LAKELAND, Fla. – "Holy Spirit fall! God is here! We want more! More, more, more!"
That's what Canadian evangelist Todd Bentley yells out nearly every evening to the thousands who gather to hear him preach. The 32-year-old Bentley looks more like a biker than a minister, with body piercings and tattoos all over his arms and neck. But the crowds don't seem to mind how he looks. They just want what they believe Bentley has – the ability to heal them.
|Courtesy of Fresh Fire Ministries|
|Todd Bentley at the Lakeland Convention Center in Lakeland, Fla. on May 21.|
Bentley claims that God has used him to supernaturally heal hundreds of people of diseases ranging from glaucoma to diabetes to even cancer. How to explain it?
Bentley said in an interview that he doesn't know exactly why now, why him, why Lakeland, and he does not promise that everyone who comes to him will be healed. But he does maintain a pragmatic posture toward prayer.
"I say, you have nothing to lose but your sickness. If the doctors can't help you, why wouldn't you give God a chance?"
"If you want God, just come get some," he shouts on stage nearly every night.
Bentley has repeated a version of this invitation daily since April 2 when he and his team from Fresh Fire Ministries, which he founded in 1997, first arrived here from British Columbia, Canada, for what he thought would be five days of "revival" meetings in a local church. But those plans changed, he said, because "God is moving...and people know something is happening here." His meetings have been extended indefinitely.
While Bentley and Fresh Fire Ministries are not part of an organized Protestant denomination, his beliefs tend to follow Pentecostal, charismatic traditions.
He claims that God has used him repeatedly before this revival to heal the sick, but added that this series of revival meetings is unprecedented in his personal experience as a minister.
The meetings have outgrown four venues, including a local convention center that seats roughly 7,000. Now they meet under an air-conditioned tent that can accommodate 10,000 on the grounds of the local airport. Organizers estimate that more than 140,000 people from at least 40 nations have attended meetings here.
In this country, the self-billed "Florida outpouring" has generated mostly local media attention. But word of the revival has been generating plenty of buzz online, taking Bentley’s message and claims far beyond Florida.
So far, according to Fresh Fire Ministries, 1.2 million people have watched live streaming broadcasts of the meetings on the Internet. The meetings also are carried on the religious satellite channel, God TV, which transmits Bentley's healing services to more than 200 nations. In this country, God TV is carried on DIRECTV.
Not everyone is comfortable with this expression of Christianity, including some Protestant theologians. R. Douglas Geivett, a professor at the conservative, evangelical Talbot School of Theology, is deeply skeptical of the "Florida outpouring" and does not believe Bentley’s claims of supernatural healing are consistent with Christian doctrine
"I don’t think it fits neatly into any branch of Christianity," said Geivett. "Mr. Bentley’s worldview appears to be a mixture of New Age notions, an obsession with the paranormal, and an untutored grasp of Christian theology."
|Courtesy of Fresh Fire Ministries|
|A woman named Deborah, who suffers from scoliosis, prays with Todd Bentley in Lakeland, Fla. on May 5 as David Tomberlin looks on and Russ Roderick acts as a “catcher.” Afterwards, she claimed her illness was healed.|
Claims of healing
Still, what seems to be drawing all these people of varying ages, ethnicities, and classes is a clear hunger for what Bentley's meetings are offering: the hope of healing and some sort of touch from God.
David Tomberlin, an evangelist who's been dubbed the "Ryan Seacrest" of these meetings because he serves as an emcee of sorts, tried to explain the claims of healings, saying, "The Bible talks about Jesus healing sick people. It says he was moved by compassion, so part of it is God's heart of compassion."
So every night, Bentley and his ministry team take to the stage and try to call heaven down to earth.
That's when the sick are urged to come forward for prayer and healing.
In many instances, Bentley places his hands on someone's head or area of infirmity and cries out for the power of God to descend. In response, some people may stand and physically tremble, while others may literally fall down to the ground in what they call "falling under the power" of the Holy Spirit.
Bentley’s associates say that this is not a painful experience, but rather one of being physically overcome by the loving presence of God. Anticipating these sorts of responses, one of Bentley's staff members stands behind each individual to serve as a "catcher" to gently guide the person down to the floor. Skeptics claim this "falling" can be the result of being overcome with emotion or a learned behavior.
At a recent meeting, Stephen Godula was brought on stage to tell his story. He testified that he had been healed of multiple forms of cancer by watching the meetings on the Internet at home. He plans to return to his oncologist in Philadelphia to document his healing.
Patsy Wallingford traveled from Arkansas in search of healing. Since a tractor-trailer plowed into her mobile home three years ago, Wallingford has been bound to a wheelchair because of nerve damage in her legs and feet.
On a recent night, Wallingford took to the stage and received a prayer from Bentley. "I felt like what was a warm water flow from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet," she explained.
And that's when, she said, she could feel something cold against her right foot; she decided to step out in faith and step out of her wheelchair in front of clapping and cheering crowds.
As she pushed her wheelchair off the stage, she paused to answer questions from one of Bentley's staff members, who filled out a one-page form detailing the claims of miraculous healing.
Bentley and his staff say they welcome as much documentation as people are willing to provide after they return home.
What about the money?
Bentley and his ministry do not charge an entry fee for his meetings. Each evening, four hours into the service, at close to 11 p.m., white plastic offering buckets are passed around.
They asked for money only once and strangely, on the night this reporter was there, they took their offering so late at night that the crowd had thinned-out. Bentley also receives donations directly through his Web site.
The ministry said that the average donation per person is $3-$5. While some people were reluctant to talk about what they gave, one visitor from Finland said he was only able to put in a few dollars because his travel costs were so high.
A spokeswoman for the revival, Lynne Breidenbach, said the offerings have covered their enormous operating costs. Before the move to the airport grounds, she said the ministry paid a daily rental fee of $15,000 for the local convention center, as well as comparable fees for use of a stadium. His spokesperson didn’t know how much the current setup costs. The offerings, said Breidenbach, have not contributed to a significant infusion of cash for Bentley or his ministry.
According to Breidenbach, Bentley "continues to draw his standard salary, set by his board, from his office in Canada. It is a modest salary and is in the five-figure range." The ministry said that their financial records are subject to an outside audit every year.
Bentley said he was willing to open Fresh Fire Ministries’ bookkeeping records for the Lakeland revival meetings, but has yet to provide the documentation to msnbc.com. He said that he welcomes media attention and scrutiny because the "outpouring" is a work of God and he has "nothing to hide."
Taking the notion of any potential criticism head on, he said, "I don’t have time to debate whether revival is happening or not. I don’t have time to nitpick the reasons why God might not be moving." Instead, he said, his greater concern is to move as fervently in faith to see as many people healed as he can during this time.
And indeed, Bentley’s claims have stirred up debates within and outside the church.
Erik Thoennes, also a professor from the Talbot School of Theology, offers a more accepting, though still cautious stance, than his colleague Geivett.
Thoennes believes many Christians today are open to the idea that God might move in miraculous ways, even if they don’t embrace movements like Bentley’s. And, he offered specific advice to non-Christians who may be confounded by such reports: "I’d hope they wouldn’t get distracted by movements that seem odd, or by how goofy Christians can be, so that they miss seeing Jesus as the most beautiful, good, loving, just, true, person there is."