People of the Spirit, worshiping Jesus in all places, at all times

Pentecostal worship in the American context has historically emphasized spontaneity, freedom, and attentiveness to the Spirit’s leading.For all of that, there is a stunning level of continuity and family resemblance in classical Pentecostal liturgies. Over the years, the rise of the non-denominational movement, the ambivalence about denominational boundaries held by charismatics and third wave continuationists, and the influx of contemporary music and more expressive praise throughout evangelicalism has also allowed some of that congregationalist spirit to enter into Pentecostal worship. Now there’s a congregational liberty and emphasis on how “my” church does worship in many sectors of American Christianity, including Pentecostal churches.

There’s a lot of good that comes from this common hymnography and hymnology–and Pentecostals have had a hand in making it happen (Hillsong’s music, for example). But one of the things that is being lost in this is that the conversation we have about framing worship can very often focus on preference, taste, and things that more reflect our consumer culture than the passing on of the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

Liturgical scholar Lawrence Hoffman wrote in Beyond the Text about the nature of liturgy and its relationship to the life and identity of people. He published the following in 1987 (p. 69):

It might be said, then, that whatever worshipers presume to say to God, they are at the same time directing a message to themselves. The very act of worship takes on the function of identifying for the worshiper what it is that he or she stands for, what real life is like, what his or her aspirations are. The liturgical medium becomes the message.

As Calvin connects knowledge of God with knowledge of self in his Institutes, Hoffman suggests that awareness of our worship is awareness of our ecclesial identity. Why prophesy in worship? Why speak in tongues? Why heal? Why preach? Why receive the sacraments? These things tell us who we are. So how we do them matters.

There is a difference in identity between a congregation that prays for healing “up front” or “at the altar” and a congregation that has a team for healing prayer available in the back of the sanctuary. I won’t indict either practice, but healing is more plainly part of the identity of the former congregation than the latter. It says something about what they understand to be part and parcel of being the people of God.  How we worship matters. So, Pentecostal brothers and sisters, let us be self-critical and thoughtful of our liturgies and practices. Let’s not cater to what seems to offer the best consumer experience, but press into who we are, and who the Spirit of God wants to make us in the image of Christ.

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