American Pentecostalism: Growing and Changing

Michael Hammond 

Modern evangelicalism owes much to the Pentecostal and charismatic movements in North America and the world. The best known leaders of Neo-evangelicalism in the 1940s and 1950s--including Carl Henry, Harold Ockenga, and Billy Graham--were not Pentecostals. In fact, some early insiders objected to cooperation with spirit-filled churches. Without the support and rapid growth of Pentecostalism, however, evangelicalism would not have reached its position of influence in the twentieth century. Today, many churches that could be considered “evangelical” emulate worship practices that were only common to Pentecostal or charismatic churches a generation ago.  Even as Pentecostalism becomes more mainstream in American Christianity, a rich debate exists within the ranks of Pentecostals over whether they rightly identify with evangelicalism, or are indeed a separate and distinct movement.  

Given the relative brevity of the movement, its growth and global reach is remarkable. In addition to fine monographs and studies of Pentecostal leaders, a rich resource for scholars of religion is the internal data provided annually by the Assemblies of God (AG): These studies break down the growth of the AG by various regions and states. Further data on race and age of church adherents open new opportunities for research questions. Statistics are provided for adherents, attendance at church services and other worship practices. Scholars may also note that the steady increase in attendance and adherents is in contrast to a slight decline of spirit baptisms over the past ten years. Throughout the Pentecostal movement’s history, the gift of tongues, or glossolalia, has been one of the major distinguishing characteristics of Pentecostals compared to holiness or other pietistic groups. Spirit baptism continues to be reported in significant numbers, but there is a growth gap in the practice as compared to membership and attendance. What does the decrease in this practice mean for the AG when compared with the continued increase in numbers? And what can these trends reveal about the intersection of Pentecostals and evangelicalism?

As another example, the summary report for 2012 indicates a drop in Sunday evening service attendance by 48% over a ten year period. A number of factors may explain this, including the adoption of home-based small groups instead of evening services. But for old time Pentecostals, evening and mid-week services were a standard expectation of participating in the church. If more people are joining the AG, but fewer are experiencing spirit baptism and attending multiple services per week, there is evidence that the largest Pentecostal denomination in the country is changing. As Pentecostals slowly move away from the practices that distinguished the movement, many evangelical churches are adopting approaches to music, broadcasting, and worship styles from Pentecostalism. These changes beg for further explanation and scholarly interpretation.

The Assemblies of God recently marked 100 years since its founding in Hot Springs, Arkansas in April 1914. On August 5-10, 2014, the AG will commemorate the centennial with a celebration in its home base city of Springfield, Missouri. As it enters its second century, the movement shows no signs of losing momentum when measured by the number of people filling its churches. While this is a sign of continued growth, the practices that mark Pentecostalism are changing. Pentecostalism and American evangelicalism continue to become more similar in practice. As observers continue to debate the death and decline of evangelicalism, the continued rise--and shifting meaning--of Pentecostalism is already shaping global Christianity for the next century.