In Black Fire: One Hundred Years of African American Pentecostalism the author, Estrelda Alexander, catalogs how something from the African religious tradition known as “griot” shaped what we refer to as “call-and-response” preaching. She provides a very eye-opening explanation of how it originated and how it functions. Alexander writes,
“Characteristics of the black sermon such as antiphonal structure in which the preacher and the audience form a joint choir, with the preacher becoming the lead singer and the congregation the chorus are more pronounced within Pentecostal worship. The longer and louder the preacher goes on, the more the audience talks back, and the rhythm of the preaching forms a cadence of its own.” (p. 52)
For those not familiar with Pentecostal-Charismatic preaching this is a liturgy of sorts. As I discussed this with my wife this morning she recalled our experience with Roman Catholic and Anglican worship where there were times in which the congregation is asked to talk back to the speaker. When we first visited an Anglican congregation they would say, “Peace be with you.” I would stare back. Another person said it and I think I responded with “thank you” until I realized the appropriate response is to say “And also with you”.
Our current assembly is a non-denominational evangelical church with German Lutheran roots. On Easter Sunday someone in attendance was very verbal in his support of our pastor’s sermon. He disrupted the order of a service a bit and he received a few stares. While I am not much of a yeller during church it didn’t surprise me. I have always understood the sermon, if done well, to be something in which the congregation participates.
It is a Pentecostal liturgy of sorts. Elsewhere she discusses the expectations when the music is playing in a Pentecostal service. She says,
“Not to move (raising hands, clapping or swaying) in some visible way indicates that a person is not part of what the community is experiencing and signals a lack of spirituality; it gives evidence that he or she is an outsider and might be a candidate for conversion. The importance of rhythmic engagement in Pentecostal worship is inescapable.” (p. 50)
Before one chides Pentecostals let me say as I sat in Anglican worship gatherings I missed cues that showed that I am an outsider. The same can be said of my experience around Catholics and even Baptist or non-denominational, hipster evangelicals. All communities have an ethos that shows whether or not someone is a regular.
Now as regards the sermon there are expectations. During a homily from a Catholic priest most stay very, very silent. In my current church there is not much more interaction. In (specifically Black) Pentecostal circles homilies and testimony is understood as such:
“Though one person has the floor, the entire congregation is involved. Pentecostal testimony service parallels the African practice of storytelling by griot. Testimonies are not just my testimony of what God has done for me but also our testimony of what God has done for us–in our family, our church, our community and our history. They are the testimony of how God, through the centuries, has brought deliverance, as he did the children of Israel in Egypt and as he did in bringing a remnant through the middle passage, as he delivered us from slavery and from the Jim Crow experience in America.” (p. 53)
This is true of Anglo-Pentecostal and Latin0-Pentecostal groups as well. To preach or to give a testimony is not to lecture to an audience. It is a group action.
There can be much wrong with this approach. It can result in cheerleading. It can lead to group think or the worst kind. But in reading Alexander’s take on the subject I feel a bit rebuked for sometimes being critical of it over against the more “refined” homilies seem in Catholic, mainline, or evangelical pulpits. Everyone has their liturgy. This is just another version.
See my previous comments on this book: