Surprising Study Reveals Half Southern Baptist Pastors Believe in Gift of Tongues

Half of Southern Baptist pastors say they believe the Holy Spirit gives some people a special language to pray to God – what is known to some as private prayer language – a surprising new study found.

Southern Baptist leaders have continued to debate on the issue of speaking in tongues and private prayer language in recent years as some agencies have adopted policies banning the charismatic practice.

Amid ongoing discussions, LifeWay Research, a department of LifeWay Christian Resources, wanted to determine the perceptions and opinions of Southern Baptist Convention leaders on an issue that has been a topic of interest, indicated Brad Waggoner, vice president of research and ministry development at LifeWay.

Results of the study showed that overall, 63 percent of Protestant senior pastors believe in the gift of a private prayer language. Within the SBC, 50 percent of pastors believe in the gift and 43 percent do not.

Non-SBC pastors are more likely to believe that the Holy Spirit gives some people a private prayer language than Southern Baptist pastors. According to the study, 66 percent of non-SBC pastors believe in the gifts while 32 percent saying they don't.

When asked about the meaning of "tongues" in the New Testament, 62 percent of Southern Baptist senior pastors said it is the "God-given ability to speak another language." Among Protestant pastors, 55 percent believe "tongues" is "the God-given ability to speak another language you had not previously been able to speak;" 33 percent say it means "special utterances given by the Holy Spirit meant as messages to the congregation with the help of an interpreter;" and 15 percent said they "don't know."

Regarding the gift of tongues today, Southern Baptist pastors are more likely than non-SBC pastors to believe the gift of tongues has ceased. Among SBC pastors, 41 percent said the gift was only given in the days of the Apostles compared to 29 percent of non-SBC pastors. Overall, 33 percent of Protestant pastors believe the gift has ceased.

Ed Stetzer, new director of LifeWay Research, noted there are two sizeable yet contradictory positions among SBC pastors. "One of the big findings of the study is that you've got a substantially cessationist portion of the Southern Baptist Convention, and then you have a large portion that believes that God gives some people a private prayer language," he said. "And that middle ground is not that large. And I think that is an important finding in this study."

Meanwhile, the majority of Protestant pastors (53 percent) believe the gift of tongues is still given today to "some believers." And 13 percent believe the gift is still given today to "all true believers."

Among Protestant laity, 51 percent believe in the gift of tongues (compared to 63 percent of pastors); 27 percent believe the gift is still given today to all true believers and 26 percent believe it is given today to some believers. Only 20 percent said the gift was only given in the days of the Apostles. A quarter of laity said they "don't know" if the gift is still given today.

Study respondents also included recent Southern Baptist seminary graduates. Surprisingly, recent graduates (55 percent) are more likely than Southern Baptist pastors (41 percent) to believe the gift of tongues ceased to be a valid gift in times past.

"More recent graduates tend to be more 'cessationist' than their pastoral counterparts in SBC churches," explained Scott McConnell, associate director of LifeWay Research. "A majority of recent SBC seminary graduates are cessationists – the only group in our study that identified with this position at over 50 percent."

While pastors and laity were not asked if they personally practice the gift of tongues, the recent seminary graduates were asked if they "pray in tongues, practice glossolalia, or have a private prayer language." Results showed that less than 6 percent of graduates practice the gift and less than 4 percent who currently work in Southern Baptist ministries practice the gift.

Overall, Stetzer found there is "a significant openness, maybe a surprising openness to private prayer language" as, he believes, the issue is increasing in prominence, particularly within the Southern Baptist Convention.

The study was conducted on 1,004 Protestant laity, 405 Southern Baptist senior pastors, and 600 non-SBC Protestant senior pastors in April-May of 2007.