The Pentecostals, at least on a denominational level, seem to be the one segment of Christianity not experiencing membership doldrums, with the Assemblies of God (AG) being a good case in point.
The August issue of the magazine Charisma celebrates the centennial of the denomination with an in-depth overview of the denomination. It is difficult to know the actual size of the church body due to the fact that it counts regular adherents and attendees rather than members, leading to estimates of 3.1 million in the U.S. and 68 million worldwide, according to writer Steve Strang. He adds that the denomination has grown stateside by 250 percent, with recent statistics showing that AG growth continues to outpace the American population.
The denomination is an exception in other ways: One-third of the AG is now 25 years old or younger, and 52 percent are under the age of 35. Two thousand AG churches have been added in the past six years in the U.S. Strang writes that much of the growth has come from ethnics; 41 percent of the AG is non-white, with almost 22 percent being Hispanic and 10 percent white.
But the growth in the AG has been the result of planning and leadership change. Although studies have shown the denomination, especially its churches, have moved in the post-denominational direction, de-emphasizing such hallmarks as speaking in tongues to attract un-churched seekers, it has also held on to many strict teachings, especially on sexual purity.
Recent leaders Tom Trask and George Wood brought in a new generation of young leaders, revamping its publications—servicing congregations with resources promoting “healthy churches—and reorganizing denominational departments that often acted like independent kingdoms. Strang writes that the denomination has been generally quiet in the “cultural wars,” although that may be changing as leaders have increasingly taken strong stands on gay marriage and the Hobby Lobby case.
Another sector of Pentecostalism in North America that has proven resilient is the charismatic revival that originated with the Toronto Blessing phenomenon of the 1990s. In the journal PentecoStudies (Vol. 13, No. 2), Mark Cartledge writes that the Toronto Blessing experienced at a church in that city was once a major pilgrimage site for charismatics and Pentecostals for its ecstatic worship and “signs and wonders.” The thousands of regular visitors that the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship attracted from around the world eventually declined to a small but steady stream.
Sociologists pronounced that the phenomenon had run its course and was in a state of inevitable decline. But in looking at the years since, Cartledge finds the fellowship has spawned a global network, now called Catch the Fire (CTF), as well as a host of sister congregations and networks that are spreading the revival. In recent years, CTF has espoused apostolic teachings—holding that God appoints prophets and apostles—and practice the ritual of “soaking prayer,” where participants are prayed over and seek to open themselves to God’s presence for a few hours at a time.
CTF is now planting churches in North America and Europe. Rather than the Toronto Blessing dying out, its propagators and collaborators (considered apostles and prophets), such as Heidi Baker and Che Ahn, have become “superbrokers” in spreading the revival on a global scale. CTF is “very much a part of a wider set of revivalist networks and its impact on world Christianity via its participation in these networks appears to be growing,” Cartledge concludes.
(Charisma, 600 Rhinehart Rd., Lake Mary 32746; PentecoStudies, https://www.equinoxpub.com/journals/index.php/PENT/issue/current.)