Update: See “The A/G: Desperately Seeking Disciplers” for the latest information on this issue, and to see what the A/G is doing about it.
Blogging from the heartland, Sean MacNair calls it like he sees it. In a brief post he concisely serves up highlights from 100 years of American church renewal (See: “The Pardoner’s Tale: My best (stolen) idea so far this year“). He buzzes over Pentecostalism, the Charismatic renewal, healing revivals, Billy Graham, the Charismatic Catholic renewal, the Jesus Movement, the megachurch-cum-denomination trend, worship innovations, and the Emergent Conversation. His point: Renewal threatens the status quo but ultimately gets institutionalized, fades into oblivion, or is assimilated into the mainstream.
Buried in his post is a subtle criticism of the movement that spawned them all, and the institution that formed as a result: Pentecostalism and the Assemblies of God. He writes:
New movements come, new movements go, and the people on either side of an impending change in style always look askance at the guy across the aisle, when in fact they don’t have to, this too shall pass or at least be assimilated.
For example, look at the Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles in the early 1900’s. The holy rollers came on the scene in waves, and boy were the established churches aggravated. Excessive emotion was being brought into the church, emotion not befitting the “house of Gawd” (adopt the proper pseudo-reverential tone here). These Pentecostals, as they were dubbed, were driven out and forced to establish their own fellowships. Eventually groups like the Assemblies of God sprang up, never intending to become a denomination, but after 30 years travelling down that road anyway. 100 years later the AOG is part of the establishment and new groups are trying to breath life into it. A movement that brought much needed life to the faith of many, and was thought of as a threat, did not remain so.
MacNair’s criticism echoes Margaret Poloma’s evaluation:
Just as other once-charismatic religious movements have followed the path of over-institutionalization and over-regulation, which in turn has discouraged much of the original charisma, the Assemblies of God could suffer the chilling effects of routinization. … Paradoxically, the institution that developed out of charisma and has been strengthened by fresh outbursts also seeks to tame and domesticate this spirit. it remains to be seen whether — and how much — charisma will rule over bureaucratic forms and regulations, or whether organizational concerns will stifle the Spirit.
(Again, emphasis mine.)
— Margaret Poloma, ‘The Assemblies of God at the Crossroads: Charisma and Institutional Dilemmas,” Christian Century, (10/17/90), pp. 932-934.
My knowledge is neither vast nor deep. But in my brief time with the A/G (since 1980 or so) I only recall two recent reformation movements directed at the Assemblies of God, and they were both internal: the “Decade of Harvest” and, on its heels, the “Vision for Transformation.” (If any of you know of others, internal or external, please let me know.)
Prompted by MacNair’s post, I thought I’d look at what exactly has been happening with the Assemblies of God in raw numbers over the past few decades to see if either of these reforms have had an effect. For my numbers I relied on the outstanding 2004 statistical report prepared by the A/G’s statistician, Sherri Doty, available from the A/G’s website at http://ag.org/top/about/Statistical_Report_2004.pdf.
As always, please correct me if I make any counter-factual claims below.
The Decade of Harvest:
The Decade of Harvest was instituted in the 1990s in light of several years of declining church growth in the area of church plants. From about 1965 to 1982 (the height of the charismatic renewal) more churches were opened than closed. But according to official A/G statistics this changed in 1983. Paul Drost, director of the A/G’s Department Church Planting, reflected on this in 1999:
[F]rom 1983 until the present, church plantings have been on a downward trend while church closings have been on an upward trend! The exception was 1990-92, which was the beginning of the Decade of Harvest. We do thank God for the first time in 7 years new church openings topped the 300 mark with 315 reported for 1999! (35 years of Church Planting: 1965-1999, viewed 01/02/06)
The Decade of Harvest saw 2,940 new A/G churches planted, but when you subtract the closed churches (2,077), the net change is just over half of what happened in the 80s. Drost claimed that the program’s emphasis on planting new churches not only offset the closings, but actually diminished the closings. The actual numbers do not bear that out (see chart below). The 1990s were a time of continued losses and faltering growth.
