When a friend invited the Rev. George O. Wood to his church's 150th anniversary, Mr. Wood became concerned that the future of his friend's church might be much shorter than its history.
"It was a beautiful sanctuary, but I looked around and there were only about 200 people there, and probably less than five that were under age 25. And when I sat through the worship, they were still doing worship that everybody was doing 60 years ago. Well, the culture has shifted," he said.
Mr. Wood does not want to see churches in the denomination he leads, the Assemblies of God, get that far out of step with society.
"Sometimes some of us older folks have had to sit around and clench our teeth a little bit, you know, but what the culture did was, it shifted and our churches have flexed with it and said, 'If you want young people, you just can't use the old stuff. You've got to flex with that," he said.
Mr. Wood, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God USA, which has almost 3 million members, as well the leader of the World Assemblies of God, with 62 million members, was in Toledo last weekend to speak at a workshop and to preach at Calvary Assembly of God.
In between the two Sunday morning services, he sat down for an interview to discuss a range of issues affecting the Assemblies of God today.
The Pentecostal Protestant denomination, founded in 1914, has experienced 20 straight years of growth, and last year passed the Presbyterian Church (USA) in membership, moving up to No. 9 in the 2010 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. Thirty-four percent of the A.G.'s members are under age 25, Mr. Wood said.
Yet many Americans are unaware the A.G. exists, in part because the denomination "gives churches latitude to name themselves," Mr. Wood said, and about half do not include "Assembly of God" in their names.
Another factor is that the denomination has not been around as long as most mainline Protestant bodies. "We've only been in existence since 1914 and we didn't even hit a million people until the 1950s," he said.
Mr. Wood, soft-spoken and articulate, wearing a dark suit, white shirt, and striped tie, cited a multitude of reasons for the A.G.'s growth. "I think that we have kept the high view of Scripture and a high view of Jesus Christ as the only way to salvation. We have placed great emphasis upon the Holy Spirit and his empowerment in our lives to be witnesses," he said. "We also have a church structure that permits local autonomy, and ministers feel free to take initiatives so that multiple styles of ministry can emerge. We don't have a cookie-cutter approach to ministry where everybody's got to do it the same way."
Members are "united on doctrine, we're united on mission, but in terms of methods and approach there is great diversity."
The son of missionaries to China and Tibet, Mr. Wood served as a church pastor and was general secretary of the denomination for 14 years before being elected to the top leadership position in 2007. The author of seven books, Mr. Wood has a doctorate in pastoral theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and at 46 went back to school, getting his law degree and passing the California bar "just for the fun of it," he said. "It's like Mount Everest. It's something I've always wanted to do."
The biggest challenges for the Assemblies of God today, he said, include reaching its goal of adding 4,000 U.S. churches over the next 10 years (to 16,400); revitalizing churches that are stagnant or in decline, and "doing the dead-level best to reach and retain this young generation that's coming on board."
To help reach young people, Mr. Wood actively posts on Facebook and Twitter.
"I jumped on Facebook in 2007 when it was only three years old. I didn't know they had a limit of 5,000 friends. So I thought, well, this will be a great way to communicate with young people. That's why I got on it. And I got 5,000 friends within about three months. Now I have to turn down thousands of people because they wouldn't lift the limits. We appealed to them twice to lift the limit for me. They said, 'No, this is a social network. You can't network past 5,000 people.'•"
He said he doesn't have any hobbies because "what I do is so enjoyable and so demanding, it's pretty much seven days a week."
More information on the Rev. George O. Wood is available online at georgeowood.com and ag.org.
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