The Azusa Street revival and other big trends in a century of Protestantism

Whatever was happening inside that "tumble-down shack" of a church at 321 Azusa Street in Los Angeles, the local newspaper's editorial powers that be were neither amused nor impressed.

"Devotees of the weird doctrine practice the most fanatical rites, preach the wildest theories and work themselves into a state of mad excitement in their peculiar zeal," said a Los Angeles Times report. "Colored people and a sprinkling of whites compose the congregation, and night is made hideous in the neighborhood by the howling of the worshipers, who spend hours swaying forth and back in a nerve-racking attitude of prayer and supplication."

Worshipers were "speaking in tongues" and claimed spiritual gifts to translate this unknown language, including words of prophecy uttered by women and men alike. Journalists noted that the Rev. William Joseph Seymour -- son of former slaves -- preached that this revival was a sign of the end times and that a great earthquake would soon shake California.

The revival began on April 14, 1906, four days before the great San Francisco earthquake. A century later, the Pentecostal holiness movement that began in the Apostolic Faith Mission on Azusa Street continues to shake global Christianity.

"People came from all over the world to witness what was happening on Azusa Street and they took what they learned back with them," stressed Elmer Towns, 82, dean of the School of Religion at Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Va. "But it's important to remember that while thousands of people attended those meetings, the Apostolic Faith Mission never had more than about 300 members. This was never a big church, at least not the way we talk about big churches today."

What mattered was its impact on global Christianity, with the birth of 19 Pentecostal denominations and movements linked to Azusa Street, said Towns. Today, it's impossible study modern faith without discussing Pentecostalism, especially in underground Chinese flocks, booming African churches and among both Protestants and Catholics in Latin America.

That's the kind of phenomenon Towns began studying eight years ago in one of his Doctor of Ministry classes. The goal, he explained, was to list 50 major changes in Christianity during the past century and then select a congregation that symbolized each trend. Students cut the list to 20 and researched 10 in depth, with the goal of finding "tools and techniques" for 21st century church growth. This also led to his latest book "The 10 Most Influential Churches of the Last Century."

The project didn't include Catholic and Eastern Orthodox parishes because innovations and movements in those Christian communions -- the world's two largest -- rarely happen at the congregational level, as is the Protestant norm, said Towns, reached by telephone. He also avoided studying churches that had negative impacts.

Here are the rest of his 10 influential Protestant churches:

(2) Thousands of unnamed underground "house churches" in China, most of them Pentecostal.

(3) Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta, which under the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., symbolized movement toward racial reconciliation in church and society.

(4) Yoida Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea, which grew to 760,000 members using 35,000 "cell groups" in homes, coffee shops, gyms and elsewhere.

(5) First Baptist of Dallas, a pioneer in the growth of Sunday schools.

 (6) Scofield Memorial Church in Dallas, where the Rev. C.I. Scofield used his sermons, and a famous study Bible, for educational, rather than devotional purposes.

(7) Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, which developed "seeker-friendly" nondenominational services to appeal to the unchurched.

(8) Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, Calif., the "Jesus Movement" center that became a model for Baby Boomer ministry.

(9) Hillsong Church of Sydney, Australia, the global leader in contemporary "praise and worship" music and media for the young.

(10) Thomas Road Baptist, which under the Rev. Jerry Falwell used radio, television and mass-media marketing to expand its reach.

In addition to Azusa Street's role in modern Pentecostalism, noted Towns, it's also important to remember that the movement weakened many racial barriers. A century later, Pentecostalism remains one of Christianity's most powerful forces promoting diversity in worship and leadership.

There isn't much room for diversity "in what we call 'one-cell' churches, with about 85 members or less," he noted. "However, it's much easier for believers of different races to blend together in a large, growing church. ... That's a trend we will need to keep watching in the future."