Thursday, 20 August 2009

On Pentecostal worship: a response to Ben Myers

I invited Shane Clifton to write a response to yesterday’s post. Shane is a Pentecostal theologian in Sydney, doing some impressive new work in the fields of Pentecostal theology and ecclesiology. He’s author of two new books, Pentecostal Churches in Transition (Brill) and Globalization and the Mission of the Church (T&T Clark).

Ben has been gracious enough to allow me to respond to his post on megachurch worship. What follows is not a defence of the megachurch and, indeed, I would not presume to speak for the leaders and members of these assemblies. But I do have a different perspective to Ben, one that is informed not only by my study of the movement, but by my conversion at the age of 16, and 22 years in Pentecostalism thereafter. I am, therefore, a critic of the movement, but a sympathetic one – someone who, as both participant and observer, is familiar with its blind-spots and inadequacies, but who has chosen to remain connected nevertheless. Perhaps the best way for me to explain why this is so is to share some recent experiences that I have had as a curious observer of the worship of some church traditions that are not my own.

The story begins with an issue my family had in my local church which left me, for a period, homeless, and free to explore some other traditions. Having spent all our time in the one movement, this freedom sounded fun.

We visited, firstly, an evangelical congregation with a reputation for emphasising the bible and ‘meaty’ preaching (whatever that might be). The first thing we noticed in walking through the doors was the beautiful stain glass windows, an inspiring sight for a Pente used to ‘functional’ worship spaces. It was something of a surprise, when the singing started, to discover that the glorious organ went unused, to be replaced by a piano, a guitar and bunch of singers with microphones. This seemed odd in that old building and, while I really don’t want to be critical, it was very hard to concentrate on worship. I have to say it – the music was ordinary. No doubt, participants sincerely loved Jesus, the church was full, and they sang with gusto but, while they were not singing hymns, the choruses were 10 years old (some even older), and the musicians and singers disorganised and a little out of tune.

I was glad to crumple the dingy photocopied lyric sheet into my pocket and take my seat, until, that is, I discovered what it’s like to sit on one of those horrible pews. Clearly, the pew functioned as a symbol of a believer’s penitence, especially when added to a 30 minute biblical sermon by a male preacher which, while ‘meaty’, did not hold my attention. The plea of my 14-year-old son as we got into the car after the service (no one spoke to us, so we got away easily) summed up the situation, ‘Dad, please don’t make us go back to that church.’

A few weeks later we took a trip into the city to visit St Mary’s Cathedral. We decided to leave the kids with their friends this time, anticipating the likely response. Maybe we should have brought them, because the event was transcendent. The building itself was spectacular, so much so that it felt sacrilegious to speak in more than a whisper (as an aside, Pentes are often accused of a focus on money, but we having nothing like this building in this prime location in the city). The procession, the smoke, the costumes, the formalities, although unfamiliar, had us enraptured and reminded us of the ancient lineage of our faith. Surprisingly, at least for me as a Protestant, the service was full of the Scriptures. Indeed, I heard more Scripture in that Catholic Church than I had heard in a Pentecostal assembly in years. The male preacher, who stood in his dress in a pulpit at the back right of the stage, gave a brilliant sermon. Grounded in scripture, connected to contemporary local issues, and blessedly short (again, there is only so long you can sit on a pew).

I have only one complaint, and that concerns the Eucharist. It is a really alienating experience to watch people participate in communion that you know is not for you. As we left the building I said to my wife, maybe Catholicism is for us? She laughed. ‘The kids would be bored stiff,’ she noted, ‘it would be like taking them to a museum every week.’ And as I looked around the congregation, very few young people in sight, I knew, at least for our family, that she was right.

We went to other churches, enjoyed the experiences, but none felt like home to us. Finally, we went to Hillsong Macarthur, one of the three main hubs of the famous church. We were welcomed at the door, and taken by an usher to a comfortable padded seat in a theatre-like auditorium. The musicians were playing in the background, and there was a sense of excitement in the room. The service started, and even for a seasoned Pentecostal my senses were assaulted – house lights off, stage lights on, loud music, television cameras and giant screens, and more than 100 young people running to the front area of the stage dancing and jumping. The atmosphere was relentlessly positive and, as the music slowed and the hands were raised for ‘worship’, the cynic in me was reminded of the enthusiasm of a Hitler youth rally.

I soon realised, however, that the problem was mine: indeed, what right did I have to be cynical about the sincere spirituality of hundreds of passionate young people? When the worship (and the offering talk) ended, the local ‘house’ pastor introduced the preacher, Chris Hill, an African American Pentecostal who was sharing with us via a live video feed from the Baulkham Hills auditorium on the other side of the city. It seemed strange at first – this disembodied preacher – but then I decided that this was the 21st century and went along for the ride.

The sermon was spectacular. It was funny, challenging and entertaining (if not necessarily ‘meaty’), and before long I forgot that the speaker was not in the room. The video feed ended and blended seamlessly into contemporary live music. It was followed by an alter call that saw groups of people giving their heart to Jesus. The place was alive. Eventually, when after liberal doses of quality Gloria Jeans coffee we headed back to our car, my teenage boy gave me the reason why I remain in Pentecostalism. ‘Dad, that was fun. Can we go back to this church?’

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