In an interesting bit of recent news, the results of the 2012 National Congregations Survey has reported that nearly 25% of American churches had speaking in tongues as a part of their worship in the year previous to the survey. This was up 4% from just 5 years before.
While I’m used to hearing stories about the growth and ubiquity of Pentecostal/Charismatic forms of worship across the globe, I’ll have to admit that this number took me by surprise. That almost 1 out of every 4 churches includes some form of glossolalia is nothing short of astounding. It says a lot about the state of American Christianity and the growing influence Spirit-centered forms continue to have within it.
While it is almost certain that not all of the congregations that identified as such are Pentecostal groups, this in itself is notable. It means that the influence and effects of the trans-denominational Charismatic Movement of the 1960s and 1970s–which dissipated as an organized cohesive force in the 1980s–remains alive and well. As a Pentecostal believer who has studied this movement and retains an abiding interest in its potential for what I call the “ecumenism of experience,” these new statistics are heartening.
While 24.6% is hardly a majority of churches and does not necessarily even represent 24.6% of Christians in America (you’ll have to parse the data for yourself on that one), such a relatively large number does speak to the mainstreaming of a movement that was deeply peripheral only 100 years ago.
Glossolalia, of course, itself is not the ultimate goal for Pentecostals. A life alive in the Spirit is. Speaking in tongues is a part of this, though, and its growing acceptance as a legitimate experience for many American congregations means that more and more believers will be open to embracing this mode of Christian faith. Even just the other night, a former NFL star was praying in tongues on a reality TV show. Imagine that.
What all of this will eventually mean is anyone’s guess. As developments continue in this direction, it may very well be that more and more Christians are able to speak of common experiences of God–even if the culture, theology, politics, and worldviews of these believers may be very different. Perhaps a burgeoning era of revival awaits, initiated by those experiencing or open to embracing the unusual effects of the Spirit’s action in their lives. Or perhaps–less optimistically–the growing dominance of the Pentecostal style might lead to commodification and diminishing of fervor as a once marginalized sectarian understanding rushes headlong into the world of the lowest common denominator.
Whatever happens, one thing is clear: Pentecostal styles of Christianity have now “arrived” and must be taken seriously. The reappraisal that began during the Charismatic Movement of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations must now be expanded. Though less a visibly organized movement than 40 years ago, the grassroots influence of broadening Spirit-centered Christianity requires that all believers to come to terms with the reality of such expression. Because if these trends continue (admittedly a big “if,” but still) it might not be long before such Pentecostal practices become a de facto element of Christian worship across the United States.