Tuesday, 4 August 2009


LAKELAND Amid continued growth of the Pentecostal movement in the United States and overseas, as many as 30,000 members of the Assemblies of God will arrive in Orlando this week for the biennial meeting of its General Council.
The meeting may be historic. In a sign that the Assemblies, the oldest predominantly white Pentecostal fellowship in the country, is changing attitudes about women in leadership, delegates are expected to approve a change in policy that would see a woman elected to the church's General Presbytery, its second-highest policy-making body, for the first time. A Florida-based missionary is considered a strong candidate for that post.

Following preliminary conferences today, the four-day General Council, at the Orange County Convention Center, will open Tuesday night with a worship service. The council is the business meeting that gathers clergy members and lay delegates from the Assemblies' 12,362 churches and more than 2.8 million adherents to review the church's ministries, to elect top officials and to vote on policies.


The number of delegates expected to attend is unusually large, attributable in part to the attractions in Orlando, say Assemblies officials. But they note that it also reflects the growth of the fellowship, from a once-insular and oft-ridiculed Holiness movement to greater acceptance and visibility.

According to Assemblies' statistics, in 1975 it had about 1.2 million adherents - people of all ages who identify with Assemblies churches - meaning it has more than doubled in less than 35 years. By contrast, the United Methodist Church has declined from 9.8 million to 7.9 million members during that same time.

George O. Wood, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God, attributes the growth to the fellowship's conservative beliefs.

"The Assemblies of God stresses the fundamentals of the Christian faith. The goal of the church is to be as close as possible to the belief and behavior of the original church," he said, speaking by phone from the church's headquarters in Springfield, Mo.

Wood also attributed the Assemblies' growth to the expansion of ethnic minorities in its ranks, to as much as 40 percent of its adherents, a higher percentage than most other Protestant traditions.


From its inception in 1906, the modern Pentecostal movement generally has been less bound by conventions about the role of women than evangelical and liberal Protestant churches, although their numbers in the ministry are small. By one estimate, about 10 percent of Assemblies ministers are women. Until now, women have not been in the top echelons of the Assemblies' leadership. But on Wednesday, delegates will consider a resolution that would set aside a place in the General Presbytery, which functions as an advisory body to the General Council, for a woman and a pastor younger than 40.

If the resolution is approved as expected, four nominees, chosen by the General Presbytery from names submitted by the Assemblies' 61 districts, will be voted on by the delegates for the slot. Representatives from the Peninsular Florida District, which includes 350 churches east and south of Lake City, submitted the name of Beth Grant for consideration and are hoping she is among the four final nominees, said Terry Raburn, the district superintendent.

Grant and her husband, David, who are considered members of the Florida district, are directors of Assemblies mission work in India and run Operation Rescue, a ministry that recovers children and teenagers from prostitution, Raburn said.

"She is well-known as a force for women in the ministry, not just here but in Assemblies of God throughout the world," he said. "We're tremendously in favor of the resolution. The Peninsular Florida District is recognized as a leader in women in ministry. She has an excellent chance of being elected."

The Rev. Bertha Lynn, 82, pastor of Northside Assembly of God in Winter Haven, was honored last year by the district for serving 50 years in the ministry, 14 of them at Northside. She said there is no reason women cannot serve in the ministry and on General Presbytery.

"I'm in favor of it, if she's qualified. We've got some wonderful ladies in the movement," she said. "I think it's the highest calling any person could have. There's nothing like it. It's my life."

The policy change that would also ensure that a minister younger than 40 is elected to the General Presbytery is appropriate, because about 40 percent of the adherents in the Assemblies are 25 and younger, Wood said.

Raburn said he served on a committee a few years ago that recommended the creation of the under-40 spot on the General Presbytery.

"As the denomination has aged, our leadership has progressively moved up in age. It freezes out the rising generation. Without some action, it will probably get worse. The message the resolution sends to younger ministers is you don't have to sit still, keep your mouth shut and wait," he said.


Another resolution under consideration would reaffirm the Assemblies' belief in the doctrine that the "baptism in the Holy Spirit" should be evident by "speaking in tongues," the ecstatic and often unintelligible speech seen in Pentecostal prayer and worship services. The resolution reflects a growing sentiment that the practice, once commonplace in all Assemblies worship services, is no longer as prevalent.

Wood said there has been a "cultural shift" in the last 30 years that may have de-emphasized speaking in tongues.

"If there has been any diminution of the gift of tongues, it's due to a cultural shift in society," he said.

Raburn said he has not seen any evidence that there is less speaking in tongues in the churches he visits, but he conceded there is a difference in attitude than there used to be.

"Some feel we are drifting from that position. I don't feel we're drifting. It is our cardinal doctrine. But some of our more progressive congregations may have adapted the expression of the Spirit in a way that's more culturally acceptable," he said.