What are the makings of a good Pentecostal worship service? Traditionally, the answer has been an expectation for a supernatural move of God whereby people have a tangible sense of the Spirit. In this article, I briefly explain some of the background for the Pentecostal emphasis on the experiential in corporate worship, followed by seven key theological issues we need to be aware of as we grapple with the ethos of Pentecostal corporate worship.
First, the background for the early Pentecostal emphasis on experience in corporate worship was particularly rooted in the reception of Spirit baptism on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2:1-4: “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them”. As believers were together worshipping, a tangible sense of God’s presence came in that present moment through sights and sounds, manifesting in each individual through their speaking of tongues.
While the Azusa Street Revival (1906-1909) was not the only early centre of Pentecostalism, its corporate worship emphases were influential upon the Pentecostal movement globally, showcasing the role of the Acts 1-2 storyline.1 For example, one participant’s experience of Spirit baptism at the Azusa Street Revival reveals the importance of an encounter with God: “I feel the presence of the Holy Ghost, not only in my heart but in my lungs, my hands, my arms and all through my body…. I also speak in six foreign tongues given me at God's command. God has called me to Africa as a missionary.”2 The Acts 1-2 storyline shaped early Pentecostals’ expectations for corporate worship, and we still face the implications of this emphasis today whereby Pentecostals expect a tangible sense of the Spirit’s supernatural work in our services (e.g., Spirit baptism, healing and miracles).3 The following are seven issues we need to be aware of in light of this Pentecostal emphasis in corporate worship.
First, there is biblical precedent for the Pentecostal expectation of an experience with the Spirit in corporate worship. While Pentecostals often reference Acts 1-2 as Scripture that shapes their identity, 1 Corinthians 14:24-25 also needs to be mentioned because it describes the Pentecostal expectation for corporate worship so well. In 1 Corinthians 14:24-25, Paul makes this important claim about the result of the Spirit’s work through prophecy in a corporate worship service: “But if all prophesy, an unbeliever or outsider who enters is reproved by all and called to account by all. After the secrets of the unbeliever’s heart are disclosed, that person will bow down before God and worship him, declaring, ‘God is really among you’ ” (NRSV). Pentecostal identity has been shaped by the anticipation of direct and present experiences of the Spirit in corporate worship, whereby participants in Pentecostal corporate worship might also claim that “God is really among us.”4
Second, the Pentecostal emphasis takes the important role of human experience into consideration. Pentecostals are sometimes charged with wrongly making use of experience as an important dimension of the Christian life. But the Scriptures indicate that experience is an important dimension of being human. The Apostle Paul was extremely knowledgeable about the Jewish Scriptures but refused to accept that Jesus was the Messiah until he encountered Jesus in a tangible way. While Paul was on the way to persecuting Christians, “suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ” (Acts 9:3b-4). That experience with Jesus profoundly altered the trajectory of Paul’s life. Experience is an important dimension of the human person, and the Pentecostal approach to corporate worship acknowledges its vital role. And while there may be potential for misuse through manipulation (as people may misuse many things in life), it doesn’t mean we ought to avoid it altogether. We need to give room for people to experience a move of God while doing our best to safeguard against the erroneous use of this element in our churches.
Thirdly, we also need to avoid being sign seekers in order to believe. Yes, experiences can contribute to our faith, but a constant need for signs is itself a sign of immaturity in a believer. After Jesus’ resurrection, Thomas was one of the disciples who didn’t initially witness Jesus’ resurrected body and thus doubted that He was alive. Thomas said: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hands into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25b). When Jesus eventually showed Thomas His body, Thomas believed. Jesus’ response to Thomas’s belief is telling: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). Jesus acknowledges that people may believe because they have “seen.” But Jesus suggests that the mark of greater maturity is faith in God even without a tangible sense of God.5
Fourthly, the supernatural move of God in corporate worship is important for the mission of the church. Experiences with the Spirit aren’t merely for the benefit of the recipients themselves. The Scriptures show that these moves of God in corporate worship relate to God’s heart to reach those outside the church. Spirit baptism has witness as its goal.6 Paul taught that the Spirit’s work of prophecy would lead unbelievers to worship God, acknowledging that “God is really among you!”7 These moves of God weren’t just for a believer’s spiritual growth; they also had witness to the unbeliever as their goal.
