I grew up in an old-fashioned, Pentecostal church. Our worship consisted of exuberant singing, shouting, clapping, dancing, speaking in tongues (glossolalia), passionate preaching, and an overall sense of expectation. Sometimes we ran around or leaped in the air. Sometimes we fell to our knees, physically overcome by the presence of God. Some would weep and some would laugh. Some would pray for others at the altar and some would read the Scriptures. Although this description may seem like an instance of mass hysteria, I cannot deny the transforming significance of these services. There were moments of deep adoration in which our awareness of time was swallowed up because it seemed like Jesus himself stepped into the room (and I think He actually did). There were moments of celebration in which the cares of life were eclipsed by an awareness of God’s never-failing presence. There were moments of lament and repentance as the Spirit dealt gently with sin. At the risk of sounding a little crazy, I have a deep appreciation for this Pentecostal style of worship. Such experiences with God are deeply transformational, however this is far from what many would call a liturgical service. Or is it?

Perhaps the term “liturgy” evokes imagery of Easter mass or choral evensong. Though these images signify traditionally liturgical services, they do not fully capture the idea of liturgical theology. The word liturgy comes from the Greek leitourgia meaning, “The work of the people.” In Greek classics this term denotes public duty, but in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) and New Testament it is used to describe gathered worship (2 Chron. 5:13-14, Luke 1:23, Rom. 15:16).[1] If liturgy refers to the worship of the church as the work of the people, liturgical theology expresses the meaning of her worship.[2] Liturgical theology is not primarily mental theological reflection so much as it is theological engagement of the whole self in gathered worship.[3]

Simply put, liturgical theologians recognize that liturgy shapes what we know of God and the kind of community we become.

Therefore, liturgical theology reflects on the ways our worship engages the whole self, shapes what we know of God, and forms the church community. Sounds like Pentecostal worship to me. Pentecostal worship harmoniously integrates body and mind through song, dance, prayer, altar ministry, etc. In worship, God reveals Godself through Scripture, visions, prophetic words, preaching, spontaneous songs, etc. And in the presence of God, the people of God meet with God in/by the Spirit and are transformed into the body of Christ. We Pentecostals do the experiential part well, but we should recognize that such an approach becomes meaningless without some intentional reflection. I want to propose a few practical steps to help us do liturgical theology within Pentecostal traditions.

First, liturgical theology is, “The work of the people.” Various New Testament writers show us that worship culminates in community. This is certainly reflected in Luke’s portrayal of the early Christian community (Acts 2:43-47), Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 14:26-32), and liturgical scenes in the Apocalypse (ie. The multitude in Rev. 19:1-9). There is an understanding, more aptly put a theological imperative, that the church’s worship not only involves the entire church, but is shaped by the entire church. We need everyone, not just the church staff, to contribute. We should incorporate old and young voices, new and old styles, clergy and laity in our liturgies. If worship forms us into the body of Christ, worship must be expressed by the whole body (1 Cor. 12:12-26).

There must be space for others to come to voice so that we may all hear what the Spirit is saying.

Second, liturgical theology is reflective; it recognizes the importance of intentionally prepared liturgies. Liturgical theology communicates the significance of symbols, thinks about how rhythm and space impact belief, and values historical liturgical practices. Pentecostal worship is expressed with many symbols, but the meaning of these symbols is not always articulated. One example is the Lord’s Supper. Though Pentecostals recognize the Supper, our reflection on this symbol often stops with personal atonement and forgiveness. What if our participation in the Lord’s Supper goes beyond our personal salvation? For example, Paul notes that the Supper provides space for reconciliation in the church (1 Cor. 11:17-34). At the table, we recall Jesus’ words on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34). We sit face to face with our sisters and brothers, in the presence of God, and embrace one another as Christ embraces us. Wolfgang Vondey says it well. “Sharing the eucharistic meal is a proclamation of the gospel and a commitment to the church’s mission in a fragmented, alienated, and hostile world to break the boundaries of sin, pain, hunger, isolation, sorrow, and death by sharing freely and unreservedly the bread of life.”[4] This is precisely the type of intentional reflection in which liturgical theologians engage.

Finally, liturgical theology prevents us from merely thinking about our faith. It is true that we should think about God, but an entirely mental approach to Christianity cannot account for the richness of our experiences with God. For Pentecostals, God is seen, heard, and felt in the liturgy and these experiences shape our understanding of who God is.

The liturgy is a conversation between God and God’s people.

We come to God with ideas about who God is, but in the process of worship God reveals God’s true self. It is this worshipful conversation that led Peter to baptize the Gentiles in Cornelius’ house (Acts 10) and that forms the context for Jesus’ engagement with the Samaritans in John 4. In the liturgy, this worshipful conversation involves speaking to God and listening for God in song, dance, the reading of Scripture, the sacraments, the sermon, silence, and even the space itself. In this way, each element of the liturgy serves as a meeting place in which we encounter, not our own ideas, but the living God.

[1] Bryan D. Spinks, “Liturgy” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer et al., (London: SPCK, 2005.) 458-460.

[2] For our purposes, we might define liturgical theology as Christian praxis – that is, experience with God simultaneously coupled with reflection on that experience and vice-versa – rooted in the worship of the church. See Alexander Schmemann, Introduction to Liturgical Theology, (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003 [1966]) 16.

[3] For a summary of this trajectory see Joris Geldhof, “Liturgy as Theological Norm Getting Acquainted with ‘Liturgical Theology’.” Neue Zeitschrift Für Systematische Theologie Und Religionsphilosophie 52, no. 2 (July 2010): 155-176.

[4] Wolfgang Vondey, “Pentecostal ecclesiology and eucharistic hospitality: toward a systematic and ecumenical account of the church.” Pneuma 32, no. 1 (2010): 41-55.