Charisma and Institution: The Assemblies of God

by Margaret Poloma

Margaret Poloma is professor of sociology at the University of Akron in Ohio. She recently wrote The Assemblies of God at the Crossroads: Charisma and Institutional Dilemmas.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 17, 1990 pp. 932-934 copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


One of the fastest-growing denominations in the U.S. in the past two decades has been the Assemblies of God. Sociologist Margaret Poloma believes the key to this growth has been that AG churches offer intense religious experiences. But the more prosperous and institutionalized the AG becomes, she suggests, the more it is in danger of diluting the charismatic spirit that has been its lifeblood.

The Assemblies of God is almost as large as the Episcopal Church. In 1989 it reported a constituency in the U.S. of over 2 million served by over 11,000 churches and 30,000 ministers (it lists 16 million adherents worldwide) In 1969 the AG membership in the U.S. was only 592,000.

Despite this remarkable growth in recent years, scholars, the media and mainstream church leaders have largely ignored the nation’s 12th-largest Protestant denomination. When the Assemblies of God did break into the news in 1987, it was as the setting for a soap opera featuring PTL’s Jim Bakker, who lost his AG ministerial credentials when news of his tryst with Jessica Hahn became public. The denomination was still dealing with the PTL scandal when another of its televangelists made front-page news:

Jimmy Swaggart, who had helped to bring down Bakker and force his dismissal by the AG, was accused of frequenting New Orleans’s sleazy motel district to satisfy his penchant for pornography. (Marvin Gorman, a former AG minister whose extramarital affair had been reported to the denomination earlier, had hired a private investigator to expose Swaggart’s activities.) Swaggart broadcast a tearful confession, but refused to accept the terms of the AG’s restoration program and so the denomination dismissed him from its roster of ministers. The public thus became aware of the AG not because of its rapid growth, but because of the misdeeds of its televangelists.

This neglect of the AG is unfortunate, for mainline churches can learn much from considering both the Assemblies’ growth over the past few decades and the crossroads that the denomination faces.

"Holy Rollers," a popular but pejorative term for Pentecostals, has fallen into disuse. That the term has become somewhat anachronistic is a sign of both the success and failure of Pentecostalism, that segment of Christianity of which the Assemblies of God is the most successful organization, at least among predominantly white groups. "Holy roller" refers to "rolling" in the church aisles, a practice that Pentecostals insist was rare, even in the earliest days. What they have practiced, however, is a very expressive form of worship that includes shouting and crying, dancing and shaking, speaking in tongues. and prophesying, allegedly under the influence of the Holy Spirit. As increasingly more members have moved out of the lower-income bracket and have been joined by middle-class charismatic defectors from mainline churches, their worship has become more contained. Attractively designed church buildings now dot suburban landscapes, replacing the storefronts and worn-out buildings that housed earlier AG congregations. These architecturally appealing houses of worship as well as the more formal and subdued worship taking place within their walls, however, may indicate that with its prosperity the AG has lost some of its distinctiveness as a Pentecostal denomination.

Pentecostalism began as part of a larger restoration movement that sought to return Christianity to what followers believed was its pristine form. They regarded separation from the world as essential to preparing themselves to be a faithful remnant, the bride for whom Christ was soon to return. Unlike other restorationists and more mainstream Christians, Pentecostals taught the "baptism in (or with) the Holy Spirit" -- a religious experience beyond conversion made evident in the convert’s ability to speak in tongues. Spirit baptism prepared one for other "signs and wonders," particularly the gifts of the Spirit listed in I Corinthians 12:7-11 which Pentecostals believe are readily available to believers during these "end days." Seemingly paranormal experiences, including miracles, healing, prophecy, discernment of spirits, words of knowledge and glossolalia, are accepted as bona fide Christian experiences.

