Oneness Pentecostal worship reaches it goal in the after service, when in the context of community prayer and ecstasy, a "divine epiphany" occurs which leads to individual conversion and congregational renewal. The excitement of charged preaching creates an ambience for the altar appeal. A blending of emotional background music and a rising "wall" of congregational prayer enhances the moment of expectation and exerts enormous pressure on the unconverted to respond. The calling of the uncommitted and the congregation to the altar by the pastor signifies—in an outward and visible way—the inward readiness to accept the grace of God. The altar symbolizes the dwelling place of God, the place in which he is expected to move in decisive ways in the lives of individuals. The altar appeal moves the congregation from hearing the proclamation of God's word of salvation into direct participation in this saving action.
All the elements of classical Pentecostal worship converge in the altar call to maintain pressure on the unsaved. Enthusiastic appeals by the pastor, moving musical accompaniment, and even physical demonstrations add to this tension. Such "overflows" of the Spirit's activities heighten the pressure on the unconverted and provide a release for building tensions in the congregation. Arthur Paris points out that this prolonged moment of tension is especially effective in persuading those who have "withdrawn their assent but not their conviction of the efficacy of the church" and "its claim to truth." Therefore, "prior conviction," the pressure generated by the atmosphere of enthusiasm, and the sense of guilt elicited by the sermon compel the uncommitted into response.22 Such pressures create a willingness to step out—despite the potentially embarrassing admission of sinfulness—and act upon the promises of salvation. This physical movement toward the altar is the initial step in the conversion process.
After the altar appeal is concluded, the congregation gathers around those responding for a time of personal ministry. Congregation members and ministers "assist" the seeker through prayer, encouragement, and counseling. Fervent, loud corporate prayer, various positioning of the seeker, the clapping of hands, and the before-mentioned spiritual "overflows" maintain the atmosphere of expectancy at the altar. This scene often reaches its peak of intensity when ministers gather and lay their hands on the seeker in a special prayer. This action usually results in the first appearance of glossolalia in the seeker and an "overflow" of rejoicing in the congregation.
Unlike other Pentecostals who understand conversion as simple faith commitment, Oneness Pentecostals demand the full Acts 2:38 "plan of salvation"—repentance, water baptism administered to adults by immersion in the name of Jesus, and Spirit baptism evidenced by tongue- speaking—for conversion. Naturally, the altar service is expanded among Oneness congregations to include all of these activities. The after service, therefore, reduces the building tension of the service to an individual level and the congregation focuses on "praying through" the seeker. Although the act of repentance is emphasized in Oneness preaching and appeals, it plays only a small role in the altar service. Perhaps the act of responding to the altar call has come to replace the lengthy periods of repentance evident in early Oneness years. Seekers are almost immediately considered candidates for Spirit baptism when they respond to this appeal. In turn, the congregation directs its full attention and support to the respondent. Many seekers, however, do not immediately receive Spirit baptism. Some actually respond to altar appeals for years before finally personally experiencing a spiritual "overflow" manifest in glossolalia and physical demonstrations. In light of these cases, the notion of "tarrying" for Spirit baptism has been popularized.
Baptismal services, embodying another "essential" in the Oneness "plan" of salvation, often occur during or following altar services. Counselors admonish the seeker—whether he has manifested the spiritual "overflow" and speaking with tongues or not—to be baptized for the "remission of sins," thus completing and validating his experience of repentance. Baptismal tanks are kept full and warmed for spontaneous baptisms. The seeker, having admitted his guilt publicly and submitted himself to the pressures of the congregational "overflow" in the altar service, will seldom reject the admonition to baptism.
The entire Oneness service—its elements and order—gears itself toward initiating the unconverted. The action of God in the life of the individual always occurs in the context of the worshipping community. This stands as the distinct feature of Oneness Pentecostal worship. All experiences—repentance, water baptism, and Spirit baptism—gain meaning from the acts of public worship. The occurrence of these basic experiences in the uninitiated and the renewal of these experiences in the believer dominate the acts of worship and serve as sure tokens of God's action in the worshipping community. Such "crisis conversions" occur within the context of and as a result of corporate worship rather than subtle persuasion or theological instruction. Although Pentecostal writers affirm the possibility of isolated conversions, this contradicts denominational practices. Entering into normal Pentecostal life occurs within and is maintained within the arena of community worship.23
Conversions occur when the elements of worship are focused in such a way that the seeker is motivated to commitment. These elements highlight the need and availability of salvation. Oneness preaching largely consists of instructing the uncommitted of their present state and the salvation provided by Christ. The sermon motivates the seeker to bold decision, a public admission of sin and the need for salvation, and tangible acts of faith in responding to the altar call, repenting, and submitting to water baptism. The music during the altar call likewise enhances the appeal by presenting the basic doctrines of salvation, promising the desired effects of conversion, influencing the seeker toward decision and determination, providing an avenue of emotional release, emphasizing the expectancy of the congregation, and offering a background for exhortation, encouragement, and prayer. Altar hymns always focus on the "real presence" of Christ at the altar with terms like "here right now," "passing by," and "watching and waiting."24
At the altar, the seeker is invited to salvation, placed in the middle of believers, and bombarded by prayers, songs, and tangible manifestations of the spiritual "overflow." These elements occur simultaneously, resulting in a fevered pitch of ecstasy and the experience of the immediate encounter with Christ—not just part of God or an abstract notion of deity according to Oneness teaching, but the quantitative fullness of God's person—and his saving power. Together, the congregation and seeker share this explosive over powering of the "divine epiphany." After this initiation experience, the seeker enjoys full fellowship in the congregational family, passing from the individual life of sin to the corporate experience of salvation.
The Oneness Pentecostal worship service shares the basic elements and order of general Pentecostal worship, but the zeal to restore the Azusa purity which spawned the Oneness movement pushed these elements of worship to their extreme expressions. This is not to say that Oneness Pentecostal worship has yet to be institutionalized. On the contrary, Oneness churches have followed much the same pattern of denominational maturation as other Pentecostal bodies. But the forms of worship standardized in Oneness churches tend to reflect the more primitive, more demonstrative Pentecostal worship of the earliest revivals, whereas the other major Pentecostal expressions institutionalized the worship of second generation Pentecostalism. While lacking the true spontaneity of the early revivals, Oneness worship does welcome the more extreme physical demonstrations which accompany such spontaneity. This is clear in the after service due to the expansion of the "simple faith" rite of initiation to the complex three-step "plan" of Acts 2:38. Oneness worship captures the form, but not the continued revivalist zeal, of Azusa.
22Paris, Black Pentecostalism, p. 67.
23Ranaghan, "Rites of Initiation," pp. 292-93, 374, 402.