Bob Smietana* interviews scholars Brad Christerson and Richard Flory to provide an insightful and disturbing introduction to the next generation of Strang-ian hustlers reshaping charismatic/Pentecostal Christianity here in America: “The ‘Prophets’ and ‘Apostles’ Leading the Quiet Revolution in American Religion.”
Here’s Smietana’s introduction:
Largely behind the scenes, a group of mostly self-proclaimed “apostles,” leading ministries from North Carolina to Southern California, has attracted millions of followers with promises of direct access to God through signs and wonders.
Their movement, which Christerson and Flory called “Independent Network Charismatic” or “INC” Christianity, has become one of the fastest-growing faith groups in the United States. Apostles like Bill Johnson, Mike Bickle, Cindy Jacobs, Chuck Pierce, and Ché Ahn claim millions of followers. They’re also aided by an army of fellow ministers who fall under their “spiritual covering.”
Many of these apostles run megachurches, including Bethel Church in Redding California, HRock Church in Pasadena, and the International House of Prayer (IHOP) in Kansas City. But their real power lies in their innovative approach to selling faith. They’ve combined multi-level marketing, Pentecostal signs and wonders, and post-millennial optimism to connect directly with millions of spiritual customers. That allows them to reap millions in donations, conference fees, and book and DVD sales. And because these INC apostles claim to get direction straight from God, they operate with almost no oversight.
I added the links for some of the names above so you can click over to the archives of Right Wing Watch and read for yourself some of what these folks have been preaching over the years. It’s an ugly stew of Christian nationalism, dominionism, vicious anti-gay hysteria, and — in recent years — paeans to the spiritual deliverance promised by a pussy-grabbing pathological liar.
Christerson & Flory have done their homework, particularly on the financial model that sets these new “apostles” apart from the earlier generation of Benny Hinns and Jim Bakkers and all the other TV and radio preachers who used to dominate the pages of Charismanews.com. INC Christianity is a money-making machine.
Flory: These apostles are able to access a lot more money, because they are operating with a pay-for-service model, rather than relying on people’s donations and their goodwill. Congregations bend over backwards to keep people happy and keep the butts in the seats; people don’t have to pay unless they feel like it. But this is a completely different financial model, and it tends to generate much more money.
The archaic term for this “pay-for-service” model is Simony. That name comes from Simon the sorceror, a Samaritan convert in the book of Acts.
That’s a Philip story. Philip is my favorite character in Acts — the first of the early Christians to really understand what Pentecost meant. While the other disciples were still squabbling in Jerusalem about the necessity of circumcision and the theoretical possibility of welcoming unclean Gentiles, Philip was hotfooting it to Samaria and baptizing sorcerors. The apostles heard about that and sent Peter and John to regain some control over Philip’s wanton evangelism. When Simon saw Peter and John laying hands on the new believers so that they could “receive the Holy Spirit,” he tried to pay Peter to teach him to do the same. Peter sternly rebuked Simon for thinking he “could obtain God’s gift with money.”**
Technically, then, I suppose what the INC apostles are doing isn’t exactly what Simon did. They’re not trying to obtain the Holy Spirit with money, but are offering to provide it to others for a price. But the same basic idea is at work — the buying and selling of spiritual gifts in exchange for money — and that still seems to fall under the category of Simony. It’s the same sin whether you’re buying or selling.
So what exactly are they selling? Flory describes it as “a more experiential, embodied way of understanding religion,” which makes it sound like they’re doing Yoga or something. But that’s not it. What they’re offering, instead, is the promise of a first-hand experience of the power of God: signs and wonders and miraculous healing.
Christerson: The traditional megachurch uses music and exciting preaching from great communicators. But we found that wasn’t the case with these INC-lings. They are actually not very exciting preachers. That really surprised us. For them, it’s all about encountering these supernatural manifestations. That’s the exciting experience.
It’s very spontaneous. We went to a conference where a number of apostles were speaking and Bill Johnson was doing a Bible teaching. He had probably talked 20 or 30 minutes, and you could feel the restlessness in the room. He said, “I know you are just waiting for me to stop preaching because you want the power. But just hang with me here.” People weren’t there to listen to him. What they wanted was for him to lay hands on them.
After he finished, people came up to the stage, and they were being slain in the spirit. People were falling down and getting healed. That’s what they are there for.
Christerson is trying to be generous there, describing this experience in terms that participants themselves might use. But he slips into a more skeptical, more accurate description when he says “People were falling down.” Those “slain in the Spirit” wouldn’t say they fell on their own, but that they were knocked over by the spirit-filled power of the apostle’s touch.
I’ve been to services where this happened and I didn’t see anyone convincingly “slain” by the laying on of hands. I saw people falling down — flopping like basketball or soccer players trying to trick the ref into calling a foul. But, of course, there was no referee on hand — so this unconvincing performance wasn’t trying to draw a whistle. It seemed to me, rather, that the people falling down were doing so to convince each other and to convince themselves.
If that sounds cynical, I’m afraid I’m even more cynical about the other aspect of this experiential experience — the claim that “People were … getting healed.” In response to Smietana’s question about this movement “staying out of the spotlight” of the broader culture, Christerson describes a huge INC event in Los Angeles:
They have their own networks for disseminating information and getting attention. They are not sending our press releases. For example, they had this Asuza Now conference at the Los Angeles Coliseum, and it drew 50,000 people on a rainy day — if not for the bad weather, the crowd probably would have been even bigger. And it didn’t even make the Los Angeles Times. Fifty thousand people show up for an apostle’s conference at the LA Coliseum, and nobody covered it. That was mind-boggling to me.
So, OK, 50,000 people at a service offering miraculous healing. Let’s say that only 1 percent of that crowd actually sought such healing from an actual, physical ailment. That’s 500 people. And let’s continue with that conservative estimate and say that only 1 percent of those who sought such healing claims to have received it. That might seem like an unimpressive success rate, but it would still be five people — five ironclad case studies for doctors and journalists and skeptics to be confronted with. Five people with names and diagnoses that had been suddenly and otherwise inexplicably reversed.
Give me those names and get them to sign HIPAA waivers and I’ll believe that “healing” is taking place at these INC events. Otherwise, I’m forced to view this “healing” as not just a hoax, but a particularly cruel and predatory one.
In other words, this isn’t just Simony, but a Simony scam. They’re not just trying to exchange God’s gifts for money, but collecting money for a counterfeit forgery of those spiritual gifts.
May their silver perish with them.
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* This piece appears in Christianity Today, which usually invokes the disclaimer of CT’s self-own about being a publication that believes gay and lesbian couples are “destructive to society.” But since snatching up former Gannett reporter Smietana was such a smart move, and since I personally admire anyone who hires the good people cast aside by that incompetently run newspaper chain, I’ll give them a pass this time.
** Acts 8:14-24
Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”
But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.”
Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.”
When this story is invoked to denounce the sin of Simony, people often leave out that last bit, from verse 24, in which poor Simon repents just as Peter said he should. We don’t hear any more of what happened to him, but the text doesn’t suggest that he remained trapped in “the chains of wickedness.”
Simon the sorceror repented and received forgiveness and liberation from the sin that now bears his name. I like to think that same kind of happy ending is available for those Simonious believers now supporting the bogus Trumpian Gospel of the sham-apostles of INC.