AG in forefront of diversity trend
By John W. Kennedy
Four years ago, the U.S. Census Bureau predicted that
Caucasians would become a minority by 2050. In August, the government agency
amended its projection, saying whites will no longer comprise half the
population by 2042.
The revised forecast reflects the rapidly changing
demographics in this country. But instead of being fueled by immigration, most
of the growth is because of a higher birth rate among minorities —
especially Hispanics — compared to whites.
The Assemblies of God is actually ahead of the general
population diversity curve. Ethnic minorities comprise 37 percent of adherents
in the Fellowship, compared to 34 percent of the U.S. population overall. A Pew
Forum on Religion & Public Life study last year showed that the AG has the second-lowest
percentage of white members among 21 evangelical and mainline groups.
“I believe the Assemblies of God is going to be one of the
most diverse Christian organizations in America in the next few years,” says
Zollie Smith Jr., executive director of U.S. Missions for the Fellowship.
In the early 1990s, the Assemblies of God began approving
the creation of distinct ethnic and language fellowship groups as a way to
motivate more integration into General and District councils. The National
Black Fellowship, Deaf Culture and Native American Fellowship formed first.
Smith, who led the Black Fellowship for a decade before
becoming the first minority to hold a General Council executive position last
year, says national AG leaders understood the Fellowship needed a method to
incorporate minority representation. Smith credits General Superintendent
George O. Wood with continuing to speed the effort since his 2007 election.
In addition to providing a vote and voice at the AG General
Presbytery, the ethnic/language groups give minority ministers and laity a
platform to share cultural needs and activities. These fellowships promote
integration by encouraging members to be active in their sections and
districts; empower members through meetings and conferences; and work with
geographic districts to help train ministerial candidates.
“Geographic and ethnic districts work in parallel fields,”
Wood says. “They complement one another. This is not competition.”
Efraim Espinoza, director of the Fellowship’s Office of
Hispanic Relations, says that since 1991 the number of black churches in the AG
has mushroomed 156 percent, Asia and Pacific Islander churches have increased
64 percent, and Hispanic churches have grown 48 percent. In all, an ethnic
minority is really the majority in 3,826 congregations in the Fellowship.
Another 500 AG churches are truly multiethnic churches in that no one race
makes up more than half the congregants.
This decade the escalation has quickened. Since 2001, the
number of AG black adherents has increased 52 percent, Asian and Pacific
Islanders are up 33 percent, Hispanics have risen 29 percent and Native
Americans have grown 28 percent, Espinoza says.
Nationals whose homeland features a well-established
Assemblies of God network — Fijians and Samoans, for example — have
formed several ethnic groups. Espinoza says such bodies are growing because
ethnic groups are allowed to develop ministry within their cultural context and
indigenous worship style rather than having a conformity model imposed upon
“The church is a secure place for immigrants to find an
affinity with like-minded people,” Espinoza says.
A prime reason the Assemblies of God keeps attracting new
devotees is recent immigrants are evangelizing and discipling those in their
neighborhoods and workplaces. Many immigrants, both ministers and laity, found
faith in national churches that grew as a result of Assemblies of God World
Missions efforts. Thus, the United States has become not only the world’s
largest sending country but also the largest receiving missionary nation.
“These ethnic fellowships have some of the best strategies
to reach lost souls, train ministers and start new churches,” says Scott
Temple, AG Intercultural Ministries director. “A lot of the effort is focused
in urban areas, many of which we’ve failed to impact before.”
Only eight ethnic/language fellowships existed when Temple
took over the post in 2003. Another 11 have been added.
The Assemblies of God is helping to facilitate the growth of
such churches by streamlining the credentialing process for those who have been
ordained ministers in foreign countries. In addition, the General Council is
giving missions credit to established geographic district churches that provide
a meeting place for nascent ethnic/language congregations.
“We want to create warm ties and loving relationships with
newly arrived persons from different ethnic groups,” Wood says.
Shifting demographics have caused a backlash in some areas
of the country. However, Temple urges churchgoers to maintain a biblical
perspective regarding people who share the same doctrinal beliefs but have a
different nationality or skin color.
“Rather than a worldview dictated by either political
correctness or conservative philosophy, we need to be extremely careful to have
the mind of Christ on this issue,” Temple says. “We have a mandate from God to
welcome the aliens in our midst.”
Temple notes that in dozens of Scripture references God
commands His followers to show hospitality to foreigners. God invariably
blesses those who are kind to immigrants, Temple says.
Conversely, if new arrivals aren’t integrated into churches
they can easily become isolated and disconnected.
“We must embrace immigrants and give them real security in
their faith as they adjust to the challenges of living in America,” Espinoza
says. “If we don’t acclimate them, the world is going to do it.”
“The church as an institution is apolitical,” Wood says.
“When it comes to immigrants, our concern is to win people to Jesus and to
disciple them. It’s the government’s responsibility to determine whether they
are legal or illegal; it’s the responsibility of the church to preach the good
news of salvation.”
The ethnic/language fellowships “embrace the Great
Commission and are not just pigeonholing themselves,” Temple says. “The Book of
Revelation makes it clear that celebrating unity in diversity is the ultimate
goal. The demographics of a local church ideally should reflect the community
in which that church is called to reach souls.”
Espinoza says in most ethnic language congregations adults
want to retain the language of their native country, but children are eager to
assimilate by speaking English. Leaders in progressive churches understand they
must implement English-language services to connect with the second generation,
“I appreciate that AG leadership has opened the door to
nurture ethnic minorities within the Fellowship,” Espinoza says. “It shows they
are obedient to the Great Commission of reaching all peoples.”
Currently, 19 percent of the AG’s 2.8 million adherents are
Hispanic, 9 percent are black, 4 percent are Asian and Pacific Islander, 3
percent are mixed race or categorized as other, and 2 percent are Native
Perhaps no one is more appreciative of the steady march to
racial equality than Smith, who grew up in the segregated South. Although
pockets of prejudice still exist, Smith believes such bigotry won’t be
tolerated a decade from now.
“The behavior and conduct of a person is learned,” Smith
says. “The mechanism that has kept racial bias alive is close to being
eradicated. Whenever we can, we must embrace the contributions that everyone
brings to the table because it will enhance the quality and advancement of
humankind in America for the good of all.”
Although complete unity always will be difficult to achieve,
Smith says he’s encouraged that the Fellowship is promoting integration as
never before. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that a majority of the nation’s
children will be nonwhite by 2023.
Wood says he is encouraged by the increasing number of
“This represents the spirit of the  Azusa Street
Revival, which was ahead of its time,” Wood says. “There they said the
Bloodline [of Christ] washes out the color line.”
“The future of the church is going to be a diverse culture,”
Espinoza says. “The sooner we accept that, the stronger we will grow.”
“It’s important for Caucasian children and youth to see
ethnic minorities in the Fellowship,” Temple says. “Their schools and
neighborhoods are increasingly ethnically diverse. If young people don’t see it
in church, they will conclude that we’re irrelevant.”
JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal
Evangel and blogs at Midlife Musings (jkennedy.agblogger.org).
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