General Superintendent Thomas Trask has indicated this program-driven effort, though beneficial, ultimately might not have been directed by the Spirit:
“The Decade of Harvest was a program, a set of goals established by this church in the ‘90s. Goals were set for planting churches, adding ministers, and more. The goals were certainly good for this Fellowship, but we can’t be driven by a program; we must be led by the Spirit.” (Emphasis mine. From: “Where Is The Spirit Leading The Assemblies of God?“)
Worse, says, C. Peter Wagner, the Decade of Harvest is not only programmatic, but serves up evidence of the lack of vitality and evangelistic zeal in the Assemblies of God:
I mentioned how the Assemblies of God growth rate had slowed down in the 1990s, which was projected to be their “Decade of Harvest.” Here is the way the denomination chose to report progress to their constituency in mid-decade, 1995:
“The Harvest Task Force, in its first meeting under the new leadership structure, issued a clarion call to ‘retool and refocus for the harvest.’ Specific directives include (1) A spiritual call to revival. … While number goals can serve as a measure of progress, the emphasis needs to return to the basics.”
Notice how the language of this report focuses on yesterday: “Re-tool,” “Re- focus,” “Re-vival,” “Re-turn.” The prefix “re” means to reinstate something from the past. “Revival” literally means to bring back to life. What life? The life of the past. Help is obviously needed. Where will this help come from? The past! This sort of appeal is extremely common whenever evangelism bogs down. On the other hand, when evangelism is powerful, when soul saving is on a roll, you simply don’t hear this kind of language from leaders of growing churches and apostolic networks.
—C. Peter Wagner, Churchquake: The Explosive Dynamics of the New Apostolic Revolution (Regal Books: August, 2000), 61. (See “Inside the Book.”)
Indeed, after 1995, few mentioned the Decade of Harvest goals and program. When the 1990s closed, if it was mentioned at all, the Decade of Harvest was declared a mild success, then quietly ushered off the stage. Statistically, it’s true that more churches opened than closed in the 90s, but as I noted, the numbers were merely half that of the 80s. And the downward trend has continued on the same track through the first half of the new millennium. Here’s a summary:
|Net Change Per Year
|Source: 2004 AG Statistical Reports (http://ag.org/top/about/Statistical_Report_2004.pdf)
The program apparently had little or no effect on church openings or closings. Perhaps Trask was right: it simply wasn’t of the Spirit. For a more comprehensive look at the trends, see this chart:
The “Average Net Change” line, in the chart, is a moving 10–year average. Clearly, in terms of physical churches, the A/G in North America is weakening despite the best efforts of the Decade of Harvest. Whatever the Decade of Harvest was supposed to “fix,” it didn’t improve anything from the church opening or closing standpoint. (Though, since 1975, the mean number of adherents per church increased from 136 to 226–-churches are now, on average, 166% fuller than they were three decades ago.)
Interestingly, as the A/G decided to focus away from the Decade of Harvest program in 1995–1996, the rate of new conversions suddenly reversed its trend. Looking at the reported conversions, we see that from 1990 to 1997 there was a dramatic increase in reported conversions from the years before (nearly double), but since 1997, annual reports of conversions have steadily decreased. It’s possible the DOH emphasis could have been a contributing factor, but it could also be coincidence. (For instance, the Brownsville Revival began in June, 1995, spawning other revivals nationwide). See chart:
Now, church planting is one way to look at the A/G’s relative health from a “church growth” perspective. Another method, of course, is to look at membership and adherents. There are problems with either number, of course. Church membership is not necessarily indicative of the number of people who attend a church or who claim to “belong” to a church, since the primary benefits of membership are the voting privileges in church business matters. That number is necessarily smaller — especially in larger churches. On the other hand, the count of attenders, or adherents, is more volatile and less subject to validation. So, the number is more “fuzzy.” I prefer looking at adherents, though, since church membership is becoming increasingly less relevant as a method of determining a church’s overall attendance.
Despite the Decade of Harvest’s apparent ineffectiveness, we saw that conversions were nevertheless up. So, how did the A/G’s numbers fare in terms of adherents? Here’s the chart:
Clearly, the A/G is still growing, in terms of numbers. But something interesting emerges when you compare the new converts versus the adherents. If you only look at the net change of adherents in each year, and compare it with the new converts each year, perhaps we could get a view of how “sticky” the conversions are. Presumably, each new convert stays in the church for a time, for discipleship, before moving to a new church, unless the church has a high level of transient attenders (say, for example, a church near a large college).
