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Pentecostalism, emotion, and worship

W. Robert Godfrey provides1 a helpful look at how the Pentecostal movement impacted evangelicalism’s understanding of the nature of emotion (particularly physical expressiveness) in worship. He ties it directly to the revivalism of Charles G. Finney (out of which, along with the Holiness movement, Pentecostalism emerged), and this reveals an essential relationship between these movements that I believe is critical in understanding the nature of worship today:

When emotions are misused, there is a constant danger of manipulation. It is easy for effective leaders to move people, especially trusting and expectant people, to feel what they want them to feel. Easily the church becomes a theater where feeling and catharsis take the place of true faith.

Nineteenth-century revivalist Charles Finney recognized the importance of the emotions in the work he did, and he gave a clear theological explanation for the purely natural ways in which he controlled emotions. In his Lectures on Revivals he writes: “Almost all the religion in the world has been produced by revivals. God has found it necessary to take advantage of the excitability there is in mankind, to produce powerful excitements among them, before he can lead them to obey.” Emotional excitement is essential to revival: “There must be excitement sufficient to wake up the dormant moral powers, and roll back the tide of degradation and sin.” Finney frankly recognizes that this emotion was not at all supernatural. It was entirely natural, at the disposal of the preacher and listener: “There is nothing in religion beyond the ordinary powers of nature. It consists entirely in the right exercise of the powers of nature.” Indeed for Finney, “a revival is as naturally a result of the use of the appropriate means as a crop is of the use of its appropriate means.”In Finney, emotion or excitement became the essential focus of revival or worship and was linked to a Pelagian or Semipelagian understanding of the human will. Finney saw clearly that to excite and move the free will something new would always be needed. He dealt with the problem by saying that since the millennium was coming soon, the need for ever-new excitement would not be a long-term problem. But as Finney was wrong about the nearness of the millennium, so has the burden of finding new excitements remained a constant challenge for his heirs. The restlessness in some charismatic circles to find where the Spirit is moving anew reflects that outlook.

An accomplished leader in the tradition of Finney can easily manipulate emotions in worship, particularly through preaching and music. An effective preacher can create emotions ranging from reverence to sorrow, from joy to tangible sense of power. An effective musician can move the emotions through the words, melody, and instrumentation of music. Especially in the Pentecostal tradition, music has been very self-consciously used to move worshipers. Grant Wacker, a sympathetic historian of Pentecostalism, comments on this phenomenon in early Pentecostalism:

“And then there was congregational singing, one of the most notable and remarked on features of Pentecostal worship. . . . Music offered leaders a ready means for managing the intensity of the service. They could ratchet up the tempo until worshipers broke into ecstatic praise, or tone it down when things seemed to be getting out of hand. Either way, music gave leaders a tool for regularizing the expression of emotion.”

What Wacker sees as true of early Pentecostalism is even truer with the Contemporary Christian Music phenomenon. Praise songs, which originated in charismatic circles and spread widely in other Protestant churches, seem often to express rather spontaneous waves of emotion. But their use is carefully planned with an eye to the emotional effect on the worshiper. In such a session of singing one can predict exactly when the hands will be raised and when other emotional responses will be exhibited.

Many argue for these praise songs as a key way to connect with contemporary culture and to revitalize emotional involvement in Christian worship. Charles H. Kraft, professor of anthropology and intercultural communication at Fuller Theological Seminary, offers a theological rationale for these songs: “True worship . . . usually takes a lot of singing to create an atmosphere of praise and worship.” This experience of worship is created significantly by the music of praise songs: “And it is the new music, sung with eyes closed for 10, 15, or 20 minutes at a time that makes that experience possible.” Kraft praises these songs for breaking the excessively intellectual character of much worship: “Our worship services revolve around an informational sermon preceded by a token number of informational hymns.” These hymns reinforce the unemotional character of traditional worship: “We sing hymns so chuck-full of rational content and information that they are unmemorizable.” Kraft calls on Christians: “Let’s stop being enslaved to the present rationalistic, intellect-centered approach to church that characterizes much of evangelicalism.”

What is important to remember, especially in light of Krafts words above, is that these evangelicals, influenced as they are by charismatic theology and practice, are defining what they call “rationalistic, intellect-centered” worship through lenses that recognize no clear distinction between the spiritual affections and physical appetites.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. W. Robert Godfrey, “Worship and the Emotions,” in Give Praise to God, Philip Graham Ryken, (Phillipsburg: P & R Pub, 2003), 368-9. []