the shape of leadership

Growing Through the Great Depression

Enduring lessons for difficult times

Darrin J Rodgers on June 12, 2024

After Wall Street crashed in 1929, religious institutions experienced the fallout. Many churches, Christian schools, and ministries closed or scaled back during the Great Depression.

Historian Mark Noll notes mainline Protestants faced not only economic struggles, but also spiritual uncertainties as liberal theology threatened historic Christian beliefs.

However, there were exceptions to church decline during the 1930s. Notably, Pentecostals made significant gains.

According to U.S. Census Bureau religious survey data from 1926 and 1936, the number of Assemblies of God churches nearly quadrupled, and AG membership tripled, during that 10-year period.

From 1936–44, the number of AG churches increased by 94% and membership by 54%.

A deep dive into these statistics reveals eight enduring lessons that can guide today’s church leaders through whatever challenges lie ahead.



1. Both urban and rural ministries are important. The 1926 and 1936 censuses broke down data by urban and rural churches. The U.S. government defined “urban” as a city or other incorporated area with a population of at least 2,500 people. Areas not meeting these criteria were categorized as “rural.”

Urban and rural AG churches flourished from 1926–36. Urban church membership grew by 280%, while rural membership saw 360% growth.

Migration of people from rural areas benefited urban churches. Despite this population movement, rural church membership grew significantly.

When other social institutions are struggling, local churches offer communities stability and spiritual solutions amid social upheaval.

Don’t underestimate the Kingdom potential of rural areas. These small fields may yield an abundant harvest of souls.

2. Difficulties can bring missional opportunities. American Pentecostals left rural areas in the Midwest and South, migrated to the West and North, and started congregations in almost every major U.S. city.

In the providence of God, the painful social dislocation of the 1930s helped bring about the rapid spread of Pentecostalism. Like pollen scattered by a strong wind, Pentecostal refugees from rural areas planted churches wherever they happened to land.

3. Size and location don’t determine church health. Urban churches tended to be larger than rural churches. In 1926, urban churches averaged 100 members, while rural churches had 45 members on average.

These congregations might seem small in comparison to today’s megachurches. However, a church does not require large numbers to be healthy and growing.

4. Church expansion requires a Kingdom mindset. The growth of God’s kingdom doesn’t necessarily mean individual congregations are getting larger.

The number of AG churches and adherents grew at an astounding rate from 1926–36, even as individual congregations shrank. The average size of urban churches decreased from 100 to 86 members during that 10-year period, and rural churches declined from 45 to 36 members.

Aggressive church planting and evangelism can expand the Kingdom, but this doesn’t always translate into bigger numbers for the local body. As people leave their churches to start new ones, it can be painful for the sending congregations.

Nevertheless, ministers need to remain Kingdom-minded — prioritizing the Church’s mission over attendance figures.

In the providence of God, the painful social dislocation of the
1930s helped bring
about the rapid spread of Pentecostalism.

5. Education fuels evangelism. Assemblies of God Bible colleges helped lay a foundation for growth during the Great Depression.

Of today’s seven largest AG colleges and universities, four started during the Depression years: North Central University in Minneapolis; Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington; Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida; and the University of Valley Forge in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.

Students from these schools fanned out into rural communities and large cities. Some held high-profile evangelistic campaigns, but most started small. Countless outstations and Vacation Bible Schools took root and developed into churches.

6. The Church needs called women. A significant portion of the Fellowship’s growth during the 1930s can be attributed to female ministers.

For example, women pioneered 29% of all AG churches and outstations in North Dakota through 1940.

Established congregations generally sought male pastors. Less desirable ministry opportunities were often left to women. Despite these unfortunate limitations, women proved their mettle by venturing into tough ministry fields and achieving solid results.

Many early female ministers were young and traveled in pairs. One woman typically preached, and the other led singing.

In areas where Pentecostalism was new, the prospect of seeing female clerics often attracted crowds of curious onlookers.

Women have a valuable role to play in ministry. We must remain committed to overcoming biases and social barriers so every called woman can realize her full potential.

7. Even in difficult times, biblical study advances. AG scholarship blossomed during the Great Depression. Myer Pearlman, P.C. Nelson, and E.S. Williams wrote many of their influential theological books around this time.

People we remember as pioneers navigated significant challenges to meet ministry needs. Pearlman and Nelson literally worked themselves to death, their health breaking under the strain of constant writing, teaching and preaching. Yet their legacies and contributions to AG theology remain.

8. Spiritual depth is key to church health and growth. In good times and bad, growth requires consecration.

In 1935, AG evangelist Christine Kerr Peirce made this observation about American Christianity:

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.

This could easily describe the condition of many segments of the American Church in 2024.

How can we remedy this problem? Peirce dismissed the notion the Church needs “more spectacular” methods. Instead, she declared, “The need of the present moment is men and women of vision!”

Explaining that Christians must first “see God himself,” Peirce said we also need a “vision of others.” She wrote, “A true vision of the lost world will prostrate us on our face with a burden of intercession.”

Peirce articulated an early Pentecostal worldview that cultivated deep commitment to Christ and His mission. This worldview, more than anything else, was responsible for AG growth during the 1930s.


Committed to the Mission

Considering the social and financial turmoil of the Great Depression, it would have been understandable if AG leaders had chosen not to invest in church planting, missions, and education during those years.

However, difficult times reminded believers that Christ’s second coming could be imminent, and the harvest fields were ripe.

Viewing the economic crisis as an opportunity for outreach, AG ministers and adherents engaged in fervent prayer and great personal sacrifice to advance the Kingdom of God.

Can today’s Church grow in the face of economic and social uncertainties? If history is an indicator, the answer is a resounding yes.


This article appears in the Spring 2024 issue of Influence magazine.

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