Assemblies of God churches have always maintained a highly pragmatic approach in their use of music, always making use of a secularized and popular style of church music. In recent years this has extended to the inclusion of Christian music derived from rock music. They believe that matters of artistic style are secondary to moral purity or doctrine.
The current use of music and the arts in the Assemblies of God is a continuation of the pattern established by the fellowship in its formative years. Organized in the spring of 1914 in Hot Springs, Arkansas, the fledgling Pentecostal church developed a highly pragmatic attitude toward music and the arts.
Though the Assemblies adopted the holiness posture of separation from the worldliness of secular culture, Pentecostals nevertheless embraced a comparatively secularized and popular church music style. Indeed, according to Assemblies of God historian William Menzies, “Pentecostals were among the first to engage ‘worldly’ rhythm as a medium in religious music.” (William Menzies, Anointed to Serve [Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1971], 350). They gradually developed a lively, boisterous style of singing, often accompanied by strong, rhythmic handclapping. Gospel songs provided the movement with music which appealed to the musical taste of both members and the unevangelized alike. The simple repetitive lyrics and music of the refrains were frequently sung from memory without the stanzas. Freed from having to hold a songbook, worshipers could raise both hands and with eyes closed focus without distraction on the adoration and praise of the Almighty. Gospel songs, of course, were neither unique to Pentecostals nor used to the complete exclusion of traditional hymnody. But accompanied by piano and any instruments indigenous to the local Assembly, the exciting manner in which they were sung advanced the new movement’s cause. The Assemblies had found what worked for them—a popular musical style.
Pragmatic musical standards kept Pentecostals from connecting their Christian faith with much of the artistic tradition in music, especially that which was most esoteric. They were literalists who best understood the tangible and clearly observable. Their condemnation of dancing, for example, did not extend to dance music. For Pentecostals, music was a language beyond aesthetic, let alone theological, judgment. Music was simply a matter of taste, having no right or wrong. Spontaneity, freedom, and popular appeal (rather than craftsmanship, integrity, and creativity) were hallmarks of the new movement’s music.
The results of the die cast in the first decades of their history caused some concern. As early as 1937 the fellowship was admonished in its official publication, The Pentecostal Evangel, to avoid songs in fast “pump-handle” time, and “words that may carry but little depth of meaning” (Clinton H. Patterson, “Why, How, and What Shall We Sing?” The Pentecostal Evangel [May 15, 1937]: 2). In 1956 musical “lightness and irreverence” in the fellowship caused R. A. Brown to write: “We have noticed in many Pentecostal meetings that sacred songs are now put to ragtime music, and that people work themselves into a frenzy playing and singing in the effort to please the listeners.” (“Jazz at Church,” The Pentecostal Evangel [March 4, 1956]: 29). He explained that such entertainment caters to the flesh, producing a superficial faith. Nevertheless, the trend continued.
The advent of rock ’n’ roll in the 1950s was the single most important influence on the music of the Assemblies of God in the second half of the twentieth century. Initially Pentecostals avoided this music. But eventually the secular cultural milieu produced a tolerance in the constituency that gradually eroded the church’s anti-rock defenses. The allure of Christian contemporary music (CCM), a derivative of rock, was irresistible. Not everyone gave in without a fight. But by the mid-1980s one of the denomination’s leaders argued that “we shouldn’t waste our ammunition or energies fighting each other on an issue that is often more a matter of musical taste than moral purity or doctrine” (Lowell Lundstrom, “Contemporary vs. Traditional Gospel Music,” The Pentecostal Evangel [April 26, 1987]: 22). The pragmatic belief that any art form is able to accommodate the gospel to culture gave little hope that conservatives could prevail. Currently, based upon what church musicians and pastors now program in their churches, the religious form of rock of one type or another has finally become entrenched as an accepted musical language in the Assemblies of God.
Another phenomenon related to early Pentecostal beginnings is the increasing popularity of chorus singing and the decreasing popularity of the hymnal. At the publication of the fellowship’s second hymnal (the first was in 1924), chorus singing was established well enough to warrant the inclusion of 30 separate choruses (in addition to the choruses attached to every gospel song). Influenced by the relatively recent charismatic movement, chorus singing eventually became the preponderant congregational music. Many such choruses feature strong rhythms and upbeat tempos useful for energizing a congregation in demonstrative actions such as handclapping, swaying, and other physical manifestations. An abundance of more meditative choruses (many of them quotations or paraphrases of Scripture) are used to intensify corporate devotion and worship.
In spite of the fact that some churches use the hymnal minimally and others not at all, hymn singing has not become obsolete. The last two hymnals, Hymns of Glorious Praise (Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1969), and Sing His Praise (Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1991), indicate that the leadership of the Assemblies is committed to providing the constituency with a substantial selection of traditional and gospel hymns for their use. Hymns such as “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty!” used to open the 1919 General Council are part of the fellowship’s heritage. Nevertheless, the real ministry of congregational music is now largely believed to lie with the chorus, not the hymn.
Currently, the larger churches feature beautifully robed choirs which continue to sing arrangements of gospel or contemporary music. The Christmas or Easter cantata has given way to a full-blown dramatic musical production in the popular vein. Independence Day may be celebrated with a special musical presentation. Worship teams, each member with a microphone, often provide congregational musical leadership in the singing of seamless strings of choruses. Accompanying instruments such as drums, electric guitars, and synthesizers are widely used. The custom of singing in the Spirit (singing in tongues) is not practiced as much as it once was. Well-rehearsed vocal solos are almost invariably sung in the style of secular or religious pop music. Technology such as amplification, accompaniment tracks, and rote learning tapes have mechanized much music-making. Larger churches may spend half a million dollars on special-effects systems, lighting, and stage paraphernalia.
The music pragmatism of more concern for ends (results) than means (method) is a key to understanding Assemblies of God practice in the other arts. In literature, the movement has shown great concern for moral content but less for artistic form; in architecture, more consideration for practicality than for theological statements; in drama, more attention to the quality of presentation than to the quality of writing. Interestingly, when it came to music, many texts were sung which did not reflect the collective theological understanding of the fellowship. A religious song was prized more for its being a musical outlet than a repository for finely reasoned theological truth.
For the most part, constituents are content to move in the direction of secular pop music culture. Being strongly pragmatic, Assemblies of God churches contextualize the gospel in the preferred musical language of the unchurched and make it their own.