At most denominational conferences these days, leaders have to recognize and reckon with the challenge of continued declines in membership. But for the US Assemblies of God (AG), which drew 18,000 registered attendees to its General Council meeting in Orlando last week, it’s a different story.
The world’s largest Pentecostal denomination, the Assemblies of God has been quietly growing in the US for decades, bucking the trend of denominational decline seen by most other Protestant traditions.
In the current climate, it’s certainly something that needs our attention, especially with these two trends, which the conventional wisdom deems a contradiction:
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why the Assemblies of God has continued to increase over the past 15 years. Research shows that membership of the Assemblies of God has become more politically conservative and more religiously active today than just a decade ago, but its own numbers indicate that it has achieved incredible racial diversity—44 percent of members in the United States are ethnic minorities. A confluence of these trends may be factors in its ability to keep its numbers up.
On top of all that, that recent General Council elected an Executive Presbytery which is mostly either non-white or female. How did all of this happen in one denomination? I think there are three reasons why the AG’s have bucked so many trends at once.
The first is the cornerstone of modern Pentecost: the people are united in the belief that God is still active in their lives and acts on their behalf on a daily basis. In many ways the entire Holiness-Pentecostal movement was started in reaction to the loss of one or both of these beliefs. People focus with good reason on the speaking in tongues, but the idea that God still does the same things he did in the Old and New Testaments drives just about everything. As a an opposing example, consider what I call the The Baptismal Covenant: The Contract on the Episcopalians, where the shift from what God does to the believe to what the believer does for God is visible. It wasn’t so long ago that all Christian churches were united in this, but times change…
The second is that the AG’s congregational structure dodges the authority issue, which makes it easier for women to advance to leadership positions and keeps the denomination out of that brawl. Modern Pentecost is predominantly (but not entirely) a descendant of the Wesleyan tradition, which has always elevated women to ministry roles more easily than other parts of Christianity. Modern Pentecost also redefines the whole business of authority in churches, something that’s not really appreciated.
The third is that the AG has by and large gotten around the ethnocentricity issue that dogs many American demoninations. The promise of Pentecost, from Acts 2 onward, is that the Spirit would be poured out on all flesh, but unfortunately the fact that Christianity ended up centred in Europe made the predominant culture primarily European. Getting past that with the realities of the world as it really is has eluded many Christian organisations; it is entirely appropriate that a Pentecostal church like the AG should show the way.
One thing that the author of the CT article found surprising was the continued political conservatism of the majority of the AG’s laity. This is indicative of the simple fact that same laity is voting in accordance with their moral compass and pocketbook rather than their genitals, as our elites would have them to do. An elite that endlessly trumpets their commitment to social justice while at the same time allowing the Gini coefficient to increase and small businesses to die like flies during COVID needs a reality check.
It’s also worth noting that the AG’s growth is not only in the face of the secularisation of our society; it is also in the face of independent, predominantly Charismatic churches, many of which are headed by ex-AG and other Pentecostal ministers.
The Assemblies of God’s success should be commended and emulated; let’s pray that others will stop and consider how it is being done.