The Significance and Influence of Pentecostal Music
Music is a very profound and unique influence in everybody’s life. We each experience and encounter musical expressions in a variety of ways. Some approach music from an emotional response while others come with a technical understanding of what is going on. Many, if not most, approach “sacred” music with more of an emotional response believing that they are singing and/or playing music to God. They derive this belief from the numerous examples in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Examples are shown in I Chronicles 16:37–42 and 25:1–6, Job 38:7, Isaiah 14:7, I Corinthians 14:15, Colossians 3:16, as well as the whole book of the Psalms–which was the official worship song book for Jews and early Christians.
At almost the furthest end on the spectrum of the Christian emotional response to music are the Pentecostals, who are characterized musically and in almost every other way, as emotional, excited, animated, and full of flair and hype. Their attitude “leads to musical expression and ministry that tends to be less liturgical and formal in its organization and practice than many Christian church traditions. Music comes to be more subjective in its expression, and it is demonstrably emotional in its style of performance” (NIDPCM, 912). As we will see in this study, the significance of Pentecostal music has been influential and remarkable in the Church and the world, from the beginning of the Pentecostal movement, up until present times, and likely for many more years.
Early Pentecostal Influences
The influence on Pentecostals musically began before the movement took off at the turn of the 20th century because Pentecostal music evolved from other early forms of Church music—namely the hymn. Many of the earliest Pentecostals sang only the hymns from men like Martin Luther whose, “contribution through his chorales [was] fundamental to the development of hymn singing in the evangelical movement” (NIDPCM, 914). John Wesley was also a pre-pentecostal influence for Pentecostals in both writing songs and in making sure that the music used in worship was of good quality. He was “concerned that singing be at the same time spiritual and of good musical quality. His instructions to the congregation included admonishments to ‘Sing all, sing lustily, sing modestly, sing in time, and above all, sing spiritually’ (NIDPCM, 914). This attention to musical quality did not go unnoticed by Pentecostals, and for a while, “Singing Schools” were popular in the movement—some singing schools are still in existence in the Southern States. These singing schools “gave to church music a new emphasis on hymn singing and hymn composition [… they have also] been a great spiritual force in the history of American church music in that it has encouraged and provided for the use of better singing and more spiritual singing in the church” (Alford, 46).
While Wesley influenced church music, and to some extent pentecostal church music, we still observe that early pentecostal music had to evolve from what was not very organized and spontaneous at best. Early Pentecostals were not as much concerned with the style, texture, or the performance of music as much as they were with the emotional response attached to the music and “often the singing was a capella or accompanied only by guitar or pump organ” (NIDPCM, 912). Though in some cases the music lacked good form, we also notice that “the emerging Pentecostals […] used gospel hymns and psalters along with the traditional hymns” (NIDPCM, 914), we especially see these used effectively in the Church of God as they began to incorporate newer styles and more popular songs that spoke more to the emotions than to God. Barton Stone who witnessed many of the first Pentecostal camp meetings describes this emotionalism best; he said,
“The singing exercise is more unaccountable than anything else I ever saw. The subject in a very happy state of mind would sing most melodiously, not from the mouth or nose, but entirely in the breast, the sounds issuing thence. Such music silenced everything, and attracted the attention of all. It was most heavenly. None could ever be tired of hearing it.” (qtd. in Synan, 33).
Nevertheless, a new wave was beginning to overtake the Pentecostal movement, and this new wave led the Pentecostal musicians to incorporate new styles into worship services while still using and singing the older and more traditional hymns.
Elements of Early Pentecostal Music
Now that we have looked at what the earliest influences were, we can study what components Pentecostal music had. While we know that music is an important part of Pentecostal worship services, we also know that “The prominence of music in the Pentecostal-charismatic movement can be gauged by the time devoted to singing and instrumental music in worship. It is not unusual for up to two-thirds of worship services to be given to music performance” (NIDPCM, 916). Emotionally driven and devout the early Pentecostal worship music played a major role in both church services and in the lives of Pentecostals.
The popularity of Pentecostal music can be traced, at least in part, to the evangelistic use of music. Probably all early (and current) revival movements revolved around the presentation and response of music, and many of the early iterant evangelists would develop strong musical ministries to compliment their preaching. (A strong example of this, though not exactly Pentecostal, would be the good relationship Billy Graham and George Beverly Shea have had from the beginning of Graham’s ministry). D.L. Alford explains this evangelistic use of Pentecostal music by saying, “music was taken out of the church and shared with the world beyond through street services, outdoor concerts, [more contemporary venues would be in] coffee houses, and the like. Attempts were made to take the message of Jesus anywhere people would listen” (NIDPCM, 918). We also see that while music was used in evangelism; it was also used in missions as many of the missionaries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were Pentecostal. As a result, they brought their hymnals and musical styles along with the Bible to these new lands. Good results would follow some as the new religion and musical style was wholly adopted, or accepted with cultural adjustments. Others found that the style of music was just not to the audience’s liking and pursued other methods of writing worship music.
