Sunday, March 6, 2016

Worship in Oneness Pentecostalism, Part 1

[In the next several posts, I will share a chapter from my dissertation, The People of the Name: Oneness Pentecostalism in the United States (Florida State University, 1985).  Each subsequent post will deal with the defining reality of Oneness Pentecostalism: corporate, participatory worship. Several of the examples used in these posts reflect American evangelicalism in the 1980s when the dissertation was written.]

To truly hear the voice of Oneness Pentecostalism, one should not turn to official documents or even the written page, for this voice is heard most clearly in the acts of ritual worship—especially the corporate practices of song, testimony, and sermon—upon which these believers center their lives. Oneness life is worship. The regular worship service offers the overwhelming, almost singular expression of Oneness community life. The emergence and subsequent development of Oneness Pentecostalism (as well as classical Pentecostalism in general) resulted most directly from a novel, distinctive emphasis and interpretation of corporate, participatory worship. Although these Pentecostals are distinguished from other Christian groups by differences in theology and culture, at the most foundational level this separation arose in the Pentecostal redefinition of the shape and content of ritual worship.1

Peter L. Berger, in his The Sacred Canopy, recognizes the crucial role of ritual worship in the development and maintenance of a religious system. He states,

Men forget. They must, therefore, be reminded over and over again. Religious ritual has been a crucial instrument of this process of "reminding." Again and again it "makes present" to those who participate in it the fundamental reality-definitions and their appropriate legitimation. The farther back one goes historically, the more does one find religious ideation embedded in ritual activity—to use more modern terms, theology embedded in worship.2

For Berger, religious men are actors (participants) before they ever become theoreticians. Therefore, through the sacred acts and words of ritual worship, believers are again "made present" with the deeds and even the person of the divine. This experience and these activities provide the ground for subsequent religious thought and the rise of a cogent religious worldview.3

In the weekly worship service, Oneness Pentecostals engage in and act out all the essential aspects of their religious life. The worship service, the central arena and primary function of the Oneness church, defines the characteristics of the religious community for both participants and observers. In the repetitive religious rituals, Oneness life expresses its faith most tangibly. To be Oneness Pentecostal is to fully participate in the public acts of worship and to ultimately confront the overwhelming power of God's presence in the context of this corporate action. This worship service—its elements and order—enables the congregation to directly encounter the person and presence of God. This "divine epiphany" is the goal of every ingredient of Oneness worship and the crowning, defining moment of the congregation's life.4

The forms and expressions of classical Pentecostal worship have undergone a significant evolution during the history of the movement. The spontaneous, pew-oriented worship of the Azusa revivals gave way to more formalized, structured worship forms early in the drive toward denominational and theological stability. Oneness Pentecostalism attempted to reverse this trend by recapturing the spontaneity and intensity of the early worship forms. In this attempt, the Oneness Pentecostals actually radicalized the ritual worship of Azusa when applying their new understanding of God's person to the moment of "divine epiphany" in worship and redefining the roles of water baptism (administered in Christ's name) and Spirit baptism as rites of initiation.

Worship during the early Pentecostal revivals was almost entirely congregation-centered and, accordingly, resembled the worship of a large house meeting rather than that of a fully structured denomination. This worship largely consisted of spontaneous eruptions of spiritual gifts—those miraculous manifestations of the Holy Spirit discussed in Paul's Corinthian correspondence, especially the gift of tongues, interpretation of tongues, and prophecy—and various demonstrative, emotional responses to Spirit baptism. At Azusa, the elements of worship had not yet been placed in a fixed order; services were considered most spiritual when the order emerged spontaneously. Corporate praise and thanksgiving, expressed most often in concert prayers, singing, and testimonies, outweighed the importance of preaching in these services. With some exceptions, early Pentecostals considered preaching merely another element in worship. This secondary role allotted to preaching was rooted in a reaction against "clergy dominated" worship, a revolt against the notion of "one man" ministry.5 Even when preaching occurred, the Pentecostal "minister" remained open to the "redirection" of the sermon by the Holy Spirit's leading in the congregation. The congregation as the central locus of God's action undermined the sermon's priority and the minister's authority. In all aspects, the spontaneous movement of the Holy Spirit within the congregation served as the central aspect of early Pentecostal worship.6

During the latter years of classical Pentecostalism's first decade, the forms of Pentecostal worship and congregational structure emerged as the movement organized itself along the normal lines of American denominations. Church buildings were built and furnished with pews and pulpits—the first token of a substantial clergy/laity division in the movement. Public worship became relegated to certain days and times, while the content and performance of the various ritual forms of worship became fixed. This crystallizing of worship forms correlated directly with the rise of ministerial authority, administrative structure, and denominational organization.7

With the appearance of independent regional and national Pentecostal bodies, the early Pentecostal spontaneity that often usurped the leadership of services gave way to an emerging service order which proceeded from prayer, congregational singing, and special music presentations to the sermon and altar call. Spiritual gifts and free demonstrative response to the Spirit's prompting became relegated to given times within the service (especially during the song service and the "after service" following the altar call). Although spontaneous disruptions continued to occur, these came to be the exceptions rather than the rule.

