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Religion Library: Holiness and Pentecostal

Rites and Ceremonies

Written by: Arlene Sanchez Walsh

If there is a central rite in Pentecostalism, it is Spirit baptism.  There are other ceremonies: baptism (more significant in some denominations than others); anointing with oil for installation (appointment of elders and deacons), for ordination, or for healing; foot-washing (more significant in some denominations, and rarely, if ever practiced in others); and of course the Lord's Supper. But none demarcates who is and who is not Pentecostal more than Spirit baptism.  Healing rites and prophetic services also serve as a defining mark for Pentecostals.

When Pentecostalism began to organize around denominations and to institutionalize the rite of Spirit baptism, the initial spontaneity that marked the movement was lost for many Pentecostals.  Spirit baptism is the gift of the Spirit that serves as the entryway for all the other gifts to become operational. As such, the rite became a part of the life of most Pentecostal congregations, though, of late, this rite has become sporadic.  A great many Assemblies of God churches no longer have any regular congregational meeting set up around the promotion of Spirit baptism for the uninitiated.  What typically occurs today is that Pentecostals, like many other Protestant denominations, have segregated the rite of being baptized with the Holy Spirit to an unspecified time during adolescence, when the youth of the church, often at youth convention or a camp, will receive instruction and prayer to receive Spirit baptism.  For those outside this demographic, churches will have a segregated prayer time, usually on a specific day of the week or time of the year, when they will pray and lay hands on people to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit, but for most American Pentecostal churches, this rite is no longer a frequent occurrence.   

Healing often has a defined ritual structure.  People seeking healing in a charismatic denomination such as the Vineyard, for example, experience the healing ritual in a different way than at an Assemblies of God church service, or a healing revival service of a nondenominational ministry.  At a Vineyard healing service, those involved in the healing ministry will have been trained beforehand; they will know how the service should be conducted, what questions to ask, and what physical manifestations signal that the Holy Spirit is present and working toward healing. These guidelines are drawn from the healing teachings of Vineyard founder John Wimber.

The Vineyard setting codifies such things as diagnostic discernment, where the healing minister essentially takes an informal medical history of the person to determine the extent of the physical ailment as well as discern whether this is possibly a demonic attack.  Once that is completed, the healing minister asks permission to lay hands on the affected area, lays hands on the person, prays, and then remains either silent or prays quietly in tongues, waiting and watching for signs of the Holy Spirit.  The person being prayed for may begin to sway back and forth, may exhibit some sweating, may start to feel hot, and start breathing heavily.  After a few minutes, the minister will offer a hug to the person and the person will go back and sit down.  Unlike other healing settings, the Vineyard rarely uses oil for healing.

In other ritual settings involving healing, there will be phenomena such as being "slain in the Spirit."  It has been suggested that the entire context of healing occurs in part because commonalities become ritualized.  When people are touched in a receiving line at a healing service, for instance, the expectation is that they will fall down.  When healing does not occur, it is often called "therapeutic failure."  This understanding is essential to confirming the idea of healing, and it favors the legitimating agency of the healer and the process while at the same time giving meaning to the failed healing itself.  Such failed expectations impel the sick to continue in prayer, waiting on God's timing and remaining faithful despite the circumstances.

Prophetic services are rites for both the initiated and uninitiated alike. For the initiated, they demonstrate the benefit of the continued pursuit of spiritual gifts, where prophecy is viewed as the most prized of spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 14:5).  For the uninitiated, they demonstrate God's reality and God's desire to help people, and they answer questions people have regarding their lives.  

There are several dynamics to a prophetic service.  First is the veracity of the prophet, his or her specialization (personal words of knowledge or public exhortations), and the prophet's relationship to that church. If the prophet is a church member in good standing who has demonstrated loyalty and sacrifice, the veracity of the prophecies are more likely to be accepted.  If the prophet is a visitor who has a reputation as a prophet and who has been accepted or endorsed by the pastor, he or she too will have little problem convincing people of the validity of the message.  Prophecies that come from people who are unknown, who have not distinguished themselves in church, and who have no one to vouch for their prophetic gift, will not receive the same welcome.

The second dynamic is the prophecy itself, and what people make of these words. Prophecy needs to be communicated in such a way that it is plausible as a prophetic word.  Prophetic words-either the private revelation or the public pronouncements-work because they are spoken in a friendly atmosphere.  Furthermore, where people share a common theological assumption, prophecy is possible.  Within this friendly atmosphere, people are insulated from the skepticism of a non-believing and hostile world.  Prophecy in these contexts is meant to operate very much as it is written about in the Bible; it is a device to stir the believers to deeper faith and to convince unbelievers of the truth of Christianity.  Prophecy, possibly more than Spirit baptism, has become the most common initiatory rite in Pentecostalism.