Looked at this way, the picture seems startling, to me. Not only are the new believers outstripping the net change in adherents, they seem to have no impact on the growth trend at all. If the data are accurate, we may be bringing folks to Christ in the A/G, but we’re not keeping them. One explanation is that people leave the A/G for a church more in harmony with their childhood expectations, say a mainline or other Evangelical church. A more disturbing explanation is that we’re preaching the gospel and getting decisions, but that these new believers are falling by the wayside, and not staying plugged into church anywhere. There’s no way to know, really. Not from the stats.
Whatever the case, these numbers tell me that the A/G’s evangelism efforts have failed over the last 20–30 years. Not even half the new converts are staying. Barna and others report that the majority of church growth is transfer growth: “More than 80% of the current growth registered by Protestant churches is biological or transfer growth.” (See barna.org.) If that analysis holds true for the A/G, then we are in seriously bad shape as an evangelistic enterprise.
And this, despite Barna’s findings that A/G adherents place a very high value on evangelism:
Members of the fellowship provided a wide variety of topics when asked about the single most important activity that Assemblies of God churches perform. The most frequently mentioned activity, offered by one in four members of the fellowship (26%), was evangelism. This included sharing faith, witnessing, winning souls, and reaching the lost. (See: “Assemblies of God Fellowship Study, 2003.”)
Only 8% felt that discipleship was most important. Do the math.
The Vision for Transformation:
After the Decade of Harvest program faded from view and it became clear to A/G leadership that something else needed to change, attention turned from purely mechanical emphases on church planting and evangelism to discovering what needs attention spiritually. Thus, Trask’s criticism of the Decade of Harvest as merely a program, and his insistence that the Vision for Transformation emphasis is Spirit-led. Let’s revisit Trask’s quote, and extend it:
The Decade of Harvest was a program, a set of goals established by this church in the ’90s. Goals were set for planting churches, adding ministers, and more. The goals were certainly good for this Fellowship, but we can’t be driven by a program; we must be led by the Spirit. We would be fooling ourselves if we thought the Vision for Transformation alone could change the spiritual climate of this church. It can’t. It won’t. Four words characterize what I believe needs to happen: renew, release, resource, and realign. Most importantly, we must have renewal — a passion for the things of God: prayer, evangelism, discipleship, worship, missions, and more.
Notice here the recurrence of the theme that Wagner commented on: “renew,” “release,” “resource,” and “realign.” To echo Wagner, at least two of these are backward looking emphases: “renew,” and “realign.” The difference, though is in the emphasis on “release,” and “resource.” Searching for these emphases revealed only this expansion:
RENEW — We must have a spiritual renewal within our hearts and churches – a fresh passion to win the lost, and then to disciple them.
REALIGN — We must seek ways to more effectively serve this church by realigning our ministries.
RELEASE — We must take whatever steps are necessary to release this church and its people to fulfill the call of God upon their lives.
RESOURCEÃ¢€”We must make the best use of the resources entrusted to us.(From: 2003-2005 Biennial Report: General Superintendent’s Report)
I like the first theme a lot, but I haven’t seen much about it in the official documents yet (it may be there, I haven’t found it). The emphasis currently seems to be on the fourth theme: “resource.” Namely: the headquarters and leadership resource.
According to AG.org, the latest incarnation of the Vision for Transformation (VFT) committee highlighted three emerging themes:
The Assemblies of God should be a network of fully empowered Pentecostal churches that multiply themselves through church planting.
The Fellowship should give emphasis and priority to the call of God and effective ministry in the credentialling process.
The Fellowship’s organizational structure should be aligned around mission and ministry to serve our ministers and empower local churches. (See “Progress Report.”)
The first theme sounds like a rewording of the Decade of Harvest emphasis. The second theme relates to changes in credentialing processes to both tighten (background screening) and loosen (local church credentialing) the ministerial application process. The third theme relates to changes at the organizational level, primarily in and around the national headquarters beauracracy.
In all, the VFT emphasizes mechanical and structural transformation more than spiritual transformation. To be sure, at each biennial business meeting, there is a “Spiritual Life” report given that carries strong calls for spiritual renewal, but those calls seem absent in much of the VFT reports ag AG.org.
