charismatics

Lessons from the past: Who is building a super-ministry in ruins of Jim Bakker's dream?

Lessons from the past: Who is building a super-ministry in ruins of Jim Bakker's dream?

As a former religion-beat guy in Charlotte, and a veteran of the Jim Bakker and PTL wars of the 1980s (click here for my flashback), I was -- of course -- very interested in The Charlotte Observer's lengthy update on the status of the old Heritage USA.

Here's the totally logical headline on this solid -- but narrow -- feature: "Jim Bakker’s theme park was like a Christian Disneyland. Here’s what happened to it." What's missing? Hold that thought.

As the story notes, Heritage USA was supposed to grow into a kind of Disneyland for charismatic Christians, but things fell apart before the 2,300-acre complex reached the roller coaster ride through heaven and hell stage of development. For those in need of a refresher on why there is this:

Construction had already begun by then on two other mega-projects: A sand castle with a 10-story turret that would house the world’s largest Wendy’s restaurant, and a high-rise hotel to be called Heritage Grand Towers. When finished, reported the Heritage Herald, a weekly newspaper for tourists and those living on the PTL property, the tower’s “elegantly furnished” 500 rooms would include 100 honeymoon suites “for couples who come to Heritage USA to renew their marriages.”
Two months later, Bakker suddenly resigned amid financial and sexual scandal. His plans were scrapped, the ongoing construction halted. Today, three decades after Bakker’s dreams gave way to a nightmarish spell of bankruptcy, lawsuits and prison, many of the magnets that once drew people to Heritage USA are long gone.

The architectural corpse that gets the most attention in this piece -- fittingly enough -- is Bakker's never-finished, never-occupied 21-story tower. It continues its slow decay, while the current owners dream of expanded ministries that sound eerily familiar.

This is the crucial part of the story that I hope Observer editors return to, in depth, in the future. Why? Well, I am biased because this is the part of the story that I kept writing newsroom memos about in the early 1980s, trying to convince editors that there was a national-level story at the foundation of the Bakker scandals.

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Is this the 'fastest-growing Christian group in America,' and perhaps the world?

Is this the 'fastest-growing Christian group in America,' and perhaps the world?

Back in August, a memo by The Religion Guy outpointed the value of the “Ethics + Religion” section at theconversation.com, where scholars reconfigure their  research in terms lay readers can grasp.

A good example is an October 11 item about what two professors claim “is the fastest-growing Christian group in America and possibly around the world.” The authors are Biola University sociologist Brad Christerson and Richard Flory, senior research director at the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

Their label for this is the “Independent Network Charismatic” or “INC” movement, described in detail in their recent book “The Rise of Network Christianity: How Independent Leaders Are Changing the Religious Landscape” (Oxford University Press).

Props to colleague Bob Smietana for grabbing the importance of this for an August 3 interview with the two authors at christianitytoday.com, which interested writers will want to peruse.

INC is a particular subset of the independent, non-denominational congregations that are the growing edge of U.S. Protestantism. The authors calculate that over four decades ending in 2010, regularly attending Protestants of all types declined by an average .05 percent per year, which is “striking” since the U.S. population was growing by 1 percent per year.

Meanwhile, adherents of “independent, neo-charismatic congregations,” the category that includes INC groups among many others, grew an average 3.24 percent per year. So INC is a distinct sub-category within an already thriving segment of U.S. Protestantism that shuns traditional forms and provides a particularly intense form of Pentecostal-flavored experience.

The movement has expanded for the most part under the radar. Have you seen many news stories about such influential INC personalities as Che Ahn, Mike Bickle, Bill Johnson, Cindy Jacobs or Chuck Pierce, or about Bethel Church, Harvest International Ministries (HIM), or International House of Prayer (IHOP)?

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The mystery of Donald Trump’s religion: Inspired by Peale, or by Paula White?

 The mystery of Donald Trump’s religion: Inspired by Peale, or by Paula White?

Attempting to comprehend the mystery of Donald Trump’s religion, his critics can’t decide whether to blame Peale or Paula.

Some consider that “positive thinking” guru, the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993), the inspiration for what they dislike. (Reports say Trump, a boyhood Presbyterian, never actually joined  Peale’s New York City congregation, which is part of the Reformed Church in America.) For other skeptics, it’s not Peale who’s appalling but Paula White.

Writers with yahoo.com and then Politico.com have recently profiled White,  a popular broadcaster, speaker, author and since 2012 senior pastor of New Destiny Christian Center in Apopka, Fla. This is one of America’s countless high-growth independent congregations with a “Charismatic” or “Neo-Pentecostal” flavor.

White, a 50-year-old grandmother, and her ministries deserve further reportage with two angles, Trump’s creed and a major fissure in the unruly U.S. evangelical movement.

Veteran activist James Dobson alerted media to the White connection by passing along reports that Trump, a “baby Christian,” was led to renewed faith by White. Trump and White were pals long before she helped broker his 2015 and 2016 meetings with evangelical types. Trump endorsed one of her books in 2007 calling her “a beautiful person,” appeared on White’s TV show, and White rents a New York apartment in a Trump building.

