Christian worship has often had a remarkably similar shape across traditions. Bryan Chapell showed in his work Christ-Centered Worship that corporate worship (sans communion) in Roman, Lutheran, Reformed and Evangelical traditions had a very similar form: a Call to worship, a Kyrie or Confession, followed by Thanksgiving, an Old Testament reading, a New Testament reading, a prayer for Illumination, a Sermon, followed by a Benediction or dismissal, with hymns or psalms interspersed. Communion services also followed a similar pattern: An Invitation, Preparatory hymn, a Consecration of elements, an Exhortation of preparation, the Words of Institution, Breaking of bread, Communion, a psalm or hymn, thanksgiving prayer and Benediction.
Friends and proponents of Pentecostal worship often do not realise how radically different charismatic worship is from this historic pattern. Pentecostal authors have written that praise is a kind of ‘path’ into the presence of God. That is, worship is not a series of gracious revelations from God’s Word with faith-responses from His people. Worship becomes a series of steps or stages, growing in intimacy and intensity. Charismatic worship writers speak of the importance of “flow”: a technique of uninterrupted, continual music, designed to emotionally transport the worshippers into the climactic experience of “worship”, which they deem to be more intense and focused than “praise”.
Charismatic theologians do not base this on any Old or New Testament narratives of worship, such as Exodus 19-24 or Isaiah 6. Instead, an entirely new model of worship, known as the “Tabernacle Model” or “Five Phase Model” is used, using fragments of phrases from the Psalms. First, there is Invitation, “songs of personal testimony in the camp”. This is followed by Engagement, “through the gates with thanksgiving”. Third comes Exaltation, “into His courts with praise”. Fourth is Adoration, “solemn worship inside the Holy Place”. Finally, there is Intimacy, “in the Holy of Holies”. Of course, this is a technique in search of a text, not any serious attempt to mimic biblical forms. Nothing that Israel did in corporate worship even vaguely corresponds to the pursuit of a heightening climactic worship.
Indeed, charismatic theologians have changed the meaning of the worship service. Biblically and historically, a worship service is where God’s people respond corporately to what God has revealed about Himself. Yes, this response ought to be heartfelt, sincere, meaningful and unfeigned. In charismatic worship theology, one is not so much in pursuit of a response, as one is in pursuit of an experience: an experience of the presence of God that is intense, sensorily tangible, and emotionally or physically ecstatic. Very importantly, this experience will be almost passively felt, once the moment arrives, as opposed to a rational response to God’s Word. In making this the highpoint of worship, Pentecostal worship is dabbling with two very dangerous, and unbiblical ideas.
First, the Pentecostal approach has parallels to the sensual and ecstatic worship of paganism. The idea that worship must be a steady and growing stimulation has all too familiar and uncomfortable parallels with the approaches of everything from the Israelites around the golden calf to the prophets of Baal, to shamanism and trance-inducing rituals of false religion. The methods among these may be diverse, but the approach is similar: steadily stimulate the body into a heightened state through sensual music, dance or movement, while steadily sedating the mind through chant-like repetition, narrowed focus, or hallucinogenic drugs, until the goal is reached: climactic encounter or possession with the spirit/god, the whole ritual consciously or unconsciously mimicking sexual stimulation and climax. By contrast, Hebrew and Christian worship has always required the frequent conscious response of the mind and will, the restraining of what could become sensual, modesty in bodily expression, and a rational, active response to God, not a sensual, passive one.
Second, the Pentecostal approach treats music with the same sacramentality that perverted the Lord’s Table into the Roman Mass. Sacramentalism is the error of believing that the communion cup and bread turn into the actual body and blood of the Lord by an act of grace apart from faith. The sacraments are “ex opere operato“: they work and confer grace independently of the priests or recipients.That kind of sacramentalism is precisely how charismatic theology treats music in the worship service: a belief that apart from the Word rightly divided and rightly received, the music may bring about the felt presence of God for those hearing it. The music “ushers” people into God’s manifest presence, and God may manifest Himself, they way He did when the little bell was rung at Mass. The music has an independent power, and as one Charismatic theologian put it, “the flow should move naturally (using connections from the songs’ content, keys, and tempos); and the flow should move toward a goal of a climatic experience of true worship of God”. This is not music as a form of congregational prayer, a conscious corporate response of faith-filled prayer to what God has revealed in His Word.
When Christian worship is Pentecostalized, it is not merely a “style” or “preference” that has changed. The point and goal of Christian worship has been altered; and the very shape of active call-and-response has been substituted with a passive stimulatory-ecstatic model. This is no small change.