Assemblies of God hustle to attract members, empower youth

The Assemblies of God, a denomination rooted in rural and small town America, appears to have leaped into the 21st century with dramatic results. (Courtesy)

The Assemblies of God, a denomination rooted in rural and small town America, appears to have leaped into the 21st century with dramatic
results. (Courtesy)

by Riley Manning
Daily Journal

In an era when many traditional denominations are struggling to abate the flood of millenials abandoning the church, let alone attract new members into the pews, the Assemblies of God Penecostal denomination seems to be ahead of the curve.

Statistics from their general council meeting earlier this month revealed a 1.8 percent increase in national membership, and 1.5 percent global increase. With 3 million American members and 66 million on the planet, the Assemblies of God rank as the largest Pentecostal denomination in existence.

Young’uns
Indeed, not only are the Assemblies drawing large numbers of new members, the vast majority are under age 30. In fact, of the 26,000 delegates and visitors at the general council meeting, 40 percent of them were under the age of 25.

Mike Price works for the Mississippi district of Assemblies of God, and oversees around 15 churches in Northeast Mississippi. He said because the Assemblies was such a young denomination itself, it has been easier to sidestep some adaptive issues typically faced by centuries-old denominations.

The Pentecostal movement in America ignited in the early 20th century with the Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles. Led by African-American preacher William Seymour in a run down stable, the movement became characterized as a melting pot of ethnicities, nationalities, genders, and social classes. Today, 40 percent of Assembly members in America are non-white, and in some regions, up to 60 percent of Assembly ministers are female.

“We’ll be 100 years old in 2014, so it’s not like we have 100-year-old members saying how things have been done for generations,” Price said. “But that also forces us to have an entrepreneurial spirit. As a young denomination, we had to have a sense of urgency to get established, and as a grassroots-driven denomination, we attract people with a desire to actively do something.”

Price also said the Assemblies are unique in their willingness to give young members big responsibilities, and, what’s more, allow them enough free reign to be who they are.

“How often do you see a major denomination tap a 28 year old to move across the country and plant a church,” he said. “Because we have such a broad acceptance of personal styles, you could go to four different Assemblies churches and have four different experiences.”

Real Life
One such pastor is the Rev. Daniel Edwards, of Real Life church in New Albany, who moved from a youth pastor position in North Carolina to start Real Life from nothing in 2012.

“I think to start anywhere else in the country would have been 90 percent easier,” Edwards said. “Our denomination and who we are is new terminology for this area. We’ve had to do a lot of work to reinvent people’s preconceived notions of us.”

The only way to do that, he said, is to become visible in the community, whether it means painting faces at the fair, picking up trash, or tutoring at the local Boys and Girls club.

Edwards said he has been given free reign in starting and running the church as he sees fit, down to picking his own team from across the country, like worship leader Dustin Zarick. Zarick relocated from Florida to work on the Real Life church.

“I think what people are looking for is genuineness. The want real people, they want transparency,” Zarick said. “Lots of times people think they have to fix themselves, then come to church, and that’s not how it works.”

For this reason, Edwards said, the name “Real Life church” is not a slight to other churches, but an emphasis on “doing life together.”

“Another common misconception is people think when they get saved, everything is good,” Edwards said. “But life is still going to happen. We’re after the person who is hurting.”

Edwards said almost 90 percent of all church plants fail, but the Assemblies of God have a 40 percent success rate nationwide.

“The way we plant churches is aggressive, experimental,” he said. “Because we have nothing to lose. The mission is just to grow at this point.”

Hunger
The Rev. Joshua Sullivan and his wife Christy Sullivan have been full-time evangelists for the Assemblies for the past 15 years. They regularly speak in high schools and middle schools on making right choices. From what they have seen, the youth of today may not be as apathetic as they are often billed.

“I see a lot of hunger in students,” Josh said. “They want parameters. They won’t tell us that, but they want reality.”

Joshua noted the Assembly of God theology is quite conservative, but their faithfulness to their doctrine allows them to be forward thinking in the way of contemporary worship and outreach through technology.

“Also, they have so much pulling and influencing them, they get security out of the word of God, which doesn’t budge,” he said.

Christy and Joshua attended the General Council, and said much talk was aimed at reaching kids at the toddler level.

“Say a kid spends an hour in Sunday school each week, and that’s how they learn their Bible stories,” Christy said. “Well we’ve developed apps that let kids interact with these stories throughout the week. The research we’ve done shows kids will spend up to six hours in a week on a Bible lesson with the apps.”

The Assemblies’ college ministry, Chi Alpha, is also being empowered to bridge high school-aged youth into adult participation in the church.

riley.manning@journalinc.com