Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Thousands of COGIC Pentecostals Celebrate Gifts of the Spirit in St. Louis

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Thousands of COGIC Pentecostals Celebrate Gifts of the Spirit in St. Louis

Article excerpt

ST. LOUIS * Drums, keyboard and a Pentecostal preacher's belief that God was present in the cavernous convention center nudged thousands of well-dressed "saints" to their feet, many with hands raised.

Rather than "tiptoe through the tulips" with caution, the Church of God in Christ preacher, Bishop Paul Morton, told them to have "reckless faith."

"You don't test the resources of God until you try the impossible," said Morton, who, sweat rolling down his head, capped off a three-hour worship service.

The Church of God in Christ, or COGIC, is the largest African- American Pentecostal denomination. For one week each year, members converge in downtown St. Louis for Holy Convocation, a gathering sought by cities because it brings in millions of dollars.

In the denomination's sixth convocation here since leaving home- base Memphis, Tenn., in 2009, members' charismatic faith is on display. They come from tiny independent churches and megachurches to unite before one pulpit.

They come to be rejuvenated, get on message and celebrate what they believe is the power of the Holy Spirit in action.

Pentecostalism is one of the fastest-growing religious movements in the world, particularly in Africa and Latin America. It's an experiential faith that followers say transforms lives and empowers people regardless of social status to make a difference.

The Church of God in Christ, which reports about 12,000 congregations, is just one of hundreds of Pentecostal denominations.

Often noted for wearing lavish suits, dresses and hats, known as COGIC crowns, the denomination is in U.S. urban centers, small towns throughout the South and increasingly overseas.

The last census of membership by the denomination, done about 15 years ago, counted 6.5 million "saints," or adherents. Leaders say there are more now. They say the church is growing and putting more emphasis on social justice issues.

"Historically, our church has done a wonderful job of preparing people for eternity, from a spiritual standpoint, but when our presiding bishop came into office he made the decision that we needed to focus even more on preparing people for living in this present world," said Bishop Edwin Bass, in charge of the denomination's urban initiatives program.

The initiative helps churches develop programs in five areas: access to quality education, economic development, crime prevention, strengthening families and financial literacy.

"It's a change from our normal business," said Bass, a former marketing senior vice president for Blue Cross Blue Shield whose home congregation, the Empowered Church, is in Spanish Lake. "The good news is a lot of our churches are on board."

SHARED HISTORY

The Church of God in Christ shares roots with another Pentecostal force farther west on Interstate 44. Springfield, Mo.-based giant Assemblies of God reports 67 million followers, the largest of any Pentecostal denomination. They say a new Assembly of God church is planted somewhere in the world essentially every 50 minutes.

Both denominations believe in a personal conversion experience based on faith in Christ's death and resurrection and the forgiveness that comes through that. They believe that miracles in the New Testament are happening right now and that speaking in tongues is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.

They believe faith in Christ can heal anything from terminal cancer to loving the unlovable.

Historically, after a period of coexistence, race separated the two denominations. In the early 1900s, some white ministers left COGIC to help form the Assemblies of God.

In recent years, the white and black leaders of each denomination have been showing unity. In 2014, Assemblies of God General Superintendent George O. Wood spoke at the 150th anniversary celebration for COGIC founder Charles Mason. In August, COGIC Presiding Bishop Charles Blake spoke at the Assemblies of God national convention in Orlando, Fla. …

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