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Pentecostals and Dead Ritual

David was what we often call a "non-traditional student."  If you are not familiar with the term, it had nothing to do with David's tastes in worship.  It simply refers to an older student.  Someone who, years after high school, decides to enroll in (or return to) college.  Like many older students, David was a hard worker and brought a good amount of life experience into his college work.  Also, like many, David was already serving as a local church minister.

The fact that David was not from a Stone-Campbell church is also not unusual.  Most Christian colleges of the Stone-Campbell (or "Restoration") Movement, even those focused exclusively on training church leaders, have many students who come from, and remain in, other denominations.  What was slightly less common was that David was the pastor of a classic Pentecostal church.  He had participated in a course I taught on worship, often bringing good insights and diligently studying the books and materials used in the course.

It was at one of the final school banquets, just before graduation, that he took the time to search me out and talk to me.  He wanted to share something and then give me something.

"It was a few weeks ago," he said, "On a Sunday evening."

"As usual, we were having an extended praise service.  The band started and everyone stood up.  People were clapping along with the music.  It was all very upbeat.  Then, early in the second song, some of our women started dancing and coming down front.  Everyone had their hands up in the air.  By the third or fourth song, more people were down front dancing and one or two of the ladies had fallen on the ground.  By now there were lots of people loudly praying."

Then he stopped for a moment before continuing.

"Dr. Lawson, that's when it began to hit me.  We talked about it in class.  Every Sunday night the praise band played pretty much the same music.  And, every Sunday night people stood up.  And, every Sunday night, after a song or two, just about the same ladies were dancing down front.  And, after the third or four song, just about the same people were dancing, and, most of the time, just about the same people were overcome by the Spirit and had fallen down."

"I stood there, watching and hearing all of this.  And, two words from class came to my mind as clearly as if God himself had said them."


"It was what we always did.  It was exactly what everybody knew we were going to do.  And, then I understood.  What makes something a dead ritual is not whether it's old school or new school, loud or soft, Pentecostal or straight-laced Protestant, Latin or English.  It's when we do the same things over and over and over until everyone knows their part and no one is thinking much about it and people are not experiencing whatever people felt when they first started doing whatever it is we're still doing over and over and over."

He gave me a hug and said, "Thank you so much.  I understand that worship isn't Spirit filled because of the styles or the dancing or whatever.  So, here's what I've been listening to lately.  I thought I'd give you a copy."

He handed me a CD.  I opened it when I got home.  It was all Gregorian chants in Latin.  I smiled.  Medieval chants being enjoyed by a Appalachian Pentecostal preacher.  Sure, chants can be dead ritual.  People can mumble through a a Mass and be untouched and unchanged.  Dead ritual.  But, so can classic free-church Protestant worship.  And, so can contemporary praise and celebration. I knew David Jackson got it.  I knew he understood the reality of that constant slow flow from fresh to expected to dead ritual that is a part of every worship tradition.

Gloria patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto.


Dan Rolfe said...

Thanks, Tom. Your post is right on. This is a topic that comes up often when I discuss worship with other leaders. said...

Tom, I've been reflecting on many of these same ideas lately and came to very similar conclusions. Ritual is ritual, no matter what clothes they wear. And, what is often mistaken for exuberant and passionate praise sometimes proves to be little more than hyped-up ritualism disguised as freedom. Very helpful insights and I appreciate your sharing this story.