One of the most intriguing churches in the country is Bethel Church in northern California. If there is a Jesus movement among today’s millennials, Bethel is its epicenter.
Despite the thousands of visitors this place receives from around the world, its influence has gone almost unnoticed by the media, which tends to be clueless about current trends among Pentecostals and charismatics.
Fortunately, reporters are beginning to discover Bethel via a book by two scholars affiliated with the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture. The authors of "The Rise of Network Christianity" have been planting guest editorials in several places warning readers of the evils of this movement, plus why people need to educate themselves about it -- and read their book, of course.
But there hasn’t been a whole lot else. It’s a tough movement to pin down, much less write about. The latest effort at explaining Bethel -- in the form of a first-person feature story -- comes from Buzzfeed. It begins:
It’s the first day of Prophecy Week at the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry. Or, as students here like to call the place, Christian Hogwarts.
The auditorium of the civic center in Redding, California, where first-year students have class, is so full of eager, neatly dressed young people that it’s initially impossible to find a seat. The roomful of some 1,200 students hums with expectant energy…
The piece goes on to describe Bethel Church and Kris Vallotton, one of its main preachers.
The Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry is at the forefront of a burgeoning -- and decidedly youthful -- evangelical Christian revival. Some have called its movement the fastest-growing religious group in America -- a loose network of churches, led by so-called apostles, who see supernatural gifts like prophecy and faith healing as the key to global conversion. While other religious movements struggle to retain members and draw in young people, Bethel attracts millennials in droves.
The school -- which is unaccredited and does not confer degrees -- sends students into Redding and across the globe armed with training in how to speak God’s words, heal the sick, and use the supernatural to win souls. It has spawned imitators across the country and on nearly every continent…
But BSSM is also at the crux of a conflict brewing in the small, isolated city of Redding, population 90,000. On one side is the church that runs the school, Bethel Redding, which has more than 9,000 in its congregation — its own little city on a hill. On the other side is a group of longtime Redding residents, religious and nonreligious alike, who are afraid and even angry about the growing influence of this church in their city and their lives.
As tmatt has written, Buzzfeed is not known for its objectivity. The organization even states in its newsroom standards and ethics guide that it refuses to cover both sides of “a number of issues, including civil rights, women's rights, anti-racism and LGBT equality.”
So I wondered; How fair would this piece by a BuzzFeed business reporter be? Turns out, she did a heck of a job.
Judging from the comments, people from Bethel -- as well as those opposed to it -- thought this feature was well done.
As it grows rapidly, Bethel has devoted itself to fixing the struggling city of Redding, which is one of California’s poorest. It donates money to the police department. It buys out public buildings. It nurtures local businesses. It sends armies of students to clean the city’s trash- and syringe-strewn riverbanks. To the church’s leaders, Redding and Bethel are inextricable, and the city’s rebirth is one of the church’s most urgent missions.
So, what’s not to like?
Apparently a lot, as the article relates how some city residents don’t like the church helping out and they really don’t like BSSM students showing up in all sorts of public places offering to pray for people on the spot in the hopes the miraculous will happen. The reporter explains further:
This is the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry’s real goal: creating spiritual warriors, young people who will go out into the world armed with just the kind of supernatural gifts that Bethel believes will bring people into the Kingdom of God.
“Jesus is bringing the Kingdom, and he’s doing it through signs and wonders,” says Dann Farrelly, BSSM’s dean. “They’re the things that make people go, ‘Huh, there’s something about you, about this.’ Jesus even said: You don’t have to believe in me, you believe in the signs I’m doing.”
More simply: Miracles are a really good way to convert people.
BSSM is built on the idea that we are all “naturally supernatural”: We all have the potential to heal the sick and to hear God’s vision for the future. It’s ours because it’s Jesus’s, says Farrelly: Jesus does the work, and humans act as conduits. The school’s job is to foster the supernatural gifts of signs and wonders -- to teach people to hear God’s voice and turn it into prophecy.
Having visited Bethel and knowing how tough it is to report on the unseen world for a readership that only believes in what can be seen, I think the writer did a credible job of explaining Bethel’s worldview.
The article goes on to explain the movement linking Bethel to like-minded churches around the globe. Some call followers Independent Network Charismatics (INC) or part of the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). Whatever it is, it’s growing like crazy.
Vallotton and (senior pastor Bill) Johnson have each built their own brands, too, with sleek websites, dozens of supernaturally focused books between them, and gigs speaking at revival churches worldwide. The Bethel Church bookstore is filled almost wall-to-wall with Johnson and Vallotton’s tomes, bright paperbacks with titles like The Supernatural Power of a Transformed Mind and Intentional Parenting: Kingdom Perspective on Raising Revivalists. And then there is the gem of the operation: Bethel Music, whose dozens of Christian artists have made albums that sit at the top of iTunes charts and regularly bring in millions of viewers…
I kept on reading and reading, as the piece brought out stuff I hadn’t heard about, and I thought I was pretty well-versed in Bethel-lore. One interesting sub-theme focuses on why a lot of non-charismatic evangelicals oppose Bethel -- chiefly because they believe the prophecies and healings touted by the church are fraudulent.
Another is how the church has mastered social media.
The church is highly internet-savvy, with a network of Instagram and Facebook accounts -- each with hundreds of thousands of followers -- that post high-quality, heavily-produced clips of songs, conferences, testimonials, and images of faith and revival. Laughing college kids fill the church’s Instagram stories daily, and its services are often led by young people barely out of their teenage years.
So Bethel is doing what every other religious institution wants to do today: Haul in lots of young followers. The reporter interviewed a bunch of people at Bethel, disenchanted former Bethelites and just about everybody else other than Bill Johnson, who is pictured with this article. I wish she could have caught that fish, but I guess you can’t have it all.
The second half of the article is about the church’s relationship to Redding itself, which was on the skids with unemployment and crime until Bethel began importing thousands of short-term BSSM students who needed food, places to stay and other amenities. You hear from people who think the church is the best thing that ever happened to the city of 91,000. Then there are the others who fear some kind of theocratic takeover.
It ends with an account of the total weirdness of the Bethel healing room, where the reporter asks for healing for her injured knee. The account is both ghastly and gripping. If there’s one serious charge the writer raises –- and no one at Bethel is asked to answer it –- it's that the healings there are by-and-large fake or at best wishful thinking.
Divine healings are a dicey thing to write about and I swore off covering them after I got really burned reporting on some healing claims at a revival. But they are Bethel’s claim to fame. I'm old enough to remember all the controversies over Vineyard founder John Wimber's healing sessions.
Well, Bethel is John Wimber on steroids. And not every reporter has the time and institutional backing to spend time in Redding researching an 8,700-word piece. But, as the article points out, Bethel has conferences and outposts worldwide and many of its staff roam about North America speaking at various venues.
So there are other Bethel stories, in other zip codes, to cover. If you haven't heard of Bethel, you soon will. As for those in the media, there's no excuse to not be up on the movements fostered by this church. If Buzzfeed can source up on Bethel, so can other newsrooms.