Pentecostal music flourished in America though, and even though there were many new people from different backgrounds, Pentecostal music adapted to their style and incorporated new forms of music. The hymn was, and in some places still is, the style that trumps the others, yet early pentecostals were willing to go out on a limb to accept new music like folk music, spirituals, and simple choruses. In addition,
“Black music and Negro spirituals were a major part of these revivals and camp meetings, creating a repertory and tradition that not only influenced white pentecostals from traditional denominations but also provided the basis for much of the rich music expressions of American Black pentecostals today” (NIDPCM, 915).
The most prominent new style for Pentecostals was the gospel hymn, this style was “born from the meetings of D.L. Moody” (Tanner, 49) and they were wildly popular for the first fifty to sixty years of the “Pentecostal Movement” (1901–1960’s). Gospel hymns or Gospel songs were more modern and exciting than the older hymns. William Menzies describes their style as “’jazzy’ type music, with little to distinguish it from its secular counterpart but some of the lyrics” (352). By this time also the media was playing a larger role in American culture, so the Gospel hymns were broadcast via radio and later television. Donald Tanner goes on to explain that “the increased popularity of gospel songs was a result of the search for hymns more to popular liking than the staid hymnody (49) [and] Gospel hymnody has the distinction of being America’s most typical contribution to Christian song” (18). These progressions in Pentecostal musical style laid the foundation for the following generations of Pentecostal musicians to work off of and to explore new and exciting areas of musical style.
Contemporary Pentecostal Music
“Pentecostal musicians have always considered themselves to be contemporary—that is, worshipping through music styles created in their own particular era” (NIDPCM, 917). The spectrum and impact of newer Pentecostal music has been great. There is really no limit to the genre of Pentecostal music. It can be jazzy, hard-core, easy listening, worshipful, or prayerful; a full orchestra, or acoustic, or just a band could accompany it; and the melodies could imitate secular songs or be unique to the Pentecostal tradition. Regardless of form, style, instrumentation, or presentation one thing is clear—Pentecostals are a major influence in the world. Examples of this are the groups Hillsong and their youth band Hillsong United. Both of these band’s impact on church music in all denominations has been significant and impressive. Other well-known Church led Pentecostal influences are the Lakewood Choir and the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. Numerous other Pentecostal musicians are writing and influencing music that is not used in church/worship services. Switchfoot is a good example of a Christian band that was featured on MTV and other secular media outlets.
It is my impression from this study that Pentecostals are really a good influence on the musical world, and our tradition has been firmly based on a love for music.
“Pentecostal music is well defined […] as that heterogeneous body of music that: 1) embraces Pentecostal dogma; 2) exhibits several musical styles which are usually derivations of folk or gospel songs; 3) is generally non-liturgical; 4) can be objective, subjective, or evangelical; 5) generally possesses singable melodies; and 6) is devotionally conceived and presented.” (Tanner, 8).
I believe that Pentecostal music, and especially worship music, is a little misunderstood by Pentecostal worshippers. I feel that there is an experience based emotionally driven approach to music. I think that Pentecostals have for a long time has understood the idea of worship as being led by music. I also think that we are becoming more mystical in worship and looking at escapism as an upcoming doctrine in our songs. My contention is that, while music is a gift from God and intended to be enjoyed and used for His glory, we should not confuse worship with just music, but rather worship is an expression of our life to God. In addition, we must not allow this idea of escapism into our songs, for God does not want us to abandon our hearts in worship. Rather as Paul Walker states, “In its highest capacity music prepares the heart of the believer for response to God […] as the very heart of the believer is thrust through song to God” (qtd. in Alford, 60). Therefore, the future of Pentecostal music is very bright and promising, and as we have seen through this study of Pentecostal music for the first 100 years of the movement has been significant and influential.
Alford, Delton L. Music in the Pentecostal Church. Cleveland, Tn: Pathway Press, 1967.
Burgess, Stanly. ed. The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements., Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003.
Menzies, William W. Anointed to Serve. Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 2000.
Synan, Vinson. The Century of the Holy Spirit. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001
Tanner, Donald Ray. An Analysis of Assemblies of God Hymnology. Ann Arbor, Mich: Xerox University Microfilms, 1974.
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