Saturday, September 20, 2008

Legacy of Lakeland Revival Debated

Legacy of Lakeland Revival Debated
Todd Bentley controversy leads to Pentecostal re-examination.

By Cary McMullen

The giant white tents are gone now, and so are the crowds of thousands. The evangelist, disgraced, is in hiding. The revival carries on as a bare remnant of its former glory.

For four months, the Florida Outpouring was an international phenomenon. A 32-year-old Canadian evangelist and faith healer named Todd Bentley came to Ignited Church in Lakeland on April 2 for what everyone assumed would be several days of services. Fueled by live Internet streaming and TV broadcasts of the services, attendance swelled to anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 per night, many of the people coming from far-flung states and other countries.

By July, the revival had moved at least four times to accommodate the growing crowds, drawn by Bentley's flamboyance and attention-getting claims of miraculous healings and even people being raised from the dead.

As news of events at the revival services filtered out, Internet dialogue heated up as to whether it was genuine.

Then, in early August, the board of directors of Bentley's Fresh Fire Ministries of Abbotsford, British Columbia, announced he and his wife were separating because he had developed an "unhealthy" emotional attachment to another woman. There were reports that Bentley engaged in "excessive drinking." Bentley abruptly turned the revival over to the Rev. Stephen Strader, pastor of Ignited Church, and left town.


Now followers and observers are left to wonder what the legacy of the Florida Outpouring will be. Will it be remembered for its rapid growth and for its claims of spectacular miracles?

Will it be regarded as a spiritual circus, filled with outrageous sights but little substance and even dangerously misleading teachings? Or will it be an event in which there was good despite the flaws of its leader?

One effect of the revival was to provoke what some believe is a crisis in the Pentecostal community, or in that part of it known as "charismatic," meaning those who believe in powerful manifestations of God, such as speaking in tongues, faith healing and prophecy.

"Major Pentecostal figures have been alarmed because the Florida Outpouring epitomized recent excesses in the charismatic world. The dark side of the Florida Outpouring has been a wakeup call," said Jim Beverley, professor of Christian thought and ethics at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, an evangelical who has studied the Pentecostal movement.

"In 20 years of looking at charismatic Christianity, I've never seen the internal tension since this revival got going."


For example, J. Lee Grady, editor of Charisma, an influential magazine for Pentecostals, wrote in an Aug. 13 column:

"Because of the Lakeland scandal, there may be large numbers of people who feel they've been burned by Bentley. Some may give up on church and join the growing ranks of bitter, disenfranchised Christians. Others may suffer total spiritual shipwreck. This could have been avoided if leaders had been more vocal about their objections and urged people to evaluate spiritual experiences through the filter of God's Word."

Strader has carried on the revival five nights a week with much smaller crowds. On Wednesday night, guest evangelist Ron Johnson of Norfolk, Va., preached to an audience of about 150 people.

"This move of God is shifting," he said. "Thank God for the movement this church started. It was like a match that caused something to explode. But you can't live today on yesterday's blessing. God wants to do something today." There was a chorus of "Amen."

At last report, Bentley was staying with friends in California. Calls to Fresh Fire Ministries were not returned.


The revival and its controversy centered on Bentley, a high school dropout who, by his own account, before he was converted as a teenager, abused drugs and alcohol and served jail time for molesting a younger boy.

With wrist-to-wrist tattoos, jeweled studs in his lower lip and dark jeans and T-shirts, Bentley cultivated a biker image.

Not content to merely touch people while praying for them to be healed of various ailments, he would shove or knee them, imitating professional wrestling techniques.

Nightly there was a litany of "testimonies," many by e-mail, of the miracles people said they had experienced.

Details were often vague, and although Bentley's organization offered some limited information about their authenticity, The Associated Press was unable to confirm the healings in a handful of cases.

One Lakeland man said he had attended the revival starting on Todd Bentley's first day in town and experienced healing himself.

"I had arthritis in my feet for close to 10 years. I got healed during the services," said Dale Wade. "I saw other people's lives healed. There was such desperation. People were hungry for God."


The claims seemed to grow increasingly more spectacular, with Bentley at various points stating that people supernaturally were given gold fillings in their teeth and that sight was given through a glass eye.

Local and national Pentecostal leaders became alarmed that the revival was falling victim to hype.

But as a freelance evangelist without denominational ties or oversight, Bentley was free to say or do whatever he wished.

Internet critics such as Andrew Strom described the practices at the revival as not in accordance with the Bible.

The Assemblies of God, the denomination to which Strader and Ignited belong, issued a set of guidelines that, while not mentioning the Florida Outpouring specifically, raised concerns that some of Bentley's claims - such as mystical trips to heaven in which he met Jesus and the apostle Paul - were not scriptural. Yet crowds continued to flock to the services.

"I think Todd has a remarkable ability not to care about the truth. He gets more attention if he tells these whopper stories. Parts of the charismatic world have the ability not to even blink when he tells them. They can't believe their leader could possibly be a liar," Beverley said.

In the wake of his departure, Fresh Fire announced that Bentley will refrain from public ministry until a rehabilitation process administered by some Pentecostal pastors is complete.

One local pastor who supported the revival, the Rev. Wayne Friedt of Believers Fellowship in Lakeland, said he feared Bentley was insecure and vulnerable.

"From the beginning, I thought the guy was skating on thin ice. Two years after he got saved, he was in the ministry. To stay there takes dedication. He had a lot of strikes against him," he said.


There is still polarization about the revival's legitimacy.

Dale Wade, who is still attending the Outpouring services, had only good things to say about Bentley's time in Lakeland.

"I thought it was great. I had experienced services where healings had taken place, so it was nothing new for me. It was exciting that it happened here," he said.

The Rev. Wayne Blackburn, pastor of Victory Church in Lakeland, one of the larger Pentecostal churches in the county, had expressed reservations about the revival while Bentley was conducting it. In retrospect, he said, the revival had been a mixed blessing.

"People who were genuinely touched by the hand of God, that had nothing to do with the evangelist or anyone else, that's a plus. On the other hand, the situation with Todd is a negative. Many were turned off by it. For me personally, I just want to leave it in the hands of the Lord," he said.

But Friedt said he was not sure the revelations about Bentley had harmed the work of the revival.

"God has a way of turning bad into good. Maybe the church would say it wasn't about Todd after all, it was about God," he said.

Strader was more positive, pointing to what he said were "notable miracles." In particular, he said, a woman who had metal rods in her hip and spine was able to bend over and that her fibromyalgia had disappeared.

"I don't know that I would have done anything differently. I have no regrets," he said.

"I believe the greatest effect the Outpouring had is that people around the world actually have hope that it's possible to be healed. There is a whole lot of skepticism whether that's possible."


Beverley, the seminary professor, said Bentley's style and his "wild claims" have caused a re-examination of practices in the more freewheeling parts of the Pentecostal community.

"My guess is that this has been a tipping point, and there will be improvements," he said.

Grady is among those calling for such reforms, which could be the true legacy of the Florida Outpouring.

"If all those who were so eager to promote Bentley now rush just as fast to repent for their errors in judgment, then the rest of us could breathe a huge sigh of relief - and the credibility of our movement could be restored," he wrote on Aug. 13.

"True revival will be accompanied by brokenness, humility, reverence and repentance - not the arrogance, showmanship and empty hype that often was on display in Lakeland."