the same time, it must be said that any expression of worship is “a very divine exercise initiated by God through the Spirit.”[7] In this divine-human interaction, a church composed of human, earthbound worshipers “joins the perpetual worship in heaven” while heavenly worship is simultaneously “incarnated by the worship of the church.”[8] Pentecostal worship, then, can be understood as a divinely-human and humanly-divine practice in which the church is transformed as they engage with God and God engages with it through singing, the hearing of the Word, and prayer.

Second, the use of song in worship highlights the need for maximum church participation in Pentecostal worship. After describing a worship event recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures, Webber mentions participation as “a fundamental aspect of worship.”[9] When a congregation participates together in worship, especially through song, a new sense of unity is born.[10] Participatory worship affirms the Spirit’s presence and work in each member of the congregation. As worshipers breathe in the Spirit together as one church, they are empowered to live in communal relation with God and one another for the sake of God’s glory and their own spiritual transformation.[11] However, participation in worship should not be understood as the autonomous decision of worshipers. Rather, it is the Spirit who invites worshipers to participate, but this invitation calls for them to “freely” submit to the Spirit’s sovereign direction of worship.[12] As worshipers open themselves to the Spirit’s presence and participate in communion with God and each other, Pentecostal worship truly becomes a liturgy – a “work of the people” – instead of the accomplishment of a few special individuals.

Finally, the practice of singing affirms the holistic nature of persons in Pentecostal worship. Too often, worship practices are designed for “Cartesian Christians” where the mind is considered all important while the rest of the body is “viewed as a hindrance to spiritual development.”[13] However, singing is a fully embodied experience; lungs expanding and contracting, forcing air through vibrating vocal chords, reverberating out of mouths, filling ears throughout the room. It usually involves clapping or the raising of hands. On occasion, worshipers dance while they sing or simply fall to their knees or lie prostrate before God. James K. A. Smith notes how this embodied spirituality puts worshipers “in a position of vulnerability and humility” before God and others.[14] This physical posture fosters an “open spirit toward God” in worshipers which allows them to “worship authentically and to experience the close presence of the Holy Spirit.”[15] Pentecostal worship is directed towards an encounter with God that engages the totality of a worshiper’s person – mind, heart, spirit, and body – so that worshipers are holistically transformed.

As I consider my personal theology of worship in relation to these three broader aspects of Pentecostal worship theology, I see both a positive and negative dimension in each one. First, I affirm that worship must be empowered by the Spirit’s presence and action because I do not believe that worship can be produced by human creativity and reason. However, I do not affirm the required use of “free prayer” that the Pentecostal tradition understands as a symbol of God’s presence and a more faithful way of discerning the Spirit’s direction in opposition to a written liturgy.[16] The use of a written liturgy that has been carefully researched and planned does not inhibit God’s presence or action in worship.

Second, I affirm the participatory nature of worship because it empowers all worshipers to contribute to a community that reflects the image of the Triune God. However, if this communal image is to be preserved, it is very important that the Spirit’s presence not be explicitly or directly linked to certain forms of participation.[17] Community is put at risk when this happens because those who do not participate in the “correct” forms of worship are excluded by those who do. God is free to be present and active through any form of worship and therefore no form of worship should be exalted over another.

Finally, I affirm the fully embodied, personally transformative experience of Pentecostal worship because I too easily focus on the intellectual, “heady” aspects of worship while ignoring my emotions and the desires of my heart. However, there is a dangerous possibility that these personal encounters with God will become private, individualistic ones that damage the communal identity of the worshiping community.[18] I cannot affirm these kinds of individualized experiences because they diminish the holistic identity of worshipers by detaching them from their place as persons-in-community.

[1] Robert E. Webber, Worship Old & New, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 195.

[2] Webber, 117, 122.

[3] James Steven, “The Spirit in Contemporary Charismatic Worship,” in The Spirit in Worship – Worship in the Spirit, eds. Teresa Berger and Bryan D. Spinks (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009), 252.

[4] Janice McLean, “Make a Joyful Noise unto the Lord: Music and Songs within Pentecostal West Indian Immigrant Religious Communities in Diaspora,” Studies in World Christianity 13, no. 2 (January 1, 2007): 131.

[5] McLean, 131.

[6] Webber, 130.

[7] Jonathan E. Alvarado, “Worship in the Spirit: Pentecostal Perspectives on Liturgical Theology and Praxis,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 21 (2012): 145.

[8] Alvarado, 144.

[9] Webber, 21.

[10] David Williams, “Music and the Spirit,” Evangel 23.1 (Spring 2005): 12.

[11] Alvarado, 141.

[12] Daniel E. Albrecht, “Worshiping and the Spirit: Transmuting Liturgy Pentecostally,” in The Spirit in Worship – Worship in the Spirit, eds. Teresa Berger and Bryan D. Spinks (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009), 241.

[13] Christopher A. Hall, Worshiping with the Church Fathers, Kindle ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), loc. 573.

[14] James K. A. Smith, “Teaching a Calvinist to Dance: In Pentecostal Worship, My Reformed Theology Finds Its Groove,” Christianity Today 52, no. 5 (May 1, 2008): 45.

[15] Albrecht, 239.

[16] Steven, 250.

[17] Steven, 259.

[18] Steven, 256.


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