For example, the Progress Report cited above lists VFT progress in the following areas:
- Facilitating the Credentialing Process
- New District Governance Models
- Mandatory Screening of Ministerial Applicants
- National Placement Service
- Cooperative Church Status
- Assistance to Language Credential Holders
- Local Church Credential
- Credentialing Reciprocity in the United States
- Requirement of A/G History and Polity Course by All Credentialed Applicants
- Global University and Berean Courses
- Church Planting
- Resolution 17: Internal Structure of General Council
Culture (Culture at HQ — Rich)
- Structure (Constitution and Bylaws changes — Rich)
- Internal Economy (Budget by Deliverables)
- Training Systems (Methods and Tools)
- Metrics and Rewards (At HQ — Rich)
- VFT Committee Reappointed
(See “Progress Report.”)
In short, the work that’s been done is almost entirely organizational and structural, not spiritual. It remains to be seen what long-term spiritual and corporate effects this will have. But the reports on HQ organizational change are mixed. From friends who work there, “It’s more of the same.” But CIO magazine provided a report, which I blogged on, that seemed very optimistic. (See: “The Assemblies of God’s corporate roadmap for transformation.”)
I am an A/G boy through-and-through. I came to faith in a Baptist church, rededicated my life and was baptized in another Baptist church, but I was discipled and grew up in an Assemblies of God church. I went to an A/G bible college, studied at an A/G seminary, and still attend an A/G church where I occasionally enjoy the privilege of leading a Christian education course now and then. When asked, I leap at the chance to preach at an A/G church. I agree with A/G theology, I conform to A/G practices and I feel no need or desire to change my affinity. (That doesn’t mean that you who aren’t A/G are wrong. You might be, but it’s not because you’re not A/G! This is the way I do church. I recommend it for like-minded folks, but it is not the only way to be a solid, Christ-loving, God obeying, Bible believing, Christian.)
That doesn’t mean that my denomination — err … fellowship — doesn’t have its problems. We have problems. Every organization has problems. We’d be in Heaven otherwise.
The Decade of Harvest program was created to address some of those problems. I’m not sure it succeeded. It probably succeeded at something: perhaps more churches were planted than would have been otherwise, and that’s not bad. We need that emphasis today. Sometimes, healthy churches should spawn a daughter church rather than fund a new megachurch building program. Seriously. It should happen a lot more often.
The Vision for Transformation project was also created to address some of these problems, and it appears to be succeeding at transforming the organizational structures — but it will take considerable time before we know whether those transformations were beneficial or detrimental. And there’s no evidence yet that VFT has affected either A/G church growth or membership retention.
I’m proud of my adopted Pentecostal heritage. I’m proud of many, if not most, of my fellow Pentecostal believers. (I’m ashamed of some, too.) I was proud when Barna reported that Assemblies of God believers were more likely to be born again, to believe the Bible, to believe in Heaven and Hell, are more likely to pray, and more likely to share the gospel with unbelievers (see “Religious Beliefs Vary Widely By Denomination“). And we’re still among the fastest growing denominations in America.
And overseas? Whoa, don’t get me started there. (Well, I already have. See: “Diversity, the Global South, and the Assemblies of God,” and “Mormons, Church Growth, and the Global South“.) Well, actually, speaking of the Global South, I return to my theme, and the point of my conclusion.
We believe in evangelism, but we seem not to be doing it. We have the orthodoxy, but we lack the orthopraxy. And I think it’s because of our character, not our beliefs.
I think one of the biggest problems facing the American Evangelical church — not just the Assemblies of God — is our lack of emphasis on genuine spiritual transformation through and beyond the salvation experience. We seem to be content to get people to say the sinners’ prayer and let them warm the bench while the pastor does all the heavy lifting. Instead, we need a return to spiritual transformation and the expectation that character and behavior will noticeably improve after salvation, and continue improving. In the early-to-mid-1900s we had this expectation, and it devolved into legalism. Perhaps, in our reaction against legalism we have too quickly embraced a cheap and easy grace. There must be a balance.
As seen by the statistics above, we are not doing anybody a service by getting great evangelistic numbers if we are not following-through in discipleship and spiritual growth. If our retention rates are buoyed by “transfer growth” and babies instead of evangelistic growth we’re not growing: we’re homesteading.
(Thanks to Sean MacNair for prompting my romp through the stats. I apologize to all of you who waded through it — I didn’t expect it to take this long!)
[tags]BlogRodent, Pentecostal, Assemblies-of-God, Assembly-of-God, AOG, demographics, missions, religion, christianity, evangelical, Thomas-Trask, statistics, church-growth, evangelism, George-Barna, Global-South[/tags]