So let's turn to Trump’s fiercest evangelical foe, the Rev. Dr. Russell Moore, the Washington D.C. voice for America’s largest Protestant body, the Southern Baptist Convention.

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Azusa not yet: Why a media no-show for 56,000 charismatics at Los Angeles Coliseum?

Azusa not yet: Why a media no-show for 56,000 charismatics at Los Angeles Coliseum?

Certainly we have all heard of the philosophical conundrum: If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one to hear it, does it make a sound? Of course it does.

Here’s similar one: If a large, symbolic religious event occurs but there’s little-to-no mainstream press around to cover it, did it have an impact?

Last Saturday, thousands of Christians filled the Los Angeles Coliseum for Azusa Now, a 110th anniversary gathering for Los Angeles' famed 1906 Azusa Street revival that birthed the worldwide Pentecostal movement. Saturday's event was organized by Lou Engle, head of a youth revival movement known as The Call. Early PR for the April 9 event suggested 100,000 people would show up -- a neat trick in that the stadium only fits 93,000 -- but hopes were high. Some 50,000 were said to be registered; not a small number.

I was researching an article on a related event, so was checking around the Los Angeles mediascape to see if there was so much as an advance news story. The only thing I found was an offhand mention of the event in the Los Angeles Times in relation to the newspaper’s Festival of Books. Odd, I thought.

During the weekend, I scoured the Times, the Orange County Register, even the Riverside Press-Enterprise. Nothing. OK -- maybe the Christian Broadcasting Network? Nothing. Christianity Today? Nada. Local TV? Nope. Now on Sunday, the Register did have something on a gathering of beach corgis.

And the Times naturally talked up the “thousands” that attended its book festival. It was even doing live updates of the event.

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Painful church split in Twin Cities: But what kind of Lutherans are we dealing with here?

Painful church split in Twin Cities: But what kind of Lutherans are we dealing with here?

Attention all supporters of strong, accurate religion-beat reporting: What is the first question a journalist needs to answer for readers when covering a "Lutheran church" story, especially when it is linked to controversy?

Let me raise the stakes a bit higher. This question is especially true when dealing with a flock located in Minnesota or elsewhere in the upper Midwest, which is often called the Lutheran Belt in American life because there are so many Lutheran congregations in that region.

The question: So what kind of Lutherans are we talking about?

Are we dealing with a congregation in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which, despite the presence of the E-word in the name, is a liberal flock on key issues of doctrine and moral theology? Or how about the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod, located on the right side of the mainline Protestant world? Or how about the smaller Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, which is also more doctrinally conservative than the ELCA?

So check out the top of this major story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press earlier this month. Yes, you'll have to look for clues in this long passage:

North Heights Lutheran, the one-time megachurch of Arden Hills, has run out of prayers.
The church is shutting down, the apparent victim of a civil war that has split it apart. After 70 years of weekly worship, the church’s last service will be Sunday.
“This took me by surprise,” 20-year member Zelda Erickson said Monday after learning of the closing at an announcement during Sunday’s church service. “I feel terrible about this.”

North Heights once had Sunday attendance of 3,400 at two church locations. But attendance has fallen recently to several hundred -- not enough to keep the church afloat.

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Christian history flashback: What’s the legacy of the Jesus Movement 45 years later?

Christian history flashback: What’s the legacy of the Jesus Movement 45 years later?

JOSH’S QUERY:

[Referring to Time magazine's 1971 cover story on the youthful "Jesus Revolution"]  A lot has happened since then -- culturally, religiously, movement-wise -- and I’d be fascinated to see you revisit your journalistic and theological mind.

THE RELIGION GUY’S RESPONSE:

This interests Josh because his parents were members of Love Inn, which typified the youth-driven “Jesus Movement” of those days. It was a combination church, commune, Christian rock venue and traveling troupe, based in a barn near the aptly named Freeville, New York (population 500).

As a “Time” correspondent, the Religion Guy figured this revival, which was hiding in plain sight, was well worth a cover story, managed to convince reluctant editors to proceed, and did much of the field reporting including a visit to Love Inn. Arguably, that article -- by the Guy’s talented predecessor as “Time” religion writer, lay Catholic Mayo Mohs -- put the “Jesus freaks” permanently on the cultural map.

The following can only sketch mere strands of a complex phenomenon and offers as much theorizing as hard fact. For some of the history, the Guy is indebted to the valuable “Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism” by Randall Balmer of Dartmouth College.

Quick summary: The Jesus Movement developed pre-existing phenomena into a youth wing that energized and reshaped U.S. evangelical Protestantism as a whole. This occurred just as evangelicalism was clearly emerging as the largest segment of American religion while beginning in the mid-1960s moderate to liberal “mainline” Protestant groups began inexorable decline.

The Jesus Movement was related to and influenced by the “Charismatic Movement,” which first reached public notice around 1960. This wave took a loosened version of Pentecostal spirituality into “mainline” Protestant and Catholic settings and, especially, newer and wholly independent congregations, along with free-floating gatherings akin to the secular Woodstock (August, 1969).

