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Great expectations: the fundamentals of the Assemblies of God.

The Assemblies of God (AG) retains its position as the largest Pentecostal denomination in the country, despite the fall from grace of its two best known televangelists, Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker. Forty years ago it counted 400,000 members in the U.S. and now that figure has risen to 1,340,000 - another 900,000 adherents identify with the church but are not actual members.

A few AG congregations fall into the megachurch category with sanctuaries seating thousands. But the average church of the nearly 12,000 churches in this country attracts about 125 worshipers on a Sunday morning. Additional adherent cosider an AG church to their spiritual home but do not qualify for full membership since they do not tithe their incomes, abstain from alcohol and tobacco, or meet other requirements. In many churches, adherents outnumber members.

Overall growth has slowed since the 1960s and 1970s but has continued in suburban churches and in the Hispanic community. Hispanics make up about 12 percent of the total membership and may attend one of the 1,626 Spanish-speaking AG churches. Spanish is also the primary language of the millions of people who worship in foreign mission churches affiliated with the AG in Latin America.

Whether Anglo or Hispanic, the typical AG member expects to experience the miraculous. When the Holy Spirit fills the believer, he or she will speak in an unknown tongue as recounted at the first Pentecost in the Bible. The believer also hopes to receive the gifts of interpreting these tongues, giving prophecies, and receiving and bestowing spiritual healing. Not every AG member claims to have received all of these paranormal gifts, or engages in them on a daily or weekly basis, but the expectation is there.

Almost all AG churches begin Sunday morning with Sunday school for all ages followed by the worship service. A less formal service is usually scheduled for that evening. A visitor will hear gospel hymns, lively preaching, clapping hands, and speaking and, perhaps, singing in tongues. Speaking in tongues in public is in order only when followed by interpretation. Whoever does the speaking must either know someone else present who will interpret the sounds or be ready to do this himself or herself. It is also not uncommon to pray for the release from demon possession during the worship service.

Sometimes Pentecostals describe themselves as "fundamentalists with a difference." Like fundamentalists, they believe that the Bible is literally true - for example, they believe the world was created in six 24-hour days. But while other fundamentalists affirm the miracles recorded in the Old and New Testaments, they doubt that such miracles are everyday occurrences in modem times. To the Pentecostals they are.

Speaking in tongues

Pentecostalism in its present form dates back to 1901 with a small band of men and women at the Bethel Bible College who were led by the director of the institution, Charles Fox Parham of Topeka, Kansas. Parham taught that the baptism of the Holy Spirit would first be evidenced by glossolalia, or "speaking in tongues," and that other gifts would follow. On Jan. 1, 1901 one of his students, Agnes Ozman, began to speak in tongues. Soon others did the same.

Now the scene shifts to Los Angeles, where one of Parham's disciples, an African American preacher by the name of William J. Seymour, started a storefront church on Azusa Street in 1906. His revival meetings attracted many people from the Holiness churches while others in the Holiness movement attacked the new Pentecostals as fanatics and demon possessed. (The Holiness movement began in the 19th century and sought to restore what was believed to be the original emphasis on perfection taught by John Wesley, Methodism's founder. For Wesley, the doctrine of perfectionism was a principal based on scripture - "You, therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48) - and was the goal of the true Christian. A number of denominations today continue the Holiness tradition, such as the Church of the Nazarene.)

Over the next few years, missionaries from the biracial Azusa Street Mission planted Pentecostal churches in other American cities and a few foreign countries. Converts generally came from the Methodist, Baptist, and Holiness churches.

To provide for more structure for the emerging Pentecostal movement, a group of 300 delegates from 20 states and several foreign countries met in the Grand Opera House in Hot Springs, Arkansas in April 1914. Over a period of days, they organized the Assemblies of God. The founders sought to restore what they believed to be first-century Christianity and to foster the gifts of Pentecost. Since they were sure they were living in the latter-days, they displayed little interest in the affairs of the world. They planned a short spurt of evangelistic activity before the end times.

The organizers combined congregational and presbyterian forms of church government. In the Assemblies of God, the local congregation would select its minister and run its own affairs. But a general council would control missionary work, higher education, publications, and certification of ministers. Eventually headquarters were established in Springfield, Missouri.

Probably the best-known AG minister in the early days was the flamboyant Aimee Semple McPherson. Sister Amiee, as she was known, joined the AG in 1919 and dedicated the 5,300-seat Angelus Temple in Los Angeles in 1925 (shortly after surrendering her AG ministerial credentials). In 1927 she eventually started her own denomination, the International church of the Foursquare Gospel, which now reports 214,000 members.

Someone might have characterized observant Assemblies of God members in the 1920s and 1930s as Amish with automobiles. The AG took over all the taboos of the Holiness churches from which it had sprung - no smoking, drinking, dancing, movies, jewelry or makeup, membership in secret societies, public swimming, or professional sports. Many even frowned on recourse to medical doctors and the purchase of life insurance.

In those early decades, AG members were generally drawn from the lower-economic classes. Although Seymour was black, black Pentecostals were more likely to join the Church of God in Christ or other predominantly black churches than to find a church home in the Assemblies of God. Whether white or black churches, the established Protestant churches were likely to dismiss them all as Holy Rollers."

Over time the profile of the typical AG member has changed. He or she is now likely to belong to the middle class and hold a high school or college degree. Some AG members who have become quite well known outside of their hometowns include James Watt - who served as secretary of the interior in the Reagan administration - and John Ashcroft - who was elected to the U.S. Senate after terms as governor of Missouri and whose father was an AG minister. And many of the old taboos have disappeared - with the exception of those against liquor and tobacco.

