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.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Brendan

    No, I think your criticism is warranted. While I agree it is nice to see a news article that doesn’t totally tear apart religion, Brownsville was a pretty controversial movement. It does seem a bit strange not to have someone ask where the money went or how the prosperity gospel impacted their financial decisions.

  • Julia Duin

    I covered this in 1997 by driving down there – the pastors were so busy and stressed, they barely had time to think. There were services 6 nights a week. All the folks who headed it up, tho, have moved on, ie the Lindell Cooley you see in the video leading worship. Would have liked to have known whatever happened to Steve Hill, the evangelist who was the major engine behind this revival and who relocated to Dallas. Am also curious why the writer didn’t interview Steve Rabey, who wrote a book on Brownsville. Kilpatrick got criticized later on for buying some very nice real estate for himself, that I do remember.

  • Anton

    It’s not just the secular press that doesn’t ask certain questions — let alone answer them. Christian media tends to overlook these issues as well. There are plenty of questions to be asked, e.g. What actually happened to the promised, ‘prophesied’ ‘revival’? What about the theology that was preached? What was the lasting impact: how did it affect churches and individuals? What lessons have people learned? What lessons _should_ people have learned? What are the leaders behind the ‘revival’ doing today? What about accountability? And yes, what happened to the money — a question you’d indeed think the secular press would be interested in.

    There are still plenty of Brownsville-like situations going on, with new ‘apostles’ and ‘prophets’ getting people to buy into new ‘revelations.’ With rare exceptions, the secular media does not cover those stories — but when it does it could and should give the Christian media the impetus to take a closer look as well.

  • Bruce

    I attended a church ‘in revival’ a few years ago and recall hearing the Pastor talk about how much it cost to host one. Almost all the regular ongoing expenses went up by a factor 6-7times just to have the building open and functioning 7 days a week. That church for example went thru a year’s toilet paper budget in about 6 weeks. So I have no trouble believing that the funds were used mostly for legitimate purposes.

  • Gospa

    What went on at the Brownsville church was similar to the Toronto Blessing and also Rodney Howard Browne supposed revival. Unfortunately, when something has too much of the human spirit in it and not enough of God’s Holy Spirit, somewhere along the line it fails.That is what has happened here and also why the Crystal Cathedral in California has gone bankrupt.

  • Tom

    I’ll tell you why there is virtually no in depth coverage of Brownsville, Rodney HB, Todd Bentley, Benny Hinn, TBN or any of that ilk. Its the same reason why the coverage would be non stop wall to wall if the same kind of thing happened involving John MacArthur, John Piper, Tim Tebow or Kirk Cameron… the world and their father, the devil do not fight against those who are doing what pleases them… teaching lies and doctrines of demons. These are the ministers who are filling the ‘church’ with the promised end-times apostacy. These are the ones who well hear Jesus say, ‘Depart from Me, I never knew you.’

  • bloomingdedalus

    I will always feel badly for the sincere believers. Though, there was probably a fair portion at Brownsville at the time who were not that. I was there when I was about 12 or 13. At the time it was very moving, but I was a dumb kid and saw it later with years as it was: intentional deception of credulous people.

    I have zero love for Pentecostalism – the hysteria – the phony miracles – the emotional exuberance: none of these things is characteristic of the serious and somber tone of the Christian scriptures. Yes Jesus performed miracles – but he didn’t just perform miracles – he talked very seriously and at length about moral issues.

    I am not a Christian anymore so I don’t care that I think that if all the Pentecostal leadership in the world died tomorrow – I would throw a party.