Holding Their Tongues
It was the second day of the 53rd General Council of the Assemblies of God (AG), and Noel Roberts was having an unhappy lunch in the makeshift food court at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando. He had resigned himself to paying $5 for a hotdog.
"You have to eat," he shrugged.
Something else was bothering Roberts, 65, pastor of Bethel Temple Assembly of God in Jacksonville. The biennial council, held August 4-7, had drawn a record number of people—more than 3,600 delegates and an additional 25,000 visitors. But during the thunderous opening worship service the night before, something had been missing.
"I have not heard a message in tongues. When I joined the AG in 1974, it was not uncommon," said Roberts.
That speaking in tongues was absent from the AG's national policy meeting would surprise many who might assume that the largest predominantly white Pentecostal fellowship in the U.S. embraces the practice heartily. It was also ironic, given one measure up for debate later in the week.
The South Texas AG District Council had sent a resolution—"Reaffirmation of Pentecostal Distinctive: The Initial Physical Evidence of Holy Spirit Baptism"—to the council. The resolution noted that the Assemblies were formed on "several biblical Pentecostal distinctives, not the least of which is the belief that the initial physical evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit is speaking in other tongues."
It went on to say that in recent years, the practice "has come under certain scrutiny." The resolution called on the council to reaffirm the doctrine and "continue to require our credentialed ministers to not only have the aforementioned Pentecostal experience in their own lives, but [to] actively preach and teach this doctrine as well."
No one believed that the resolution wouldn't pass, or even that there would be serious opposition to it. But it represented something of an identity crisis in the 2.9-million-member fellowship, which some believe has fallen victim to its own success, both in membership growth and affluence. Now, with Baptists raising their hands during loud praise music and speaking in tongues, and prophecy and faith healing increasingly left to independent Pentecostals, what makes the Assemblies distinct? The South Texas District resolution clearly reflected unease.
Less in evidence?
AG leaders disagree over whether speaking in tongues is in decline. Terry Raburn, superintendent of the Peninsular Florida District, said before this year's council that the resolution was unnecessary.
"I'm at a different church every Sunday, and I frequently see manifestations of the Holy Spirit. I do not see a dearth of those gifts," he said.
But Raburn conceded that his district is at a unique cultural and ethnic crossroad that may represent a countertrend.
"Perhaps … we're fresh and current, and in other places it may be old hat," he said.
Don Nordin, assistant superintendent of the South Texas District, said the resolution had been proposed because over the years some AG pastors and members had changed their minds about speaking in tongues.
"They just didn't believe that doctrine anymore. It's time the Assemblies of God step up to the plate and say, 'We believe this,'" Nordin said.
He said tongues speaking is still common in his church, but he agreed that "it's less prevalent than a generation ago."
Statistics and conversations with Assemblies pastors and observers bear that out. A report that Assistant General Superintendent Alton Garrison delivered to the council in an August 5 business session cited a 2008 survey, commissioned by the AG Discipleship Ministries Agency and conducted by Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Christian Resources, on the state of discipleship. The survey showed that 90 percent of AG pastors claim to teach regularly on the baptism of the Holy Spirit. But only 28 percent strongly agreed with the statement that their church regularly takes time to pray for people to receive the Holy Spirit. And only about half of worship attendees claimed to be baptized in the Holy Spirit.