This is a long one. Apologies in advance.
As I mentioned previously, I believe the US version of the Assemblies of God will soon be facing a challenge to its sense of global centricity due to the growth of the Evangelical church in the global South. (It’s not the international headquarters in Springfield, MO, by the way, just the US headquarters—there is no international authority for the A/G.)
I saw a news item on Google today that brought that home. It led to further exploration at the AG.org website detailing news and reports from last week’s meeting, and it was a very interesting tour. Allow me to take you through it.
First off, The Christian Post website reported on the keynote speaker at one of the last rallies last week, Malawi A/G President Lazarus Chakwera. He reportedly “thanked the American audience for sending full-gospel missionaries to Africa.” What the report didn’t say, and which I’m sure is going to happen, is that it won’t be long before Malawi is sending missionaries here. The article went on with these sobering statistics:
Malawi is just one of dozens of African countries where missions is sprouting and spreading like wildfire. Though the Assemblies of God began in Hot Springs, Arkansas, most of its adherents reside outside of the U.S.; of the 53 million AG members, only 3 million are American.
Malawi is a case in point. There are now 639,088 Assemblies of God members and adherents in Malawi meeting in 3,114 churches and preaching points. Only six years ago, the church had 63,500 members and 1,018 churches and preaching points.
Wow. Did you get that? First, the American A/G church measures less than 6% of the total A/G adherents worldwide. Out of 20 A/G churchgoers, only one lives in America.
Second, the A/G church in Malawi has experienced a 1000% growth curve in only six years. It didn’t double in six years. It didn’t triple. It exploded to ten times its size. If your local church grew that fast it would go from 200 members to 2,000 members. Can you imagine that kind of explosive growth? No geopolitical border can contain that kind of enthusiastic evangelism. It has to spill over. And don’t think they won’t be coming to America to spread the good news.
And may it happen quickly!
Some more interesting items came out of Chakwera’s message that night. Strongly echoing Margaret Poloma’s conclusions in her book, The Assemblies of God at the Crossroads, Chakwera said, “Institutional structures are necessary, but they should never become impediments that choke the life of a movement.” Already this Malawan evangelist is giving us a prophetic word. He warns us to “guard against following the path of other denominations that have allowed bureaucratic processes to replace the Holy Spirit’s leading. Any religious movement can die if it strays from biblical moorings…. When we cease to be a Spirit-led movement, we end up being like any other organization.” Good words, and true
As a harbinger of how the global South will further change the complexion of the predominantly white A/G, we find in other news that “65.6 percent of overall growth in the AG was Hispanic.” Another article revealed, “In the past dozen years in the Assemblies of God there has been a 91 percent increase in the number of black churches, 50 percent hike in Asian/Pacific islander congregations and 31 percent rise in Hispanic churches.”
This is great news! In my mind, the only truly Pentecostal church is a very diverse church. I should probably just say the only truly Christian church is a diverse church. Even a cursory read of the early chapters of the book of Acts will reveal that diverse languages, diverse ethnicities, and diverse religious backgrounds all came together in Christ to worship and serve God. This kind of diversity was an earmark of what God truly intended for his Church.
The A/G fellowship is a primitivist movement. That means, we hearken back to the early first century church and look to it as a model for our church today. I consider it good news that this council’s Spiritual Life Report strongly reaffirmed this stance for our fellowship. I’m just not sure that the committee that drew it up thought strongly enough about the implications of the early church’s diversity and ethnicity in the challenges they brought before the A/G. Like the early church, the early 1900’s Pentecostal outbreakings were deeply diverse with William J. Seymour leading the way.
I believe Heaven will be a true tapestry of diversity, and if we want to experience a little of Heaven on Earth, our churches need to reflect this.
Thank God it’s happening, even without our white leaders making much sense of it.
In fact, I’m sure this wasn’t intentional (perhaps I’m charitable), but Thomas Trask, the newly re-elected General Superintendent (head honcho) of the American A/G fellowship sounded a bit condescending when he allowed that,
“ethnic minorities bring a unique contribution to the Fellowship that will enable the Assemblies of God to reach the entire nation with the gospel.”
