By Julia Duin

June 4, 2007

Fifty percent of Southern Baptist pastors revealed in a poll they believe the Holy Spirit bestows a “private prayer language” on believers, a repudiation of official denominational policy banning its missionaries from speaking in tongues.

In a survey released Friday, the Nashville, Tenn.-based LifeWay Research, the research arm of America’s second-largest Christian denomination, revealed that 50 percent of Southern Baptist pastors answered “yes” when asked the question: “Do you believe that the Holy Spirit gives some people the gift of a special language to pray to God privately?”

Forty-three percent of the 405 pastors polled said “no,” and 7 percent responded “don’t know.”

Ed Stetzer, LifeWay’s research director, called the results “surprising.”
“As a whole, Southern Baptists are less affirming of a private prayer language so the fact that 50 percent of the pastors answered ‘yes’ is very surprising,” he said. “There are a lot of implications birthed out of that . Southern Baptists have become at least half of them more open to a practice that was not mainstream 100 years ago.”

However, the denomination’s leaders remain split over whether speaking in tongues even exists. Forty-one percent of Southern Baptist pastors polled said the spiritual gift ceased after the early days of the church, compared with 29 percent of other Protestant pastors.

Many Southern Baptists oppose the current practice of tongues, one of nine “gifts of the Holy Spirit” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12. In November 2005, the denomination’s International Mission Board forbade future missionaries to pray privately in tongues even though the head of the board, Jerry Rankin, had admitted to using a “private prayer language” for more than 30 years.

Critics of the board’s action said it went well beyond the parameters of the Baptist Faith and Message, the closest thing Southern Baptists have to a confessional statement. Last month in Kansas City, Mo., the board slightly softened the ruling, saying it was more of a guideline than a policy on the issue.

LifeWay conducted its survey by phone in April and May of 405 Southern Baptist pastors, 600 Protestant senior pastors, 1,004 Protestant laity and an unspecified number of recent graduates from six Southern Baptist Convention seminaries. Sixty-six percent of Protestant senior pastors and 51 percent of all Protestant laity believe the gift of tongues is valid, the survey said. The margins of error were 4.8 percentage points for Baptist pastors and 3.1 points on Protestant pastors and laity.

“We’d been hearing that anyone believes in a private prayer language is a minority viewpoint in the Southern Baptist Convention, so here comes this survey saying a majority believe this,” said the Rev. Wade Burleson, an International Mission Board trustee and pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Okla.

The matter will come up at the annual Southern Baptist Convention, to be held June 12-13 in San Antonio, where there will be competing resolutions how Southern Baptists should deal with speaking in tongues, one “respecting the personal freedoms of private devotion” and another denouncing the practice and urging Southern Baptist Convention agencies not to hire employees who engage in such practices.