How do economic troubles affect churches? According to common wisdom, economic downturns bring spiritual upturns. As the theory goes, when people discover they cannot be self-sufficient, they look for spiritual solutions to their problems.
But is this really the case? History reveals that the Assemblies of God grew significantly during the Great Depression of the 1930s, but its growth was a deviation from the norm. Most churches suffered great setbacks. What really happened during the Great Depression? What lessons can this history provide for the Assemblies of God of the 21st century?
The Great Depression of the 1930s devastated many segments of American Christianity. Historian Mark Noll noted that mainline Protestants not only faced economic uncertainties, but also theological uncertainties as liberal theology had begun to replace historic Christian beliefs. Many mainline congregations, schools, and ministries had to close or drastically cut back. Their institutions, funded by endowments that disappeared with the Wall Street crash, were running off the fumes of the past.
However, there was a noticeable exception to the decline of religious institutions in the 1930s: evangelical and Pentecostal churches made significant gains. According to Noll, these “sectarian” churches “knew better how to redeem the times.”
Assemblies of God evangelist Christine Kerr Peirce, writing at the height of the Great Depression, warned that churches are not guaranteed to grow during bad times.
In the Sept. 14, 1935, issue of the Pentecostal Evangel, Peirce wrote, “Instead of the depression driving people to God, there has developed an apathy and indifference which has not characterized previous periods of distress, when men have turned to God for help.”
Peirce’s lament for the church in 1935 could easily describe the condition of many segments of the American church in 2019: “Our modern methods are fast wearing out. That which a few years ago attracted the great crowds, attracts them no more. We have worn out every spectacular appeal we could make and while a few are reached here and there, yet the truth stares us plainly in the face that nowhere are we doing more than just scratching the surface, in comparison with the great number of unchurched and unsaved that should be reached.”
Why was the church in such a state of spiritual stupor? According to Peirce, “The backslidden, apathetic, lethargic condition of the pew today is due largely to the fact that this work [evangelism] has been left in the hands of the pulpit.” Instead, she contended, every Christian is called to be a witness.
How can the church remedy this problem? Peirce dismissed the idea that the church needs methods that are even “more spectacular.” Instead, she declared, “The need of the present moment is men and women of vision!” By this she meant that Christians first “must see God himself,” and then must have a “vision of others.” She elaborated, “A true vision of the lost world will prostrate us on our face with a burden of intercession.”
According to Peirce, then, the visionary church must be worshipful and missional. While Peirce’s critique was aimed at the American church in general, she recognized that Assemblies of God members could very easily lose their vision and replace their passion for God and for souls with a reliance on modern methods.
However, visionary Assemblies of God leaders viewed the economic crisis as an opportunity, leading the Fellowship to engage in ardent prayer and great personal sacrifice to advance a cause that was much bigger than any one person. What was the result?
In September 1929, the Assemblies of God reported 1,612 churches with 91,981 members in the U.S. By 1944, this tally increased to 5,055 churches with 227,349 members. During that 15-year period, the number of Assemblies of God churches tripled and membership almost tripled.
This growth didn’t happen by accident. Men and women laid a foundation for the expansion of the Assemblies of God during the Great Depression, often at a tremendous cost. Of today’s seven largest Assemblies of God colleges and universities, four were started during the Great Depression: North Central University (1930); Northwest University (1934); Southeastern University (1935); and Valley Forge Christian College (1939).
It was during these hard times that Assemblies of God scholarship blossomed. Myer Pearlman (1898-1943), P. C. Nelson (1868-1942), and E. S. Williams (1885-1981) wrote many of their influential theological books in the midst of the Great Depression. Pearlman and Nelson literally worked themselves to death, their health breaking under the strain of constant writing, teaching, and preaching.
The Assemblies of God’s foreign missions enterprise was centralized and strengthened during the Depression. This change encouraged coordination of efforts and accountability. The Assemblies of God published its first Missionary Manual in 1931 and in 1933 the Assemblies of God began providing funding for a missions staff at the national office. While the Great Depression made finances tight, in 1933 the Foreign Missions Department trumpeted that it did not have to recall any missionaries because of shortage of funds. When other denominations were retreating, the Assemblies of God was making significant advances in missions.
The history of the Assemblies of God during the Great Depression shows that church growth is possible during economic drought – if believers draw close to God and consecrate themselves to reach the lost.
Read Peirce’s admonition to be worshipful and missional in her article, “Men of Vision,” in the Sept. 14, 1935, issue of the Pentecostal Evangel.
Also featured in this issue:
• “Looking up in the Struggle,” by Ernest S. Williams
• “Training Children,” by Mrs. J. C. Miller
• “Secrets of a Spirit-Filled Sunday School”
And many more!
Pentecostal Evangel archived editions courtesy of the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center.
Source: AG News