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THRIVING: Believers prepare for baptism at an Assemblies of God service in Lake Nebagamon, Wis.
Paul M. Walsh/The Leader-Telegram/AP
THRIVING: Believers prepare for baptism at an Assemblies of God service in Lake Nebagamon, Wis.

Assembly of growth

Religion | Diverse Pentecostal denomination bucks trends in American Protestantism

Issue: "Back to School," Sept. 7, 2013

In an era when many American Protestant denominations are in numerical free fall, the Assemblies of God (AG) stands out as one of the nation’s thriving religious groups. Eight thousand youths and 3,700 denominational leaders recently gathered at the AG’s General Council in Orlando. Featured speakers included Pastor Wilfredo “Choco” De Jesus of Chicago’s New Life Covenant Church, who was recently named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People,” and former senator and U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Recent statistics indicate moderate yet significant growth for the AG in America. In 2012 it gained 127 new churches, up to 12,772 total, and registered more than 131,000 baptisms, up almost 4 percent from 2011. The AG is one of America’s most racially diverse faith groups. Hispanics make up nearly 22 percent of the denomination, blacks almost 10 percent, and Asians 4 percent. 

The AG’s global growth is even more impressive, as the number of adherents worldwide increased 1.5 percent in 2012 to more than 66 million. AG missions have featured particularly aggressive outreach in areas such as Latin America, where the denomination has more than 200,000 congregations. At the General Council, the AG’s publishing division announced an agreement with Kingstone, a leading publisher of Christian comic books and graphic novels, to produce Spanish-language versions of all its titles. Like many Christian congregations, some global AG churches have faced persecution in recent years. In 2012, a mob burned a 500-seat AG church in Muslim-dominated Zanzibar, where Christians represent only 3 percent of the population.

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George O. Wood, who has served as the AG’s General Superintendent for six years and whom the council re-elected to another four-year term, notes that “every 39 minutes a new Assemblies of God church is being birthed somewhere in the world.” He also says there are now 10 times more AG churches than McDonald’s restaurants around the globe. 

One of the Pentecostal denomination’s greatest challenges, according to Wood, is presenting the exclusive message of salvation through Christ to a culture that is skeptical and sometimes hostile toward that truth. Choco De Jesus emphasized clear proclamation of the gospel and practical social ministry as keys to AG’s success. “It’s time to get out of our churches and into the streets,” he declared.

The AG dates its beginnings to the 1906 Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, in which multiethnic meetings reported remarkable signs and wonders, including speaking in tongues. Revivals and charismatic gifts have remained seminal parts of the AG’s tradition, but some have questioned whether the traditional focus on tongues and the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” is waning in the denomination.  

While many Protestants teach that Holy Spirit baptism occurs at salvation, Pentecostals consider it a sanctifying experience that occurs “beyond salvation.” In its statement of faith, the AG says that baptism in the Spirit “is witnessed by the initial sign of speaking with other tongues.”

In a recent blog post, Christianity Today noted that while the AG’s “water baptisms” rose in 2012, “spirit baptisms” (which have always been lower than water baptisms) decreased by almost 3 percent, reflecting a general downward trend over the past 15 years. Wood explains that spirit baptisms today often occur at conferences and retreats, but the denomination’s statistics track only spirit baptisms that occur in and are reported by local churches.     

Doug Clay, AG General Treasurer, says “the world is ready for Azusa 2.0,” including “signs, wonders, healings, speaking in tongues and the beauty of multi-cultural worship.”

Thomas Kidd
Thomas Kidd

Thomas is a professor of history at Baylor University and a senior fellow at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion. His most recent book is Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots. Follow Thomas on Twitter @ThomasSKidd.

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