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Pentecostal liturgy?

By J.C. Holsinger

All societies have ceremonies that bind groups together and serve as instruments for education or instruction.

The Bible recognizes the importance of ceremony to teach and unify. As the Jews left Egypt, God gave instructions for an annual ceremony of Passover to remind future generations of His miracle of deliverance. Jesus left the Communion service to remind us, as Scripture says, "As often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord’s death till he come" (1 Corinthians 11:26).

Some denominations follow elaborate liturgies to prepare the special sacraments or graces which they believe the ceremonies bring. In the Eastern Orthodox church the service itself is called the divine liturgy. In the Western church the required liturgy of the mass is carefully designed and executed.

According to Hermann Hering, Lutheran professor and theologian, the medieval church preferred the word liturgy because it was the Greek word used in biblical times to describe the sacramental services of the Hebrew temple. Evangelicals at the time of the Reformation, he noted, preferred the term ceremony rather than liturgy to describe their activities. (See Hermann Hering, "Liturgics, Fundamental Principles," The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. VI, page 499.)

While the early Protestant Reformers retained certain ceremonies long used in the Christian church, they did not view public worship as re-creating a temple-sacramental service; it was to be a time of Scripture reading, prayer, singing, and sermon rather than as the "means of saving grace." Later, of course, the Reformers’ followers and descendants reverted to using the medieval sacramental-oriented word liturgy.

When the Assemblies of God was formed, the founders deliberately avoided using the words sacrament and liturgy. In fact, the founders carefully called the ceremonies of the church ordinances to avoid any sacramental connection. Hence rather than sacramentalism which the word liturgy historically brings with it, Pentecostals more accurately have ordinances and ceremonies. However, these ceremonies are important in educating and binding the generations of Christians together. Therefore, continuity and carefulness in performing these ceremonies should be practiced.

I attended a wedding recently where the pastor opened the ceremony with a prayer: "As we hear these young people repeat their vows, may those of us who are married be reminded of the same vows we once took. Lord, help us to reaffirm our vows to You and to each other." When he finished the prayer I almost shouted "Amen" because that is one of the most valuable purposes of ceremony–to educate and reaffirm important truths held in common, not just to provide a private or personal experience.

Modern society attempts either to personalize or individualize everything–from the rendition of the national anthem to teaching that values and religion are also personal choices. A common question is, ‘What does that mean to you?" The implication is that your experience and other people’s experiences are equally valid.

Can such tendencies to personalize and individualize everything ultimately destroy the purposes and continuity of ceremonies in a society?

Consider God’s command that Joshua require the leaders of the 12 Tribes to take a stone from the Jordan River to create a memorial. What if each of the 12 leaders or the 12 Tribes themselves had said, "We want to personalize our part of the ceremony." Or, "I would rather bring a log," or "I’ll pick up a pretty shell from the river that is special and meaningful to me." Instead, they heightened the meaning with all the leaders repeating exactly the same ceremony. This made it possible for the next generation to ask, "What mean you by these stones?" and to be educated about God and their responsibilities to His purposes.

Repetition and consistency of common procedures heighten the meaning and importance of ceremony.

While Pentecostals do not have liturgy (and I hope we never develop it), we have some useful ceremonies. However, we are more and more allowing those ceremonies to become so individualized, or even formless, they can lose their teaching and educational function.

For example, if a respected Christian couple brings their child for dedication and the minister says, "I know you are good Christians, so I am not going to ask you whether you will bring up your child in church," does that not destroy the opportunity for the Holy Spirit to prick the hearts of all parents present as to whether they are carrying out their vows?

Do we as church leaders affirm the importance of godly homes if at a Pentecostal church wedding the bridesmaids and bride come down the aisle more appropriately dressed for a nightclub than a church? Or music is sung at a Pentecostal church wedding that has sexual overtones more in keeping with a cabaret?

What about our ceremonies for the ordinance of water baptism? Is the meaning of "being buried with Christ and resurrected with Him" lost if we allow silly comments about the coldness of the water or ask, "Are you scared?"

Ceremonies need not be formal or stiff, of course. Given our church’s history and theology, ceremonies can be relaxed and natural. However, is it not easy to cross the fine line between relaxed and natural and instead produce silliness that destroys the basic teaching purposes of the ceremony?

Ceremonies conducted in the church are marvelous opportunities for teaching the great truths of the Christian faith and the Christian life. Experience has taught that such ceremonies are most effective when they are carefully and consistently performed with very little individualization interjected. This allows the Holy Spirit to take the familiar words of the event and apply them to each person present. For those who have not yet participated in such ceremonies, the well-planned and careful ceremonies teach the most important values of life in a Christian community. Therefore, in all our ceremonies let us do all to the glory of God.