the shape of leadership

Returning to Pentecostal Worship

This generation is hungry for Spirit-filled services

Kristi Northup on July 30, 2020

A few months back, our youth pastor (a late millennial) started sharing music with us from a new app called TRIBL. It features new music that is live and unscripted, with a diverse group of people collaboratively writing and recording. It’s the latest in what I have long seen as a hunger from millennials for worship that is Pentecostal and really good at the same time.

The research shows that it is true. Barna recently released research that shows millennials desire charismatic worship more than generations before them. Millenials also desire to speak in tongues in a service much more than the generations preceding them. Maybe Pentecost is not as strange as we have let ourselves think.

The 2000s brought an important realization that our churches were for insiders. Work needed to be done to make it a friendlier environment for visitors and those who did not come from a church background. This movement was largely led by nondenominational churches.

Unfortunately, when our Pentecostal churches tried to emulate this new philosophy, we ended up cutting out elements of the service that might seem strange to some. We moved away from altar time and singing in the Spirit, as well as prophetic words. In an effort to make ourselves more appealing to nonbelievers, it was assumed we could not be both visitor friendly and Pentecostal.

But a resurgence has been growing through worship. Christian radio used to be exclusively recording artists. If you turn it on today, much of what is heard are worship songs originally recorded by churches. In essence, Pentecostal worship has gone mainstream, which points to this broader embrace by practicing Christians across denominational lines.

Throughout the generations, Barna’s research shows people embrace traditional music, as well as hymns. Lively music and gospel are especially favored by Black and Hispanic practicing Christians, and more than 30% of millennial believers overall.

Yet as I travel to churches and events, if I had to name the style I most commonly hear, it is contemplative. Neither energetic nor moving, this medium-tempo style is pervasive throughout the Assemblies of God. While it is popular with musicians, the numbers show it is not resonating with most worshippers.

I have come to the conclusion that for some of our churches, Pentecostal worship is becoming a lost art. Many pastors and worship leaders want to embrace a more Pentecostal style in their services, but feel they lack the resources to change.

How can we get to a sound and feel that reflects a more Pentecostal experience in worship? Here are four suggestions:

1. Have a flexible structure. I have often compared the perfect execution of worship to classical music, and the dying art of Pentecostal improv to jazz.

Classical music is all about playing the song exactly as the composer wrote it. The dynamics and repetitions are considered better when played in a way that perfectly reflects the markings on the page. This is how many worship practices go. The team listens to a certain recording of a song, and then they follow it exactly — the same number of times singing the chorus, the same key, the same guitar riff.

A heart of worship must be fostered by spending time in the presence of God.

Jazz is built on a flexible structure. It is not chaos, though; it’s actually very demanding. The band can repeat the same section an infinite number of times. Everyone knows whose turn it is to solo. The leader gives the cues. This is how I prefer to structure worship, especially during altar times.

The speaker or worship leader is guiding, and the band follows, playing the same pattern over and over until the leader moves them on to a new pattern through a cue in the moment. It is not chaos; it’s a flexible structure. This allows the band to support the move of God rather than starring in it.

Every song has a form, and we usually stick to it during the opening worship set. But it should never feel that way. It should feel open and in the moment. It should never feel to the congregation that we are on the clock.

2. Practice moving in the Spirit, not just performing the music. Worship teams often spend the entire rehearsal time working out the details of the songs. In my opinion, most of this practice should be done at home, so when coming together, we can actually build skills and even create something.

In our rehearsals, we worship together. We practice the flexible structure for prayer. The vocalists take turns singing passages of Scripture to strengthen our prayer skills. We pray for one another and invite the presence of the Holy Spirit into the space. We meditate on the words being sung. We sing in the Spirit.

Anybody can play songs. A heart of worship must be fostered by spending time in the presence of God. Teaching and planning for this in practice opens the team to be ready to flow in the moment during the service.

3. Engage the senses. Our services usually involve sight and sound, but how can we engage people beyond this? Every song, I encourage worshippers to engage physically through movement by lifting up their hands, clapping, or moving their feet. Our singers sway, because the motion helps people engage physically.

Communion engages the senses through taste and smell, bringing us back to the Cross in an intimate moment.

My goal is to engage all five senses in every worship service. This is part of the essence of Pentecostal worship. It cannot be separated from the spiritual experience.

As for sight, our video production has come a long way in helping us engage visually. I remember being in a Christian concert with tears streaming down my cheeks as the words to the worship song on the screen came alive through images of the galaxy.

A wall of sound is not engaging, even if it’s not terribly loud. The sound should have moments of intensity and moments of intimacy to engage the listener. It should be up, and come down. It should not be the same tempo and level all the way through.

4. Sing in the Spirit. There is no sound I love more than the body of Christ singing in the Spirit — in the same key, in perfect harmony, each one lifting up a song in an unknown language.

Every time I lead worship, I want to get there. It’s not something that happens in every service, but my soul longs every moment for that sound. It is the sound of Pentecost, like it was at Azusa, like it was in the Upper Room, like it waits for us in eternity.

Let’s lead a generation in the sound of Pentecostal worship. They are going there whether we are with them or not, so let’s pursue the move of the Spirit together.
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