What is the Word of Faith?

What is the Word of Faith? May 9, 2012

If I told you that, for every pound (or dollar, US visitors) you gave me, you could expect a hundred back, you would bite my hand off. Think of what I’m saying. If you give me £100, I will give you £10,000. You’d be crazy not to take it.

Well, as a reader of this blog, I would expect you to treat my claim with great scepticism. But this is the offer that Word of Faith preachers make to their congregations. The Word of Faith, if true, is the best news ever. It guarantees that you can be rich, free from sickness, and conquer all of your problems. Their insistence that “You can have what you say” has led to it being dubbed the “blab it and grab it” lot.

This prosperity gospel has thousands of adherents in the UK. It is followed by a significant proportion of Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians.

The Charismatic Movement is, essentially, Christians of other denominations behaving like Pentecostals. It is characterised chiefly by speaking in tongues, as well as the other gifts of the spirit (prophecy), and a very expressive worship style (raising your hands in worship, dancing before God, pop- and rock-influenced worship music).

The Charismatic movement has had quite an impact in the Church of England. Holy Trinity Brompton is one prominent Charismatic Anglican church, best known for being the place that invented the Alpha course. The New Church Movement and the Vineyard movement are also Charismatic. A lot of Charismatic churches are completely independent, though.

There are half a million Charismatic Christians in the UK, and a further million Pentecostals (statistics at the end of this post). By all accounts, they are the fastest (some say only) growing churches in Britain. They’re also the only mega-churches: 9% of Pentecostals attend a church with weekly attendance of over 1,000, according to Tearfund.

Placing a number on how many of these people put stock in the Word of Faith is pure guesswork. I’ve attended a number of New Churches, and found them generally sympathetic to the Word of Faith. At Bath City Church, a “new” church, the WoF was not preached from the pulpit, but they frequently gave a platform to my Dad to preach it midweek. He was quite well-known locally for preaching the prosperity gospel.

In my experience, some Charismatic Christians are deeply suspicious of the Word of Faith. Praying in tongues, shaking uncontrollably, casting out demons, being “drunk” in the Holy Spirit – that’s all fine, but they draw the line at the prosperity gospel. Overall, though, I’d say a majority of Charismatics are sympathetic to the Word of Faith, and a significant minority follow it devoutly.

 Kenneth Copeland

The best-known Faith preacher is Kenneth Copeland. I spent most of my childhood listening to him; he popularised the hundredfold return message I referenced at the start of this post. He frequently ran week-long conventions at the 9,000-seater NIA in Birmingham. This coming weekend, he is hosting a three day conference at London’s ExCel Centre. While the NIA was never packed, Copeland has always drawn thousands to his UK meetings. Copeland’s UK office is in Bath. I emailed them to find out how popular he is in the UK. The answer came back that KCM has “more than 17,000 friends and partners in the UK and Europe.”

Benny Hinn

Another popular Word of Faither is the faith healer Benny Hinn. I went to a meeting of his at the Albert Hall in the 90s, hosted by Colin Dye’s 15,000-strong Kensington Temple. There seemed to be more people outside than inside; getting a ticket was next to impossible. It seems Hinn still enjoys this popularity. At a 2006 meeting at the ExCel Centre, he claims there were 7,000 people outside, unable to fit in the auditorium.

Hinn was back in the UK this year, at London’s Victorious Pentecostal Assembly. According to this local council report, the church hosts numerous weekly meetings, the most popular of which, bizarrely, is on Tuesday mornings and pulls 2,000 people. Weekday evening services attract 1,750, and Sunday services 750.

Of course, when you’re promising unlimited money and miracle healings, it’s hard to predict whether the crowd is made up more of the devout or the desperate.

Creflo Dollar

In 2012, England will also see a visit from Creflo Dollar, Pastor of the 30,000-strong World Changers Christian Centre in Atlanta. Dollar has come under fire for driving two Rolls-Royces, but to his followers this is only proof that the gospel he preaches is true. Dollar will be hosted by Kingsway International Christian Centre, which had planning permission for an 8,000 seater auditorium denied in 2008.

So I can’t tell you how many Faith Movement/ Word of Faith/ Prosperity Gospel/ Blab n’ Grabbers there are in the UK, but I’d be amazed if it’s not a six-figure number. Adherents would probably overestimate the number massively. These type of preachers always host massive events in arenas and stadia, and build megachurches. The social proof that comes from meeting in those numbers makes the message appear more credible.

Of course, most Christians consider the Word of Faith to be heresy and/or a cult. Next time, I’ll explain how they manage to get people to believe this stuff, and consider whether it really is a cult (spoiler: Yes).

For the avoidance of confusion: The Charismatic movement and the Word of Faith have nothing to do with Accelerated Christian Education. Although all three parties claim to believe the Bible is literally infallible in all parts, they still manage very different interpretations. ACE is based on Southern Baptist fundamentalist theology. I went to an ACE school and a Word of Faith church at the same time. The two are in agreement on the first four or five points of their statements of faith, but the places where they differ get each side very, very angry indeed. Surprisingly, this hasn’t stopped the ACE curriculum being popular with Charismatics and Pentecostals.

And now the statistics…

The Evangelical Alliance, via British Religion in Numbers, found in a survey of 17,000 British Christians that just under 14% identified as Charismatic. Taking Tearfund’s figure of 2 million regular churgoing Evangelicals, that gives 280,000 Charismatics.

That still doesn’t give us the total number, because the Charismatic Movement is influential within the various denominations. Given the either/or choice on the Evangelical Alliance’s survey, Charismatic Anglicans, for example, might understandably go with their denomination.

In the 2005 English Church Census, 16% of regular churchgoers identified as Charismatic. That gives a weekly church attendance in England of 500,000 Charismatics.

In Tearfund’s 2007 survey, 7.8% of Christians identified as Charismatic. Using Tearfund’s numbers, that projects to 588,000 adults.

In a massive Cambridge-YouGov survey, “Evangelical/ Charismatic” was, unusually, one of the listed denominations. It was selected by 2% of Christians (who represented 55% of those surveyed). Projected into the adult population, that’s 550,000.

Estimates on Pentecostal numbers vary from one million (BBC, 2006) to three million (BRIN). Writing in the Telegraph, David Modell quotes the EA’s figure of two million. I’ve gone for the lowest figure because I don’t want to be sensationalist.

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