On Pentecostals and Liturgy (Part 1): Clearing Up Some Misconceptions

Modern day Pentecostals can be quick to make rash statements about the liturgy, as if it were something obviously unbiblical and unpentecostal. Their Pentecostal forefathers, however, in this country at least, just didn’t share their rash opinions. Let me show you how.

When Pentecostalism emerged in the UK, it emerged against a backdrop of truly non-liturgical worship in the form of Brethrenism. Brethrenism was strong in Britian at the beginning of the 20th century, and many early Pentecostals had previously been members of Brethren assemblies. And if you talk to anyone who knows anything about classical British Pentecostal worship, you will very soon hear the words ‘of course there was a very strong Brethren influence.’ (I was having just such a conversation with the historian of the Elim Pentecostal Church just last week.) Even if you didn’t know that many early Pentecostals had been Brethren, you’d probably guess at the connection simply from a quick description of the weekly Breaking of Bread service. 

But, British Pentecostal worship was not Brethren worship plus the gifts of the Spirit. Despite the strongly non-liturgical Brethren influence, with its emphasis on the freedom of the Spirit to move and direct, Pentecostal worship adapted the Breaking of Bread back in a direction much more in line with the shape of the liturgy. 

A Brethren Breaking of Bread, at least in theory, had no structure. Members (or male members anyway) would get up and read Scripture, give out a hymn number to sing, or pray, at any point in the meeting, as led by the Spirit. At some stage, someone would be led to give thanks for the bread and then the assembly would share the bread together, followed by someone giving thanks for the wine, and the assembly drinking of the cup together (there were, of course, a few variations on this in a few strands of Brethrenism, but those are the basics). Although Brethren assemblies now have elders, in those days they didn’t (and even now that they do, there’s no connection between the elders and the Table – any man in the assembly can give thanks for the bread and wine and distribute them). So, in a Brethren Breaking of Bread, there are no set forms: not even the Words of Institution.

But in British Pentecostalism it was not so. Pentecostals took the Brethren Breaking of Bread service and added a structure, as well as putting back in things that were missing (like the Words of Institution and the self-examination and confession). While a Brethren Breaking of Bread just looked like open worship containing Communion at some point, a Pentecostal Breaking of Bread had a definite structure. And, although particularly in the earliest days, the exact details of that structure could vary a little bit around the country, it tended to settle down into something like this:

  • Call to Worship, Opening Hymn, and Prayer of Invocation
  • A Time Around the Word (a time of Scripture readings by various members of the assembly – not a set list of readings, but people read as they felt led by the Spirit, whether in advance of coming to church or spontaneously on the morning. In some parts of the country this might also include testimonies of thanksgiving or requests for prayer.)
  • Hymn or Chorus
  • A Time of Open Worship (members of the assembly would pray prayers of worship and thanksgiving, particularly focused on the cross and the table; people would also start up hymns or choruses, as led by the Spirit, and this was probably the most likely part of the service for the gifts of the Spirit to be in use)
  • Sermon (on the Cross) at the Table
  • A Time of Self-Examination and Confession of Sins before the Table
  • Absolution/Assurance of God’s Forgiveness
  • Prayer at the Table
  • Words of Institution 
  • Communion
  • Prayer
  • Hymn and the Bringing of Tithes and Offerings to the Table
  • Benediction
Now, that’s the basic Apostolic pattern. Elim and AoG, I’m told from people in those movements, weren’t all that different (although they might not have had an absolution and they probably had the sermon after the Table rather than before). I’m sure there were probably hymns or choruses thrown in at other points in the service too. 

So, although a quick description of classical British Pentecostal worship as a weekly Breaking of Bread service with open worship might sound like the anti-liturgical worship of the Brethren, in practice it was moving in the opposite direction, back towards the historic shape of the liturgy with its movement from gathering to Word to Sacrament to dismissal. And it even restored set forms, especially by restoring the Words of Institution (without which the sacrament would be no sacrament). 

But that’s not all. The surviving written evidence we have shows more set forms in early Pentecostal worship. For the early Apostolics, the freedom of the Spirit and set liturgical forms were not in any way in competition. The most striking example of this is the prayer printed on the back cover of nearly every early British Apostolic publication, and included in our early hymnbooks so as to be readily available for anyone new to the church who didn’t know it:

O Lord, grant unto me Love that I may enjoy sorrows and be thankful for trials, and rejoice in tribulation, and magnify Thy Name in the midst of the storms of life, and that I may say that every day of my life is full of Thy goodness and mercy towards me, O God, whatever may come to meet me, and that also the things that seem contrary to me, are in Thy hand, O God, the means of transforming me to the likeness of Thy Son, and that I may embrace Thee, O my Father, when I am chastened of Thee, and that I may have a full realisation of Thy presence in every charge of Thine, that I may be perfected. Amen.

