How the Holy Spirt Marked a Movement

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When the Assemblies of God (AG) holds its biennial General Council, the Pentecostal denomination invites not only top denominational officials to address the thousands who attend but also renowned speakers from outside AG circles. Three years ago in Phoenix that was Southern Baptist pastor Rick Warren.

The best-selling author of The Purpose Driven Life challenged the pastors with one of his signature messages to focus on five "purposes": worship, fellowship, discipleship, evangelism and compassion ministry. But for this group, he added a sixth. His point, customized to the AG audience hanging on his every word, was simple yet layered with meaning:

"Be Pentecostal."

As a Southern Baptist, Warren pinpointed a touchy subject in the Assemblies of God, a denomination founded in the aftermath of the revival fires of Azusa Street, where the message of the baptism in the Holy Spirit was reignited and spread throughout the world. While the worldwide Assemblies of God has emphasized the baptism in the Holy Spirit with the "initial physical evidence of speaking in other tongues" (based on Acts 2:4), over the past several decades observers have noticed a diminishing emphasis on it in AG churches stateside, where some pastors seem to try to be seeker-friendly to those who may not understand a "messages in tongues" with interpretation, as mentioned in the New Testament.

Warren has become friends with George O. Wood, who has led the Assemblies of God as general superintendent since 2007. In fact, Wood likes Warren's Saddleback Church so much he's jokingly called it the largest church in the Assemblies because so many former AG people attend Saddleback. When I attended Warren's church, it reminded me of some AG mega-churches: a nice facility, good worship with a lively band, a carefully choreographed service—and no speaking in tongues.

It's unlikely the AG would have invited to that biennial gathering a Pentecostal firebrand like Rodney Howard-Browne, whose services have been known for "holy laughter" and other manifestations.

The truth is, as the Assemblies has moved up the social ladder in the last 100 years (as have other Pentecostal denominations), it finds itself a movement of contrasts and paradoxes. Speaking in tongues is just one of many within this denomination that still calls itself a "fellowship."

Though some AG congregations may appear to downplay the baptism in the Holy Spirit, in 2013 there was a statistical increase in Spirit baptisms among AG churches—and that doesn't include those who received the baptism in the Spirit outside the local church setting, such as camp meetings, district-sponsored men's and women's retreats, as well as children's and youth camps and conventions. (Incidentally, I received the baptism in the Holy Spirit at age 12 at an AG youth camp in Iowa.)

So while many assume the broad array of Assemblies churches—including those that don't highlight Spirit baptism as strongly as others—has led to a decline in both numbers and emphasis on the Pentecostal experience, this isn't necessarily the case. The AG is now the largest Pentecostal denomination worldwide, with almost 68 million adherents. In the U.S., the AG has experienced a remarkable 24 years of uninterrupted growth. Yet much of this development—both globally and stateside—has come only in recent years, proving that obviously what the Holy Spirit began a century ago has grown into something few in 1914 would ever have imagined.

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