ORLANDO, Fla. The Assemblies of God, a denomination rooted in rural and small town America, appears to have leaped into the 21st century with dramatic results.
At its General Council meeting Aug. 5-9, the denomination touted its formula for defying the decline of other religious groups: contemporary music, arts and high-tech quality communication, outreach to young people, immigrants and ethnic minorities.
The denomination reported a 1.8 percent increase in U.S. membership to 3 million adherents. Globally, the gain was 1.5 percent, to 66 million, making it the largest Pentecostal group in the world.
Why are the Assemblies of God defying the odds?
“We have been flexible when it comes to culture – music, dress, pulpit attire – while remaining consistent on that which has not changed, which is doctrine,” said George Wood, the newly re-elected general superintendent who is also chairman of the World Assemblies of God.
Wood, 71, said other denominations have “shifted in their doctrinal focus and softened their reliance on the authority of God’s word, especially as it relates to Scripture” and sex.
For example, the denomination’s boys’ youth group, the Royal Rangers, appears to have benefited from the Boy Scouts of America’s decision to admit gay scouts.
“Since the May 23 BSA decision, Royal Rangers has received many inquiries from families, churches and denominations seeking an alternate way to mentor future men,” said Doug Marsh, national Royal Rangers director. “We have helped dozens of troops make the transition or take steps for a forthcoming change.”
The denomination steadfastly opposes gay marriage and ordination.
Among the 26,000 delegates and visitors in the cavernous halls of the Orange County Convention Center for the biennial meeting, there was still a smattering of older white people and women in modest, ankle-length skirts and sensible black shoes.
But they are almost lost among the young, especially people of color. Fully 40 percent are younger than 25, according to the gathering’s organizers, many of them immigrants, children of immigrants or minorities.
Efraim Espinoza, director of the denomination’s Office of Hispanic Relations, credited the denomination’s focus on Spanish-language resources and emphasis on community leaders tasked with nurturing Hispanic congregations.
In addition to being racially integrated from its inception – as a Fuller Theological Seminary student in the 1960s, Wood marched for civil rights – the Assemblies has always ordained women. In some areas, according to Charisma magazine, 60 percent of new pastors are women.
The denomination was an early adapter of contemporary and electronic music.
The denomination has recruited a team of young communicators and social media experts from the Relevant Media Group in Orlando to help develop a Pentecostal voice.
“Historically, the Assemblies of God has always been entrepreneurial,” said Steve Strang, the son of two Assemblies of God pastors, as well as CEO of Charisma Media, a book and magazine publisher.
“When entrepreneurs look and see that things are not growing, they make a judgment and adapt, and that’s what’s happening.”
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