Although Pentecostal and charismatic churches continue to proliferate, the controversial spiritual practice that once distinguished them from other Christian bodies--speaking in tongues--has not kept pace, and perhaps may be on the wane, according to recent polls.
“This issue, as much as any other, divides the body of believers,” said pollster George Barna of Glendale, who found that only 7% of U.S. adults have ever spoken in tongues--prayer utterances unintelligible to the speaker.
Pentecostal believers liken the phenomenon to the New Testament description of apostles speaking in other languages as they were filled by the Holy Spirit. But Christian critics of the practice contend that speaking in tongues is simply an emotional outburst, religious one-upmanship or an otherwise invalid modern imitation of early Christian practices.
The Barna finding of 7% is virtually identical to the 8% who told Gallup pollsters in 1979 that they had spoken in tongues and to the 8.8% who told interviewers they had the experience in a 1992 survey taken by the Survey Research Center at the University of Akron.
“All these results are in the same ballpark,” said political scientist John Green, who participated in the University of Akron poll of 4,000 adults.
The Akron survey also found that many Christians who call themselves Pentecostals have never spoken in tongues, despite the fact that traditional Pentecostal doctrine says that the phenomenon is the first evidence that a person has been “baptized by the Holy Spirit.”
About 45% of white Pentecostals and 67% of black Pentecostals said they have never had the experience, according to the Akron study.
The largest predominantly white Pentecostal denomination, the Assemblies of God, recently reported that from 1984 to 1989 its churches recorded about 32 first-time tongues-speaking experiences for every 100 religious conversions, but from 1990 to 1994 the ratio was down to about 23 who experienced speaking in tongues--or “baptism by the Holy Spirit"--for every 100 conversions.
“These figures do not include those people who have this experience in our Teen Challenge centers, on campuses or in church camps,” said Juleen Turnage, public relations director for the 2.3 million-member Assemblies of God, based in Springfield, Mo.
Nevertheless, Turnage said that she would not dispute reports of relatively low numbers of people who say they have ever spoken in tongues. “In more fundamentalist churches there is sort of a taboo against Pentecostals,” she said.
Most Pentecostal denominations have roots going back to the Azusa Street Revival from 1906 to 1909 in Los Angeles, which launched a modern rebirth of speaking in tongues and such supernatural “gifts of the Holy Spirit” as prophecy and healing.
When the movement entered mainline denominations in the 1960s and 1970s, Protestant, Catholic and non-denominational Christians who experienced tongues-speaking adopted the name charismatics, often to distinguish themselves from flamboyant Pentecostals who were often derisively labeled “Holy Rollers” by critics.
Two of the better-known charismatic denominations are the Calvary Chapels and the Vineyard Fellowships, which spread out of Orange County in the late 1960s and late 1970s respectively. Both claim about 500 churches worldwide.
According to Barna, who recently released results of his survey of 1,000 adults taken in January, nearly three of every four adults has heard of the term “speaking in tongues,” but opinions of the practice vary widely.
About one in four said the practice is a sign of spiritual maturity, but more than two-thirds agreed that tongues-speakers, though usually sincere, are engaged in emotional outbursts that have nothing to do with God.
“Forty percent say that if they were to speak in tongues, they would be frightened by the experience,” Barna said.
“That doesn’t surprise me,” said sociologist Margaret Poloma of the University of Akron. She said a graduate student recently told her that he spoke in tongues once while he was at a high school church camp, but he never repeated it because it scared him.
“A lot of people are afraid of letting go for fear of the unknown,” Poloma said.
Russell Spittler, an Assemblies of God minister who teaches New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, said he believes that there is a hesitancy to speak in tongues in most Pentecostal and charismatic churches because “one might be thought to be a religious nut.”
However, at Van Nuys’ Church on the Way--the largest Pentecostal congregation in the San Fernando Valley, with 8,000 members--Pastor Jack Hayford said that speaking in tongues is alive and well, although it occurs predominantly in private prayer and among small groups of believers.
“In our church,” Hayford said, “I would be surprised if there were less than 80% who practice speaking in tongues in private worship or prayer.”
Hayford contended that the discomfort with and fear of speaking in tongues can be attributed to “stereotypical presentations made by opponents and fanatical demonstrations made by some proponents.”
Affiliated with the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, a worldwide Pentecostal denomination based in Los Angeles, Hayford said that fears of tongues-speaking can be overcome with “scriptural, sensible and sensitive presentations” of the practice.
The neglect of the experience in some Pentecostal churches often occurs because pastors are afraid of negative reactions, he said.
“The day the church was born [on the Day of Pentecost] is the day when the apostles all spoke in tongues,” Hayford said. “I’ve concluded there must be some value in it. Otherwise, God would not have birthed the church with this act.”