Pentecostal Assemblies of the World (PAW), the fourth-largest Pentecostal church organization in the world, kicked off its 97th annual convention in New Orleans on Sunday with a service focused on Christian unity.

The unity service was a joint meeting between the conventions of PAW and the Pentecostal Churches of the Apostolic Faith (PCAF), an organization that was formed by former PAW members in 1957. Sunday’s service, in which 4,000 people came to listen to PAW Presiding Bishop Charles H. Ellis III speak, marked the second consecutive year the two organization’s gathered together during their conventions.

“The only reason that is significant is…it was the first time in the 54 years that these two conventions, or these two organizations, had come together in worship service,” Timothy Moore, director of media relations for PAW, told The Christian Post on Monday.

The theme of this year’s convention, which is expected to draw an attendance of 10,000 people before the week is over, is “Endeavoring to Keep the Unity.” Moore says Ellis has emphasized the importance of staying united with other Christian organizations, especially Pentecostal ones, for the purpose of meeting common goals.

He also hopes to foster greater unity within the PAW denomination as well. Within PAW there are auxiliary groups and departments that have specific focuses – like International Missions, Christian Education Men’s Ministry, Young People’s Union and others – that meet together during the convention. In order to foster unity, however, all auxiliary meetings will cease several times during the week so everyone in attendance can gather together for worship.

The unity service on Sunday was the first of these large gatherings. There will also be a Holy Communion service, and on Thursday evening everyone will gather for a service that will be broadcast live on The WORD Network at 9 p.m. ET.

In addition to gathering for fellowship, voting and worship purposes during the convention, those in attendance are also participating in a number of outreach events in and around New Orleans, where they will evangelize to different parts of the city throughout the week. They are also giving away clothes to those in need from an international clothing drive, and one family will receive a home built in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity.

This is the first time the convention has been held in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. Prior to the disaster, PAW had only about 15 churches in Louisiana. Afterward that number dropped to 10, and some congregations that once had 400 people are now averaging about 100 after many of their congregants left the state for good.

Moore says one reason for holding the convention in New Orleans this year is to help area PAW churches “know that they’re not out there alone,” to show the organization’s commitment to reaching that region of the U.S. and to help a community as it continues to rebuild.

“We felt that being in New Orleans at this time gives us an opportunity to really show the love of Christ in a tangible way,” said Moore.

Bishop Ellis’ administration began shortly before last year’s convention took place in Orlando, and although Moore says many of Ellis’ initiatives are still in their early stages, he seems positive about the direction the denomination is heading.

One thing that Moore suggests has positively affected the denomination in the last year is the way it has embraced technology, and he says the 54-year-old Ellis, who is the second-youngest bishop in the denomination’s history, understands the importance of using technology to share the Gospel.

Previously, PAW didn’t utilize tools like Facebook or Twitter, and its website wasn’t updated regularly with fresh content. Since he took over, however, Ellis – whose sermons delivered at Greater Grace Temple in Detroit are broadcast daily on The WORD Network – has helped bring the denomination into the 21st century.

“We generally have not been very public in terms of promoting the things that we’ve done. We’ve been doing these things, we’ve been preaching these things, taking these stands for several years but now we’re making an effort to make sure that the world knows about it,” said Moore.

He later added, “I think we’re just excited that the organization is not only reaffirming its roots in terms of our beliefs, but we’re also embarking on a new generation of leadership that is modernizing the organization.”

PAW is the second-largest predominately African-American Pentecostal church organization in the world, with over 1.2 million members in the U.S. alone and approximately 5,000 churches in 25 countries around the globe.

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