What Makes Worship ‘Pentecostal’?

When Lily Arasaratnam-Smith contacted me to ask me to write for AlphaCrucis’ new online magazine, I thought I would try and solidify some of the research I’ve been doing most currently, on Pentecostal worship.

Although my PhD topic directly addresses Indigenous Australians and charts connections between their worship and social engagement, the churches I am researching conduct this work within a larger frame, that of Pentecostalism. Pentecostalism is now a diverse group of over 500 million Christians worldwide. Once a marginal side theological movement, it is quickly becoming one of the more influential voices in Christianity. Many of the larger populations of Pentecostal Christians are in Asia, Latin America and Africa. A large percentage of the churches are led by Indigenous peoples in these continents. I often get asked to teach in these contexts.

Most of my readers know that I grew up Pentecostal. I started attending Hillsong at the age of five, and was for four years a pastor in the Assemblies of God (Australian Christian Churches). So, Pentecostalism is an obvious way for me to frame my interest into Indigenous Australian Christianity. At least, that’s the easy way to explain my interest in Indigenous Australian Christianity to other Australians. The reality is, I found that Pentecostalism aligned with Indigenous Australian religiosity in many ways, and for me to acknowledge the deep wisdom of the people of the land was a very obvious next step if I was to continue my Christian commitment. But it’s easier to explain it to white Australians the first way.

While my research uses anthropological methods and draws upon current trends in development studies, I also have theological training, within my Masters and MPhil degrees. I would say, then, that I bring Christian ethics into my work. In its purest form, Christianity is built upon Imago Dei, which declares that all humans are equally worthy as they carry or bear the image of God. I make no qualms in saying that the Christian narrative exported from Europe over the last century was problematic, and even betrayed that understanding. It deemed some people (‘the natives’) lesser than others. So I have decided that I cannot be a missionary. I do not seek to convert Indigenous people to Christ. The people I work with are already Christian.

Instead, my intention is to highlight the everyday realities of these Indigenous pastors and their congregations, and I seek to do that in two ways. First, produce research that is externally relevant to the churches, in descriptive work that highlights Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christian realities. As this group represents 73% of the national Indigenous population, I would like it become more visible to policy creators, leaders, and the general public. I would like to see these pastors who work so hard in these churches be recognized for their incredible, real contribution to Indigenous lives. Secondly, I also grapple with theological concerns that are internal to this community. I don’t mean that I try to ride in as a ‘white Saviour’ at the appropriate moments to help these churches – I recognize that the Indigenous pastors are already grappling with theological (or spiritual) concerns. And, occasionally, I get to amplify their voices, and/or put their concerns onto the radar of groups they may not access to due to the social exclusion of Indigenous peoples. Sometimes, I bring knowledge I’ve gleaned from study into our discussions. Sometimes a new idea sparks something great. But I find the Indigenous pastors I work with are up to speed on so many issues, while our non-Indigenous Pentecostal church lags in many areas. So, this work simply adds to my previous research on Hillsong Church, Australia’s largest Pentecostal congregation.

These areas are often disconnected, but very rarely, all my interests collide.

Obviously, explaining Pentecostal worship in a way that insiders and outsiders ‘get’ is something that benefits all the groups I speak to through my research. As well as the many musicians I’ve collected while touring churches. Church musicians are often very practical and immediate, and tend not to speak in broad terms about what we do.

Through the years, I’ve found that one of the theological criticisms leveled at non-Indigenous Australian worship music from more charismatic sources in Australia and New Zealand is that Hillsong is no longer ‘Pentecostal’. On the other hand, in Sydney we have a number of vocal cessationists within the Church of England, who believe that the Spirit ceased to move on earth after the last biblical book was written. This makes for an interesting context in which Australian churches create musical resource for the global church.

Although songwriters may not be aware of the trends and influences, my MPhil research showed that references to the Holy Spirit in Hillsong’s music decreased significantly in the period 1996- 2006. Whether references to the Spirit are now as frequent as they were in the early days, I’m not sure. I doubt it, there was quite a lot of gospel influence. But there are still some key songs, such as ‘Oceans’, which proclaim lyrics like:

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders

Let me walk upon the waters

Wherever You may call me

So it’s clear that there’s still a Pentecostal frame in Hillsong music. It may be more explicit in C3 and some of the other church music publishers in Sydney. Anyways, so I put down a few reflections on ways that Australia’s worship music (including Hillsong but not exclusive to it) is Pentecostal.

I’d love you to read it and let me know what you think! Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 1.38.25 PM

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