The Pentecostalization of Christian Worship

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. 

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.

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