Jun 23, 2014

More pentecostals speaking in tongues

More pentecostals are speaking in tongues in church, according to a recently released report from the Assemblies of God.

This major pentecostal denomination is notable on the American religious landscape for significant growth. Many churches have seen membership numbers slump in recent years, but the Assemblies has consistently grown.

"While mainline denominations have been declining for decades, in the past few years some evangelical groups, such as the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), have also begun to decline," writes Darrin Rodgers, pentecostal historian and director of the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center. "This demographic decline has caused some pundits to predict the slow death of evangelicalism. Robust growth of Pentecostal churches, including the Assemblies of God, shows a different story."

Part of that different story has seemed, however, to include the de-emphasis of pentecostalism's distinguishing religious practice, speaking in tongues. The denomination' statistics show that the reported rates of "spirit baptisms," where pentecostals believe they receive the gift of a prayer language from the Holy Spirit, have not kept pace with the denomination's growth.

Now, after years of decline, there is a reported uptick in spirit baptisms in the Assemblies churches.

In the most recent statistics, compiled from 2013 and released this month, spirit baptisms increased by 2.9 percent. That's not a lot, but it's notable, given a long downward trend.

The largest groups of spirit baptisms, numerically, occurred in Peninsular Florida (6,253), Northern California/Nevada (4,677), Arizona, (4,490) and North Texas (4,159). These are areas where pentecostalism has been strong, historically.

The largest statistical increase was in North Dakota, where an oil boom has brought job hunters from across the country. Spirit baptisms have gone up in that state by 170 percent in the last five years. In 2013, there were 592 North Dakotans who began speaking in tongues in Assemblies churches.

Reflecting the denomination's diversity, the Assemblies also saw an increase of spirit baptisms in Spanish-speaking churches. In the West, there was a 8.9-point rise in spirit baptisms in Spanish-speaking Assemblies in the last decade. In the East, Spanish-speaking Assemblies have seen spirit baptisms go up by 14.4 percent since 2003.

In Korean-, Slavic- and German-language churches, spirit baptisms have been steady. There were 38 people who began to speak in tongues in German-language Assemblies in the United States last year. This is down from a high of 85 in 2008, but similar to the number from a decade ago.

The Assemblies greeted the statistics as good news.

"Truly, the Holy Spirit is at work in our day," said George O. Wood, the denomination's general overseer, in a press release.

Baptisms in the Assemblies of God, 1979-2013
When the church began growth spurt in the early 21st century, but spirit baptisms continued to decline, some within the denomination worried that de-emphasizing the practice was the cost of attracting new members. In 2008, the General Council felt the need to reaffirm its doctrines of glossolalia, the "Pentecostal Disctinctive." A survey from that year reported that less than one third of the churches took time to pray for spirit baptisms and only about half of Assemblies' laypeople said they had been spirit baptized.

There was "something of an identity crisis" in the church, according to Christianity Today, and a fear it had "fallen victim to its own success."

Wood -- who was first elected in 2008 -- has said he doesn't believe the statistics show a decline in speaking in tongues. He and other church leaders had disputed reports over the years. Though the denomination's statistics seemed to show a drop in spirit baptisms between the late '90s and 2012, according to church officials the statics are misleading because they do not include spirit baptisms in parachurch organizations, such as church camps and college ministries.

"The practice of speaking in tongues is very integral to who we are," Wood said last year. "It was one of the generating factors 99 years ago in our being formed and it's still the encouragement for every believer to speak in tongues."

It is not clear whether spirit baptisms in ministries affiliated with the Assemblies of God increased, decreased or remained constant over the last few decades. It's not clear how they correlate with spirit baptisms that happen in the church. Even if the number of spirit baptisms outside of the church made up for the decrease within the church, however, that could be seen as speaking to a de-emphasis on glossolalia. Some observers worried in 2008 that the practice of praying in tongues was being pushed to the margins of the denomination, lest newcomers be scandalized. If it's not happening in the churches and is instead moved to parachurch contexts, that would make the pentecostal prayer practice less integral to the Assemblies' identity than it used to be.

Regardless of how the decline of spirit baptisms from 1997 to 1912 is understood, the church has responded positively to what looks like a bounce in the most recent numbers.

Wood noted that this is part of the health of a thriving church that has now grown in numbers for 24 straight years. He also said he hopes the growth will encourage the Assemblies to greater evangelism and a tighter embrace of the Holy Spirt.

"We humbly recognize that there are multiplied millions that have never had an adequate presentation of the gospel or a local church in their community," Wood said. "In this our 100th year, we must redouble our efforts to bear witness, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to reach all the world with the gospel."