The revival that went bust

Can you imagine what kind of coverage a major mainstream news organization might give a faith-healing church that took in millions of dollars that seem to have vanished?

Pretty sympathetic coverage, actually, if you're talking about an Associated Press report this week on the financial troubles of the once-flourishing "Brownsville Revival" church in Florida:

PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) — For years starting in the mid-1990s, millions from around the globe visited a humble church in Florida's Panhandle for lively Pentecostal revival services where believers flocked on stage to be healed by God for cancer, addiction and broken hearts.

At its height, the "Brownsville Revival" drew as many as 5,500 people a night for six years — estimates put the total between 2.5 million and 4.5 million people. Donations poured in as the Brownsville Assembly of God added staff, built a massive new sanctuary and opened a school for preachers.

In the decade after being the home of the largest Pentecostal outpouring in U.S. history, the church has been on the edge of financial ruin. It racked up $11.5 million in debt, to be paid after the out-of-town throngs and its former pastor moved on.

The red ink is mostly unknown outside the congregation.

"Every Monday I find out what the (Sunday) offering was and we decide what we can pay this week," said the Rev. Evon Horton, Brownsville's current pastor. "The good news is last week we paid our mortgage. The bad news is it drained our bank accounts."

Pentecostalism ranks as "one of the fastest-growing and underreported movements in Christianity," as ReligionLink put it in 2006. Think about it: How often do you see secular news reports about Pentecostals? Not too often, I don't think. So I was pleased to see this coverage.

The church involved apparently liked the coverage, as a link to the AP story is featured prominently on its website. It's easy to understand why, as the reporter shows a willingness to report facts (even those that might be difficult for a skeptical journalist to embrace) in a straightforward, non-judgmental way:

In a fundraising effort that Horton said came to him from God in a dream, the church is trying to raise about $7 million by getting people to give $1,000 each for debt relief. Donors' names will be engraved in a "walk of faith" around the old sanctuary.

"We can be debt-free if just 7,000 of the millions of people who attended the revival help out," Horton said.

The story similarly lets the former pastor share his perspective in his own words:

Rev. John Kilpatrick, moved on. He now runs a bustling church and traveling revival ministry based across the state line in Daphne, Ala.

Kilpatrick said Brownsville was never the wealthy church many assumed during the revival years, so loans were the only way to pay for growth. He said the church fell deeper into debt after he departed and membership dropped.

"I resigned (from) the church, and I never would have left if I knew the struggles it was going to have," he said.

Yet, for all the positive attributes mentioned above, something about this story bugs me. I'm not exactly sure what it is. But after reading 1,300 words — a novel by AP standards — the story seems to ring a little hollow.

Maybe there was no way to avoid that. Maybe the journalist dug and pushed as hard as he could. But I can't help wondering if there is no one outraged about the missing money — no one willing to cast blame and raise questions about what really might have happened to the millions given. Surely Ole Anthony is waiting by the phone? (I'm only half-joking.)

At the same time, it strikes me that more context on Pentecostalism — perhaps even a reference to the prosperity gospel and how this fits in, or not — might have been helpful.

Then again, it's entirely possible that I'm being overly critical. That's where you come in, gentle GetReligion readers. It's your turn to read the story and weigh in with journalistic questions and observations.

Please respect our Commenting Policy