George O. Wood, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God USA and chairman of the World Assemblies of God, was in Salt Lake City this past week at the invitation of leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Pentecostal denomination, founded in 1914, is one of the fastest-growing Christian churches in the world with 66 million members. After two days of meeting with church leaders, touring church facilities and speaking at Brigham Young University, Wood met with the Deseret News to share his views on growth, reaching out to young adults and religious freedom.
You come from a heritage of missionary work. How has that shaped and influenced your life and ministry?
My parents were pioneer missionaries in China (where he was born in 1943) and Tibet. It has given me a great love for missions and for reaching people who don’t know the Lord. We have 2,700 full-time missionaries serving outside the United States to strengthen our national churches and to break new ground where there is no national church.
In addition to the missionary effort, the Assemblies of God has an aggressive church planting program. Where is this program finding the most success?
Since we moved the church planting operation to report directly to me and give focus to it, we have had some record years. In the past five years, we have planted 1,597 churches in the United States and we are on the pace of planting a new church every day. We want to see it ramped up to 500 churches a year by 2020.
We are heading back to the urban areas. Almost all churches abandoned urban areas because of while flight in the 1960s. In St. Louis we had about 20 churches and got down to one. So, we are giving focus to getting back into urban areas.
Our Hispanic churches are booming with about 200 churches. (Our membership) is 41 percent ethnic minority in the United States.
The Assemblies of God is one of the fastest growing Christian denominations in the world. To what do you attribute that growth?
Currently, we are just over 12,700 churches in the United States and more than 3.1 million adherents. Globally, we have more than 360,000 churches in 212 countries and territories with 66 million adherents. We are growing at a rate of about one new convert every 25 seconds and a new church every 39 minutes.
While across the world our doctrine is the same, we have developed a very flexible structure in terms of how the church organizes itself. In all of our countries the Assemblies of God is governed by itself and not from Assemblies of God USA. Every national church has its own leadership.
We are also very flexible in style of worship. In Africa the worship is very expressive, far more so than in the U.S. That adaptivity has helped the growth.
Assemblies of God congregations have a higher percentage of young adults than most faith communities. How does the Assemblies of God reach out to youth?
In the U.S. one-third of our people are under the age of 25. Worldwide it is the same. One of the reasons is, while we have stayed true to our understanding of apostolic doctrine, we have been extremely flexible in terms of our structures and worship style and creative in our ways to reach people.
We place a great deal of focus on discipleship and personal experience through ... the baptism of the Holy Spirit, where we encourage personal prayer and the laying on of hands from which we expect young people to receive the gift of the spirit evidenced through praying in a language they did not learn, or speaking in tongues. We believe that experience is a very anchoring experience in their life, and then we provide all kinds of opportunities for youth to grow in discipleship with activities that appeal to them.
There were recent reports that the Assemblies of God has backed away from its emphasis on speaking in tongues. Is that true?
They got the facts wrong. We used to have Sunday night services where people spent time kneeling at the altar praying, seeking the the baptism of the Holy Spirit. But over the years the culture has shifted and many churches have dropped the Sunday night services. So when local churches reported the number of spirit baptisms, the number dropped by about 3 percent last year.
But the statistics don’t account for the several hundred thousand people in church camps over the summer where there are literally thousands who receive the baptism of Holy Spirit, but that is never reported back to the local church. We are going to have to look at how we publicize our figures because the figure we publicized last year created a deceptive impression with the general public.
In addition to speaking to BYU students about faith and family, you also spoke to the law school faculty about religious freedom. What are the Assemblies of God's concerns about religious liberty?
We have a global concern. We have national churches in countries with religious restrictions. I have a friend who has been in prison in Iran for a year now. Our central assembly in Tehran has been put under serious restrictions.
Our position is one ought to be able to express themselves and their faith in the public square without restriction. If your faith needs the power of government to enforce the religion, then the chances are your religion can’t compete in the marketplace of ideas. We believe that people should be free to share their faith. We would like to be free not only in America but globally was well.
In the United States, we are increasingly concerned that the First Amendment is being interpreted as freedom of worship rather than the free exercise of religion. Freedom of worship means you get pushed inside your church walls and you can’t express your faith in the public square; you can’t speak out on public issues like abortion, gay rights, end of life matters. We think it is the right under the First Amendment for individuals and businesses to able to express their faith freely in the market place and not be under intrusive restrictions from either the state or federal government.