Early “street Christians” clustered around hot spots such as the Living Room in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, the Christian World Liberation Front adjacent to the University of California at Berkeley, Seattle’s Jesus People Army, and His Place on the Sunset Strip (led by Arthur Blessitt who later evangelized his way across the nation pulling an outsize wheeled cross).

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Note to journalists: When reporting on charismatics, please try to get details right

Note to journalists: When reporting on charismatics, please try to get details right

Pentecostals and charismatics are the world’s fastest-growing form of Christianity. On a trip to India years ago, I was interviewing evangelical Protestant leaders when I asked them which churches were growing the fastest. Without hesitation, they all responded: Pentecostals. And they didn’t even agree theologically with those folks.

On this side of the pond, most denominations – which were initially opposed to charismatics (who are essentially Pentecostals who’ve stayed in mainline denominations), have made their piece with such groups. Not so with the Southern Baptist Convention.

Years ago, pastors who got caught up in the charismatic renewal got kicked out of their churches. More recently, the opposition was more subtle; in 2005 the SBC’s International Mission Board ruled that none of its missionaries could pray in tongues. That is, candidates would be asked when applying to be a missionary if they did so, even in their private prayers. An affirmative answer was an automatic disqualifier. The spiritual gift of tongues, mentioned in some detail in 1 Cor. 12-14, along with several mentions scattered through the book of Acts, is the most controversial of the gifts. But the Apostle Paul specifically said not to forbid it (at the end of 1 Cor. 14), so the Baptists’ decision in 2005 was a contested one, to say the least.

Which is why I did a double take when RNS broke this story announcing that after 10 years of  forbidding the gift of tongues, the IMB had done a 180 and was allowing its missionaries to do so. 

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Welcome Julia Duin: Home in the Northwest and still watching the religion beat like a Seahawk

Welcome Julia Duin: Home in the Northwest and still watching the religion beat like a Seahawk

EDITOR'S NOTE: Veteran religion-beat reporter Julia Duin – now a journalism professor who is active writing books and in magazine journalism – is joining us here at GetReligion. She will focus her work on the American West, which is her home territory. Make her welcome, please. -- Terry Mattingly.

*****

You might say I got into religion reporting while a high school student in the Seattle area. I saw the huge readership -- and tons of letters -- that Earl Hansen received for his religion columns in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and I thought, I can do that. And so my first religion piece ever was for the Covenant Companion, a denominational magazine, about my bike trip around Puget Sound with the youth group from a local Evangelical Covenant church.

While majoring in English at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, I came to know the religious community in western Oregon pretty well. I also could not believe what a poor job the local papers did of covering the religion beat. I soon got a job as a reporter at a small daily just south of Portland where the editor told me I had to choose one page to edit: agriculture or religion. I chose religion and have not stopped covering it ever since. I also began corresponding for Christianity Today at that point in an era when women rarely wrote for that publication. 

I then moved to south Florida for a few years, covering religion among other beats and my work at CT and a first place in an RNA competition for religion reporting for small newspapers caught the eye of The Houston Chronicle. They hired me as one of two full-time religion writers in 1986. Those were the salad days of covering the beat: the Jim-and-Tammy-Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart "Pearlygate" scandals, Pat Robertson running for president, a local United Methodist bishop dying of AIDS, Pope John Paul II’s swing through the southern USA and Oral Roberts’ claim that God would “take me home” if he was not able to raise $4.5 million. It was rich. 

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A flawed, sadly one-sided longread about the lives of Oral and Richard Roberts -- that is still worth reading

A flawed, sadly one-sided longread about the lives of Oral and Richard Roberts -- that is still worth reading

First things first. I have done my share of work, as a reporter and as a mass-media professor, with faculty from a wide range of Christian colleges and universities. Perhaps this is why I have heard of Evangel University in Springfield, Mo.

However, if you are interested in the history of religion on America, there is also a good chance that you know about Evangel, because, as its website notes:

Evangel University, the first Pentecostal liberal arts college chartered in America, opened its doors on September 1, 1955.

Why bring this up? I imagine that, out in the congregation of GetReligion readers, there are others who follow the @Longreads list that promotes lots of amazing journalism that is written in, well, a "longreads" feature style. It's a must-follow for anyone who teaches or practices journalism (or does both at the same time).

Well, the other day @Longreads alerted me to a feature story about a topic that has long interested me -- the status of the kingdom of one of North America's most interesting evangelists and broadcasters, the late Rev. Oral Roberts. The article ran at This Land Press, under the headline: "The Prodigal Prince: Richard Roberts and the Decline of the Oral Roberts Dynasty." (Interview with author Kiera Feldman here.)

This is an article worth reading, especially if -- like me -- you worked your way through that great media firestorm in the 1980s that many called "Pearlygate." I have also spoken on the campus in recent years.

Still, there are holes and a few flaws in this feature and some major missed opportunities.

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