But as sociologist Peter Berger noted some years ago, religious experiences, whatever else they are, are institutionally dangerous. The Assemblies of God learned this lesson early in its history when in 1916 it lost nearly a quarter of its following due to "heresy"’ that came from a private revelation denying the trinity of God. These and subsequent "heresies" made leaders somewhat wary of unbridled religious experiences and often led them to discourage the use of some of the gifts of the Spirit. Due to problems with allegedly excessive emotionalism as well as difficulties in transmitting charisma to a second generation, the Assemblies of God faced some of the same problems that caused the early church of the first centuries to abandon "signs and wonders." Over the years many voiced caution about performing "in the flesh," suggesting that the manifestation of many of the so-called gifts was unauthentic. In passing down the experiential faith of the early followers of the Movement (as the AG likes to refer to itself) to a new generation, members began limiting once-popular Pentecostal expressions. This taming of charisma coincided with a plateau of denominational growth by 1970. Especially in larger urban churches that were the prototypes for the growing sect, the Pentecostal form was still there, but much of the Pentecostal spirit was eclipsed as followers sought to be more like their non-Pentecostal neighbors.

A new wave of Pentecostalism broke out in the 1950s as increasing numbers of Christians from mainline churches began to experience Spirit baptism. After remaining in their respective denominations for awhile. many of these neo-Pentecostals began feeling like strangers in a strange land. They received a warm welcome from Assemblies of God congregations, some of whose pastors had become active in the larger charismatic movement.

In my survey of 1,275 AG adherents from 16 different congregations, only 30 percent were raised in the Assemblies; an additional 10 percent were converts from other Pentecostal sects. Nearly 60 percent were from mainline or evangelical non-Pentecostal churches. These converts have brought not only an enthusiasm to many staid and established AG churches but also their middle- and upper-middle-class status, which has legitimated greater openness to the range of the "gifts of the spirit." Due largely to this influx from mainline churches, confirmed membership in AG congregations jumped from 646,000 in 1970 to over 1 million in 1980.

Perhaps the greatest factor in AG growth has been the fact that the charismatic movement has never been fully accepted in mainline denominations and has been rejected by most fundamentalists. The movement reached its height during the 1970s as charismatic renewal groups formed in every major Protestant denomination, in Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches and among Jewish converts. That movement seemed to lose momentum during the 1980s, reducing the pool of readily available recruits. After years of steady growth, the Assemblies of God reached a plateau, with membership figures for 1988 and 1989 actually declining slightly.

This plateau can be attributed to several interrelated factors. Besides the waning of the charismatic movement in general, the AG felt the impact of new charismatic ministries and the effect of the televangelism scandals. Independent charismatic groups such as the newer Maranatha Fellowships, Word-Faith Churches and Vineyard Ministries promise fewer institutional restrictions. Unfettered by older Pentecostal history and traditions, these new sects attract experience-hungry charismatics who long for fresh spiritual encounters and who often mistrust institutional church ties. As for the Swaggart and Bakker scandals, although the denomination was commended for its handling of these situations, the publicity accentuated how far the AG had moved from its earliest restorationist vision. Unbridled wealth, sex scandals and competitive bids for power make great television drama but don’t attract moralistic Christians.

A greater problem confronting the AG -- one that may underlie the aforementioned issues -- is sociological: the tension between the charisma that initiated and renewed the Assemblies of God, and the rise of a bureaucratic organization that necessarily undergirds the successful denomination. Charisma -- elusive, fragile, affective rather than rational -- is particularly difficult to maintain in a modern and secular society. Charismatic experiences and institutional controls often conflict.

In Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences, social psychologist Abraham Maslow noted how the great religions of the world developed around the religious experiences of the prophet and his or her early followers. These experiences inform doctrine and ritual and are seemingly enshrined within the institutional church that developed around the prophet -- a church that all too often then becomes inimical to the same religious experiences that birthed it. In Maslow’s words:

Most people lose or forget the subjectively religious experience, and redefine Religion as a set of habits, behaviors, dogmas, forms, which at the extreme becomes entirely legalistic and bureaucratic, conventional, empty, and in the truest meaning of the word, antireligious. The mystic experience, the illumination, the great awakening, along with the charismatic seer who started the whole thing are forgotten, lost or transformed into their opposites. Organized Religion, the churches finally may become the major enemy of the religious experience and the religious experiencer.

