Cultivating Acceptance of the Spirit

The issue of Liturgy dealing with “Pentecostal Worship,” guest-edited by Tanya Riches and L. Edward Phillips, looks at many aspects of the topic, including the use of music to create what Pentecostals value as “worship music.” Sociologist Gerardo Martí studied several Pentecostal churches in Southern California to explore what he labels the “power-surrender dynamic.” He specifically sought to articulate how music supports the worshippers’ experience of God’s presence. What follows is an excerpt from his essay. –– Melinda Quivik


Liturgists know that music is a prominent orientation device. It coordinates corporate movements while providing a rich set of associations for directing people toward enthusiasm or contemplation, exuberance or meditation. From the standpoint of the individual worshiper, music provides an aesthetic means for managing the self; music-oriented practices and motifs provide reference points that signal expected actions. Because individual action in relation to music is not instinctive or automatic, it must be learned. DeNora [Tia DeNora, Music in Everyday Life (Cambridge Univ. Pr., 2000)] writes that the “ability to shift and respond to semiotic cues is part and parcel of socialization into any institution, where one takes on organizationally sponsored feeling and action modes.” [pp. 106, 128-129] In my own observations, Pentecostals instruct each other in institutionalized patterns of worship, sometimes through writings, most often through congregational involvement, and increasingly more through audiovisual media venues.

Worship is a particular mode of agency that is demanded and enacted in Pentecostal gatherings, and music is utilized to cue, prompt, and inspire participants. Of the way worship channels worshipers’ energies, DeNora writes that “music is used ... to ease them on to courses of action and modes of aesthetic agency that they wish to achieve.” Music provides guidance for the exercise of personal agency or “aesthetic agency.” She points out that “music is used as a catalyst that can shift reluctant actors into ‘necessary’ modes of agency, into modes of agency they perceive to be ‘demanded’ by particular circumstances.” [pp. 54-55] . . .

Pentecostal worship establishes a context for the anticipation of a particular mode of action: the surrender of the self in anticipation of the Spirit. But what allows such confidence and relative ease among Pentecostal worshipers to receive the infusion of the Spirit?

The answer lies in the cumulative familiarity of liturgical forms, the consistency of local liturgical settings, and the recognizable musical practices that introduce and pace those liturgies. In this, the worshiper feels secure. DeNora writes that “the creaturely ability to locate and anticipate environmental features engenders a kind of corporeal or embodied security, by which I mean the ‘fitting in’ or attunement with environmental patterns, fostered by a being’s embodied awareness of the materials and properties that characterize his or her environment.” [p. 85] Individuals become accustomed to a worship situation and are able to anticipate the cues for action that are to come, which provides a significant level of bodily reassurance—a type of existential security. The “embodied security” characteristic of worship settings allows for a person to “let go” in worship. In short, regularity and anticipation buttress personal security, making it possible for worshipers to be not passive recipients of music but “active sense-makers trying to use or appropriate music, agents who try their best to work with available materials, who are engaged in human–music interaction.” [p. 95]

Both the individual and the Pentecostal community understand that the achievement of worship is the culmination of a distinctive form of personal discipline to cultivate a disposition that is continually reenacted. A person never “arrives” at a stasis of worship; it is a dynamic quality of spiritual life.

Gerardo Martí’s full essay in Liturgy 33, no. 3 is available by personal subscription and through many libraries.

Gerardo Martí is L. Richardson King Professor of Sociology at Davidson College, Editor-in-Chief of the quarterly journal Sociology of Religion, and the author of Worship across the Racial Divide (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Gerardo Martí, “Maranatha (O LORD, Come): The Power-Surrender Dynamic of Pentecostal Worship,” Liturgy 33, no. 3 (2018): 20-28.

David Turnbloom