As our original Welsh hymnbook, Emynau at Wasanaeth y Cyssegr, tells us, this was a prayer given through the Holy Spirit to the Apostle D.P. Williams for use in the Apostolic Church. (Interestingly, the important place of this prayer in early Apostolic worship is demonstrated further by it being one of the very few things that was available both in the original Welsh and in English translation.) So, set forms of prayer and the present-day leading of the Holy Spirit could certainly go together for the early Apostolics.

In fact, in the 1930s the Council discussed publishing our Order for the Breaking of Bread so that visitors would be able to more easily follow the service. In the end, the Order was never printed, but the discussion about it demonstrates both that the Breaking of Bread was not a haphazard service, but had a particular form, and that the form was sufficiently developed that having it in written form would have been a help to those unfamiliar with it. Alas, as it was never printed, we don’t exactly know how it went, but from what the early leaders of the movement wrote elsewhere, we know it would have included confession, absolution, a Eucharistic prayer, the Words of Institution, and very probably the Lord’s Prayer as well. The service would also have ended with a Trinitarian benediction (not merely a closing prayer).

From quotations and references in their writings, we know that the early Apostolics were familiar with the Sanctus, the Gloria, and the Te Deum, as well as Cranmer’s Communion liturgy. They frequently refer to the Creeds – all three of them (Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian). And both in their hymnbooks, and occasionally in the Riches of Grace as well, they included a few psalms and ancient hymns, as well as the Lord’s Prayer, pointed for chanting! (I’m not sure I can actually ever imagine chant in a British Pentecostal church, but they were at least open to the idea! Although, I’ve just realised that one chant setting even made it into the Redemption Hymnal – the joint hymnbook of the Apostolic Church, Elim, and AoG – and it happens to be for words written by a lady from an Apostolic Church in this part of the country, so I know the story well of how she wrote it as the result of a prophecy in church – so once again, a very traditional form in the chant setting, but connected to the spontaneity and freedom of the gifts of the Spirit in operation in the assembly.)

And, lest you think it’s just the Apostolics who had such funny ideas, let me point you to Donald Gee’s advice to Assemblies of God pastors on leading the Breaking of Bread service. Gee suggests responsive Scripture readings, ‘the leader and congregation taking alternate verses,’ something which nowadays we tend to associate with much more highly liturgical traditions. And, like the Apostolics, he insists on the necessity of the Words of Institution in an AoG Breaking of Bread, along with a Eucharistic prayer (‘formal thanks by the Elders before participation’). Gee sums up his approach to the Breaking of Bread service in words which would have found hearty approval among Elim and the Apostolics as well: ‘Reverent order, without bondage, should mark this hallowed service.’ The early British Pentecostals valued both the freedom of the Spirit and the order of the Spirit.

Now, none of that’s to say that a Pentecostal Breaking of Bread looked or felt in any way like a Sung Eucharist at St Paul’s Cathedral. That’s not what I’m trying to argue at all. A Pentecostal liturgy will not look or sound like just like an Anglican liturgy, just as an Anglican liturgy doesn’t look or sound identical to an Eastern Orthodox liturgy or a Presbyterian liturgy. Some traditions have highly elaborate liturgies; others have much more moderate and modest versions. In some liturgical traditions every word and gesture is prescribed; in others there is freedom within the form. As one 21st century evangelical writer suggests, ‘a modest number of fixed forms can serve as a hedge against the deterioration of worship … the right balance, it would seem, would be an orderly approach that employs biblically based historical liturgical forms, while leaving room for free prayers and the work of the Spirit’ (Terry Johnson, Leading in Worship, p.13).

Like its Evangelical and Reformed forbears, British Pentecostalism eschews over-reliance on fixed forms or over-complication of the liturgy, yet (in a way which many of our Evangelical and Reformed forbears didn’t manage to regularly do) holds together the liturgical shape of Gathering in Christ’s Name, Word, Sacrament, and Going Out into the World in the Power of the Spirit. 

Hard as it might be for us to imagine now, Brethren worship, to which British Pentecostal worship is often compared, was the radical, cutting-edge, innovative worship of its day. Yet, the Pentecostals, while holding onto the biblical impulses in Brethren worship (weekly Breaking of Bread, active participation in open worship of the whole assembly, freedom for the Holy Spirit’s leading), rejected the innovations (like the Brethren rejection of the elders’ role in leading the service, of any fixed forms, especially the Words of Institution, and of any structure to the service), and ‘fixed’ it by returning to the historic shape of the liturgy inherited from the earliest days of the church. That’s why Justin Martyr’s description of Christian worship from around AD155 sounds so much like a classical Pentecostal Breaking of Bread service:

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.
Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.
And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president. (First Apology of Justin Martyr, Ch. 67).

A time around the Word, a sermon, a time of worshipping God in prayer, the Lord’s Supper, and the collection of tithes and offerings. That’s how Christians worshipped in Justin Martyr’s day, and that’s how the early British Pentecostals worshipped too. That was the shape of their liturgy, both in the 2nd century and in the 20th. The British Pentecostals always claimed to be getting back to the worship of the early church. And, if Justin Martyr’s account of the liturgy is anything to go by, it looks like they really did.

Update: Part Two (But we just want New Testament worship!) is here.