Just as other once-charismatic religious movements have followed the path of overinstitutionalization and over-regulation, which in turn has discouraged much of the original charisma, the Assemblies of God could suffer the chilling effects of routinization.

My research suggests that it has been the AG’s emphasis on intense religious experiences that has been a major factor in the denomination’s growth. Worship services were designed to permit intense experiences and expressions of faith, even those that seem wild and unruly to outsiders. In Assemblies of God churches there still are those who pursue strong religious experiences and desire the expression of the full range of the charismata. Some 74 percent of respondents to my survey claimed that the manifestation of all the "gifts of the Spirit" was "very important," and another 19 percent said it was "somewhat important." Most AG members have personally experienced these gifts: 65 percent claim to pray in tongues; 61 percent have personally experienced divine healing as a result of prayer; 55 percent regularly receive definite answers to specific prayer requests; 32 percent say they are regularly "led by God" to perform specific acts; and nearly 30 percent believe they have been used by God to prophesy.

It is at worship services where many learn to commune with God. Giving testimonies of salvation, miracles, Spirit baptism and healing are part of the ritual of nearly all AG churches. Neighbors’ and friends’ testimonies encourage others to be open to similar experiences. Nearly all AG churches have designated times each week to pray for divine healing and times for the old-fashioned altar calls for salvation. The giving of prophecies (whether it be through "tongues and interpretation" or the speaking of a prophetic announcement that is not preceded by glossolalia) and praying in tongues are regular events in most congregations. "Singing in the Spirit" (glossolalic singing) and "going under the power" (falling to the floor in a trance-like state) occur at least occasionally in the majority of the churches I surveyed.

There is much diversity in worship styles among AG congregations. Some are more formal and sedate, expressing gifts of the Spirit only on occasion. Others exhibit an old Pentecostal style, including the wailing and crying that often accompany manifestations of the gifts in these settings (and that more sedate groups find embarrassing) Still others have assumed the style of middle-class charismatic churches that openly demonstrate some of the gifts without some of the older-style expressions.

Pastors seem to be the greatest influences on style, and they determine the extent to which charismatic manifestations are part of the regular services. The more charismatic the pastor, the more likely his or her church will practice a wide range of the gifts. In my national sample of 246 AG pastors, 66 percent prayed in tongues daily (only 3 percent did so less than weekly) ; 93 percent said they had been used by God to prophesy to their congregations; 79 percent frequently received answers to specific prayer requests; and 54 reported regularly experiencing God’s direction to perform specific acts.

These religious experiences are not narcissistic expressions serving little communal purpose; they provide both the motivation and the basis for outreach that helps the churches grow. The stories of those who claim to have a highly intimate relationship with God -- a God who walks and talks with them -- undergird evangelism. Those who have had more religious experiences are more likely to invite nonmembers or inactive members to church, offer transportation to church services, invite neighbor children to church and directly witness to their faith. They are not otherworldly mystics; those who pray in tongues frequently, prophesy, have experienced spiritual healing and "going under the power," and believe that God answers specific prayer and leads them to specific actions are the ones who are most engaged in evangelism.

My ten years of observing the Assemblies of God lead me to believe that the charisma is most alive and well at the local church level. Congregational polity has allowed charismatic pastors the freedom to foster expressively charismatic churches in sometimes innovative ways. It is still possible, for example, that a young woman can hear the call of God to begin a new church. It is still possible -- but increasingly improbable. The institutional mechanisms that demand credentials over calling and encourage large bureaucratic congregations rather than small charismatic ones are easing the prophetic daughters out of the ordained ministry. Paradoxically, the institution that developed out of charisma and has been strengthened by fresh outbursts also seeks to tame and domesticate this spirit. it remains to be seen whether -- and how much -- charisma will rule over bureaucratic forms and regulations, or whether organizational concerns will stifle the Spirit.