Creating a subculture

Assemblies of God members as well as other fundamentalists have created a parallel popular culture with their own singers, writers, and composers. You can discover Christian versions of talk shows, sex manuals, financial guides, and even rock bands.

Local AG churches sponsor private Christian schools from preschool through high school. The denomination supports ten liberal-arts colleges, five Bible schools, and a graduate school of theology.

Ministers are now expected to hold college degrees and most have seminary training. About 15 percent are women, however, few pastor large churches. Although chosen by the local congregations, all ministers must affirm AG doctrines established by the general council. Ministers must give up their pulpits if they divorce and remarry, although the ban on remarriage for divorced members has been relaxed a bit.

To support the local congregations, private schools, benevolences, and missions, AG members contribute more financially than those in most other denominations. Support of the Springfield headquarters is voluntary and averages about 2 percent of congregational income. Many congregations expect full members to tithe. A recent study showed that the average household contributes $2,985 a year to their church while the average Roman Catholic household gives only $819.

From its earliest days the AG sent missionaries to spread the Pentecostal message beyond the U.S. Today, the denomination supports 1,7000 foreign missionaries in 140 countries, and the church counts 23 million members and adherents in affiliated overseas churches. Most of the millions of converts to the Assemblies of God in Mexico and Central and South America were baptized Roman Catholics.

Ecumenism has never been high on the AG church's priorities. Local AG clergy are unlikely to become active in ministerial associations although the church did join the National Association of Evangelicals in 1943. In the 1950s and 1960s at least one Pentecostal minister cultivated dialogue with Catholics and main@ stream Protestants. A native of South Africa, David du Plessis moved to the United States and received ministerial credentials from the AG. He served as an observer at Vatican II and met with leaders of the World Council of Churches. But his ecumenical activity offended AG leaders, and he lost his credentials in 1962. His credentials were restored in 1980, but his experience served as a warning to others who might be tempted to engage in interfaith programs.

Some AG ministers and laity welcomed the appearance of charismatic phenomena in the 1960s in Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, and Catholic circles while others expressed reservations. Speaking in tongues under Catholic auspices was especially suspect by those who shared certain anti-Catholicism views - such as well-known preacher Jimmy Swaggart.

Although the attitude of the AG seems to have softened in recent years, opposition to the Catholic Church was voiced in the 1960s by Thomas F. Zimmerman, then head of the AG. Zimmerman made his feelings of the election of John F. Kennedy clear in the pages of the denominational weekly, Pentecostal Evangel. Zimmerman, who served as general superintendent of the church for 26 years, wrote:" every Roman Catholic is completely under the control of his church, mind, soul, and body ... A Roman Catholic cannot make a decision on any level which runs counter to the thinking and expressed policy of Papal authority. In other words, under threat of excommunication, every Catholic is bound by Rome." In his view, the Pentecostal course of action was clear:" We must not now let down the guard and lose our time-honored and sacred position by giving the highest position in the land to the Roman Catholic Church."

An AG brochure now admits:" The Assemblies of God is not the only church. God is using many others to reach the world for Him. In the big picture we are one of many churches and denominations committed to bringing others to Christ."

The AG church uses every available media to spread its message and win converts. (And most AG members would find a congenial political home in the Christian Coalition, whose position on abortion, prayer in schools, pornography, and other matters is shared by other Christians of a conservative bent.) Its radio program, "Revivaltime," has been aired since 1978 and is carried by 634 stations in 100 countries. The Gospel Publishing House in Springfield has become one of the largest in the Protestant world, churning out 25 tons of books and pamphlets every day.

However, some of this media exposure has taken a sour note for the AG. The popular TV programs of Bakker and Swaggart brought these two AG ministers into millions of homes. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker built a loyal following for their PTL Club, which branched into many other avenues, including a Christian theme park. However, much publicized scandal has plagued both ministers - Bakker has served a prison term for mishandling contributions and Swaggert had his ministerial duties revoked after dalliances with prostitution and pornography were revealed. Both televangelists lived a life of luxury that would have scandalized earlier Pentecostals but which reflects the newer prosperity gospel that has found a welcome in some AG quarters.

The excesses of the televangelists embarrassed most AG ministers and laity and seems to have slowed but not halted the church's growth. The membership of 50,000 in 1925 grew eightfold in barely 30 years. But the American congregations have added only about 150,000 new adherents during the past decade.

Improving the ranks

While the average AG congregation is quite small, several dozen congregations rank among the largest Protestant churches in the U.S. The Assemblies of God Church in Lakeland, Florida (population 65,000) seats 10,000 and supports a staff of 75. First Assembly in Phoenix enrolls 8,000 men, women, and children in its Sunday school. Poloma's study reports that only 30 percent of present U.S. members were raised in the AG Church. She estimates that 15 percent have come from Baptist backgrounds while 10 percent had been Methodists and 10 percent Catholics.

Persuading others to come to church, seek the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and join the flock are paramount goals of committed AG members. The denomination has set up special missions to Native Americans, prisoners, Jews, and Koreans and other foreign language groups. It even formed a Center for Ministry to Muslims in the early 1980s and urged people to live in Muslim countries and influence their new neighbors.

In many ways the 300 people who gathered in Little Rock in 1901 would not recognize the denomination in the 1990s. But the Assemblies of God Church still exerts a powerful attraction to those who are looking for a religion that promises miracles, offers an exuberant worship experience, and puts evangelism at the top of its list of priorities.

William J. Whalen, professor emeritus of education at Purdue University in Indiana.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Claretian Publications
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Whalen, William J.
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Dec 1, 1996
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