LOS ANGELES (AP) — At Three Crosses Church, Pastor Ken Walters urges his parishioners to join him in song and scripture. The charismatic 58-year-old extends his arms skyward and belts out melodies praising God.
While the small Assemblies of God congregation goes through all the traditional trappings of a Pentecostal service, there is one notable absence: speaking in tongues, a defining trait of the faith.
The 40-member church is among many nationwide that are reducing or cutting out speaking in tongues as they become more popular and move to the mainstream. It's a shift that has unsettled some more traditional Pentecostals who say the practice is at the heart of a movement that evolved out of an interracial revival and remains a spontaneous way for the poor and dispossessed to have a direct line to God.
They question the wisdom of placing less emphasis on a tenet that has defined Pentecostalism for more than a century.
"It's different now," Walters said. "People don't like to stand out if they don't have to."
As the religion becomes more widely accepted, Walters said, there has been a tendency for large Pentecostal churches to downplay the differences between Pentecostalism and other well-known Christian denominations.
The Assemblies of God, one of the nation's largest Pentecostal denominations with 3 million members, has 66 million members worldwide. Assemblies officials worried about the decline in messages in tongues — or spirit baptism — at a general council meeting this month. The practice decreased by about 3 percent to fewer than 82,000, the lowest total since 1995, according to statistics released by the Assemblies of God.
"This is a long-developing phenomenon," said Harvey Cox, an expert in Pentecostalism and professor of religion at the Harvard Divinity School. "They don't want what appears to be objectionable to stick out or be viewed with suspicion."
Meanwhile, newer strands of Pentecostalism — often with roots in other countries like Nigeria and El Salvador — continue to emphasize the practice in church as well as in personal prayer, Cox said.
While all Pentecostals accept speaking in tongues as a "gift of the Holy Spirit," these smaller, niche congregations aren't afraid to embrace the practice and don't care whether it scares some away, he said.
Pentecostalism represents one of the fastest-growing segments of global Christianity. At least a quarter of the world's 2 billion Christians are members of the Pentecostal faith or related charismatic movements, according to the Pew Research Center.
For the first decade, the movement was mainly comprised of poor white and African-American worshippers. Influenced by the spiritual renewal of the Azusa Street Revival — a Pentecostal revival meeting that took place in Los Angeles in 1906 — the Assemblies grew with interracial services that included speaking in tongues, prophecy and faith healing.