Fifthly, Pentecostals must be careful not to overpromise the results of an experience of the Spirit in corporate worship. Some may assume that a greater “anointing” of the Spirit will bring greater church attendance. It’s understandable why Pentecostals have thought this way, since after the Apostle Peter was baptized in the Spirit, he preached, and three thousand were added to their number that day (Acts 2). But in Acts 7, Stephen is full of the Spirit, he preaches, and is stoned to death. The contrasting Acts 2 and 7 storylines should temper our expectations for results in worship services. Both great joy and/or challenge may result from the work of the Spirit in our midst.8
Sixthly, we need to acknowledge both the present and future work of the Spirit arising out of our worship services. For instance, an emphasis on the present work of the Spirit in worship services may cause people to manipulate situations in order to attain immediate tangible results like a large altar call response. But Jesus once said that the Spirit will help you remember His teachings in the future.9 This tells us that people may respond to what happens in our services in the future—not in that present worship service. This is important because it should help those in leadership to be patient with how people respond to the Spirit’s work in their lives.
Finally, with an emphasis on experience in worship services, some may intentionally avoid elements of corporate worship that may not be deemed “supernatural” and focus primarily on elements that generate an emotional response. For example, we might be avoiding the regular practice of communion, the reading of Scripture (Old and New Testaments), confession, and even lament because they don’t feel like a tangible experience of the Spirit. Our spiritual growth will be hindered when we limit the work of the Spirit to experiences we deem more tangible in our services.
One of the most formative contexts for discipleship occurs in the corporate worship service as the Holy Spirit brings transformation. This expectation for an experience with God has biblical precedent, but it must be tempered with a more robust understanding of the work of the Spirit. May we strive to be worshippers who are open to both the tangible and intangible works of the Spirit in our times of worship together and beyond. For a more thorough treatment of this subject, check out my book, The Holy Spirit in Worship Music, Preaching, and the Altar: Renewing Pentecostal Corporate Worship.
Josh P. S. Samuel (PhD) is a professor of Bible and Theology and the director of Worship and Creative Arts Ministry at Master’s College and Seminary in Peterborough, Ont. He is married to Joyce, and they have two sons and one daughter. You may connect with him at www.JoshSamuel.com. This article appeared in the October/November/December 2019 issue of testimony/Enrich, a quarterly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. Photos © istockphoto.com.
1. Cecil M. Robeck, Jr., The Azusa Street Mission and Revival: The Birth of the Global Pentecostal Movement (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 4;
Josh P. S. Samuel, The Holy Spirit in Worship Music, Preaching, and the Altar: Renewing Pentecostal Corporate Worship (Cleveland, TN: CPT, 2018);
Michael Bergunder, The South Indian Pentecostal Movement in the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008), 8-9.
2. G. W. Batman, “En Route to Africa,” Apostolic Faith 1, no. 4 (December 1906): 4.
3. Keith Warrington, Pentecostal Theology: A Theology of Encounter (London, UK: T&T Clark, 2008), 20.
4. For an Old Testament example, see 2 Chronicles 5-7.
5. Robert Kysar, John, the Maverick Gospel, rev. ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 95-102. Cf. Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, 2nd ed. (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2009), 189.
6. Acts 1:8.
7. 1 Corinthians 14:24-25.
8. See Amos Yong, The Kerygmatic Spirit: Apostolic Preaching in the 21st Century. Edited by Josh P. S. Samuel and Reflections and Afterword by Tony Richie. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018), 7, 174-183.
9. John 14:26.