With the recognition of early Pentecostal excesses and the need for instruction, preaching gained prominence in the new denominations. Preaching came to equal and eventually replace the gifts as the means of divine communication. The message of God's saving action, once expounded in the gifts and spontaneous testimonies, came to be proclaimed in the preached Word. Rather than just a time of instruction, the sermon acted as a vehicle for expressing and creating the immediacy of the "real presence" of Christ and the overwhelming moment of God's saving action within the community. The new prominence of preaching did not displace the expression of spiritual gifts, but led to a reinterpretation of their role in community worship as an extension and confirmation of the sermon rather than as a substitute for it.8

Along with this reassessment of the elements of ritual worship, the classical Pentecostals witnessed a clear evolution in the order of the service—a structuring of the elements of worship which provided content and direction within the service. These believers came to see God acting in the entire service, not just in the moments of "divine interruption." The order of the service as well as the elements of worship became the arena of the Spirit's acting. Although this shift paralleled the assimilation of second and third generation Pentecostals into the mainstream of post-World War II middle class America, it did not spell the end of spiritual manifestations. While such ordering necessarily hindered the spontaneity of songs, testimonies, and the gifts, it also provided for their orderly operation within a structured, and therefore highly efficient, evangelistic appeal.

In more recent years, many classical Pentecostal churches, including Oneness churches, have moved toward more "performance-oriented" worship. With the advent and prevailing influence of mass media, these Pentecostals have developed a high degree of professionalism in song and sermon. This has often led to a passive congregation with these performances replacing corporate worship as the public expression of God's action and presence.9 (This is nowhere more clear than in contemporary charismatic television broadcasting such as Pat Robertson's 700 Club and Jim Bakker's PTL Club.) Nevertheless, as a whole, Pentecostal worship remains the most highly participatory form of congregational worship. The immediate access to the Spirit by all believers continues to undermine any notion of clergy-dominated worship. Pentecostalism—in both its historic and contemporary forms—offers a distinctive interpretation of the priesthood of the believer when asserting that the entire assembled group ministers to God and each other in the acts of community worship.

Almost every contemporary Pentecostal worship service—except for those on the radical fringe of the movement—follows a similar order of worship:

I. Devotional Service
Welcome or Prayer of Invocation
Congregational Singing
(Usually several lively evangelical "hymns" and a series of repetitive choruses)
Prayer Service
    Requests for Prayer
    Congregational Prayer
(Requests and confessions verbalized by the entire body simultaneously which often results in moments of ecstatic demonstration)
Tithes and Offerings
Special Music
Soloist or group of singers
Choir selection(s)

II. Ministry of the Word
Pastoral Prayer
(Invoking the Holy Spirit to save and heal)
Altar Call

III.  Altar Service (Here referred to as the "after service")
Community prayer for those responding to the altar appeal
Testimonies of those converted or healed
Gestures of greeting and fellowship among believers

IV. Closing
Further announcements

Despite this obvious ordering of worship with its restriction on the free operation of the gifts, Pentecostals maintain that the Holy Spirit continues to operate spontaneously throughout the service. In fact, the order of the service itself has taken on an initiatory function of its own as early Pentecostal worship forms succumbed to the more traditional evangelistic service structure of revivalism.10

But such clear definition and institutionalization of ritual worship forms often resulted in a loss of the original worship's appeal and forcefulness. The suppression of full spontaneity in testimonies, songs, demonstrative acts, and spiritual gifts often left these rituals as limited, rather hollow expressions of their former power. It was this weakening of the impact of the various elements of Pentecostal worship and the "cooling off" of revival fervor which elicited Oneness restorationism. The Oneness Pentecostals called for a continually renewing revival, a forever fresh encounter with Christ in enthusiastic Spirit-led worship. This call sought to reverse the pattern of declining revivalism which came to emphasize formal worship, education, and increasingly centralized administration as the early fervor faded.


1Kevin Mathers Ranaghan, "Rites of Initiation in Representative Pentecostal Churches in the United States, 1901-1972" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Notre Dame, 1974), p. 280.

2Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Company, 1969), p. 40.

3Ibid., pp. 40-45.

4This term is introduced in Arthur E. Paris, Black Pentecostalism: Southern Religion to an Urban World (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1982).

5Frederick Dale Bruner, A Theology of the Holy Spirit: The Pentecostal Experience and the New Testament Witness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 135.

6Ranaghan, "Rites of Initiation," pp. 224-25.

7Ibid., pp. 226, 282-83.

8Ibid., p. 283.

9Ibid., pp. 283-85.

10See Frank C. Masserano, "A Study of the Worship Forms of the Assemblies of God Denomination" (Th.M. thesis, Princeton Theological Seminary, 1966), pp. 71-74; Paris, Black Pentecostalism, pp. 54-71; and Richard Arlen Rooth, "Social Structure in a Pentecostal Church" (M.A. thesis, University of Minnesota, 1967), pp. 82-90.

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