Granted, those weren’t Trask’s actual words. That was the news writer summing up his message. The news article concludes,
“The Fellowship realizes that as the country grows more ethnically diverse so must the church. And the changing demographics have provided the unparalleled opportunity to reach foreign nations – within the United States.”
Why does our country’s growing diversity drive our own changing face? America has always been diverse. Why shouldn’t our churches’ demographics reflect heavenly diversity rather than mere American diversity? Sure, we can argue that there have always been more whites in America, but newspaper reports at the time of the Azusa Street revival led by Seymour indicated diversity within that revival setting was the norm, at a time when that was revolutionary! (Consider: the revival was labeled a “disgraceful intermingling of the races.”) (Also, see “God’s Antidote for Racism,” a message given at AGTS.)
Why didn’t it stay this way? Why isn’t it normal for the A/G to be racially intermingled?
Because the A/G, over the years, has become white, paternalistic, middle-class, and deeply Americocentric. Unfortunately, I’m not sure our leadership recognizes we have fallen far from this gracious diversity. In another article, Trask is quoted,
“I love these brethren…. God has raised up these men to bring to the Assemblies of God a diversity that is long, long overdue.”
Overdue? Yes. It is. But we had it, I think. And we quickly lost it.
What our current leaders don’t realize is that what is happening is more than renewed diversity, it is the beginnings of a sea change in the complexion and ultimate global focus of Evangelical and Pentecostal leadership. Like it or not the white, middle-income, Americans are vastly outnumbered. It won’t be long before we have to let go of our colonial mindset and stop merely “welcoming” our ethnic brethren like we’re the lords of the manor and start turning to them as equal partners and even seeking their guidance as elder mentors who have had their faith challenged by hardship, predation, and abuse such as we in a America never dreamed of.
You think I’m kidding that we still have a colonial mind-set? Look, the A/G is probably among the least colonial-minded of most of the missions-sending agencies out there. Our missionaries live and die by the rule of the “Indigenous Principle”: send missionaries, evangelize, train local leaders, help them get financially independent, then move on. But while that’s true of our missionaries, why does this quote smack of colonialism?
“Guidelines were created for national or global ministries that wish to be affiliated with the AG.”
Why aren’t we considering guidelines for us to seek affiliation? Because we’re still very Americocentric in our mindset. Anyone else but me see a paradigm overthrow coming?
Not only are ethnic minorities on the rise in the A/G American church, the whites are on the decline. Currently, there is a greater percentage of minorities in the A/G church in America than there is in the US population at large. Seventy-five percent of Americans are white. But in the A/G only 60 percent are white. And, surprisingly, since 2001,
“the number of those classified as ‘white’ has slightly decreased, by about .3 percent.”
I hope you don’t think I’m merely bashing my fellowship. I love the Assemblies of God. As my college prof LeRoy Bartel was fond of saying, “It’s the only sane way to be Pentecostal.” But if there’s another Great Awakening fomenting (and I think there is), if we want to be relevant to the world as it is and not how we wish it to be, if we want to truly be people of the Spirit, and if we want to enjoy fellowship and worship like it’ll be in Heaven, then we must let go of parochial, colonial, white-bread American ways of thinking and see the church as a true global whole. It’s not just America at the top with a bunch of second-rate Christians who must be taught by their superiors anymore. We still have a seat at the table, but we need to graciously realize that there is no head at this table but Christ. There is no head of the class but Christ. We are not the teachers anymore. We are brothers and sisters learning from each other, sitting together at the feet of Christ. And our churches should reflect that—yesterday.
I welcome your comments and feedback.
[tags]BlogRodent, Assemblies-of-God, Assembly-of-God, A/G, AOG, Pentecostal, Christianity, Religion, Charismatic, diversity, racism, church-growth, revival[/tags]