Bethel Church: Heaven on Earth?
California’s most prominent charismatic church, led by Bill Johnson, divides opinion. Andy Peck finds out why some believe Bethel is seeing heaven come to earth, and others claim that it’s a deception
When God touches a church in revival, those who visit can find themselves caught up in it. My visit to Bethel for a Kingdom Culture conference a few years ago was taken partly as a journalist keen to chronicle revival around the world, but also as a Christian keen to encounter God.
I sensed the thousands in attendance were hungry too. The worship band led like a group who knew they were not merely singing praise but offering invitation for God to come in his manifest presence. And there was evidence that he did. Some broke out into uncontrollable laughter, some shed tears and others were convulsed by shrieks and groans.
It’s a church that quite frankly messes with you
When the senior pastor, Bill Johnson, spoke, it was with the assurance that God had good things for us. He speaks without notes, and jokes that he only has one sermon but it’s 500 hours long. His talks are always based on scriptural concepts but their direction is open – like a surfer waiting to see which wave he needs to ride – and liberally dosed with examples of how God works today.
He concluded each talk with a session where he received words of knowledge indicating what God was doing that night. Illnesses included blood disorders, lupus, digestive issues, whiplash, a bruised kidney, and testimonies were given of healing or partial healing to knees, ankles, necks and backs. It was electric.
Since that visit, the stream of people heading to Bethel has become a river, with tributaries flowing from throughout the world; notably North America, parts of Europe (including the UK) and Australia. Bethel’s music has also spread far and wide, as the songs of worship leaders on their Jesus Culture and Bethel Music labels have been picked up by church worship bands around the world.
There were 2,100 at Bethel’s School of Supernatural Ministry this year (900 from overseas, 200 of whom were from the UK) learning how to become revivalists, and many more who visit for shorter conferences and events. Of the 7,000 who are part of the church, some 2,500 are students or connected to the school. But Bethel is only partly a ‘come and see’ church. It’s also a ‘go and do’ church. It’s a church that quite frankly messes with you: your theology, your way of doing church and your view of your walk with Jesus. It’s not always comfortable.
This challenge comes from Johnson, who has been immersed in this ‘revival’ since 1996 when he arrived as pastor with a mandate to preach and seek revival. He believes every believer should live a supernatural life too. It’s in the same vein as John Wimber’s message from the mid-80s, but also in step with contemporary ‘revivalists’ such as John Arnott, Randy Clark and Heidi Baker. Johnson’s message is articulated in his books and sermons that he’s invited to give throughout the world. In some circles Bethel has become a shining symbol of what God can do and is doing, and in others an example of why ‘the charismatic movement’ has departed far from gospel orthodoxy.
So what kind of challenge is Bethel giving to the wider Church, and what should we make of it?
THE KIND OF GOD WE WORSHIP
Bethel’s core message includes the belief that because God is a loving Father, he wants to meet with his people. If Jesus healed all who came to him, why wouldn’t he continue to do so, through his presence in his people? If things aren’t happening, it’s due to no lack on his part. Johnson says every spirit filled believer can carry ‘revival’ to others. These beliefs are born by experience.
Pam Spinozi, who has been writing down the miracles at Bethel for the last nine years, says, ‘It’s not possible to say how many miracles... we hear about. Everything from a torn rotator cuff being healed to metal disappearing from someone’s body. I have folders of specific diseases: cancer, MS, Parkinson’s, for example.
‘I also keep a folder of creative miracles like when someone gets a new kidney; folders of provision testimonies and family reconciliation. I am happy to say I have a resurrections folder, too. God is doing very exciting things!’
But the church is also honest about when healing doesn’t occur. Johnson’s own father, and former pastor of Bethel, died in 2004 following Church-wide prayer for his healing, and key elders have died too. Johnson’s son Eric, who serves on the senior leadership team, is 85- 90% deaf in both ears. However, they refuse to allow this to dissuade them from seeking God for healing.
BETHEL'S FRIENDS AND FAMILY
Bethel’s leadership are not keen on denominationalism. They prefer to unite based on values, led by the spirit.
Bethel was part of the General Council of the Assemblies of God until January 2006 when the church membership voted to withdraw their affiliation. Today Bethel has relational partnerships with other apostolic leaders as part of what is known as The Revival Alliance.
As well as Bill and Benni Johnson, the team includes: Che and Sue Ahn of Harvest Ministries; John and Carol Arnott of Catch the Fire; Randy and DeAnne Clark of Global Awakening; Heidi and Rolland Baker of Iris Ministries and Georgian and Winnie Banov of Global Celebration.
This means Bethel primarily links with other movements birthed or connected with the outpouring of the Toronto Blessing (also known as The Father’s Blessing) in January 1994.
If healings and miracles are something Bethel has come to expect, there have also been a number of unexpected phenomena that have attracted attention, and led many to write the church off as an esoteric fad. Firstly there were the accounts of bird feathers appearing in services, then gold dust in the air and on people’s hands.
Founder of the School of Supernatural Ministry, Kris Vallotton, wrote of the events: ‘I don’t think we have taken more ridicule for anything than [the] gold dust and feathers. It all began one day while someone was preaching, and these tiny white feathers started falling from the ceiling in the sanctuary…No birds, feathers, or nests were discovered anywhere in the signs of ductwork or the ceiling. It also started to happen in people’s homes. It always happens when we are talking about the things of God. The phenomena tends to come and go.’
Then there’s the so-called ‘glory cloud’: a sparkling gold cloud that seemed to appear at the side of the stage during several worship services and which was even captured on amateur video.
British-born Carrie Lloyd, one of the Revival Group pastors at the school, says, ‘We haven’t actually had a glory cloud for about 18 months. I first saw it in my first year, on a Friday night service. I started walking to it as I could see some tiny particles that were platinum-coloured moving in a figure of eight, from the ground upwards. Stepping into the cloud was a very different story. As soon as I went into it I was on my knees in repentance, apologising for my previous scepticism. When part of my body was in the cloud, it felt something different from the part that wasn’t. It was a feeling of complete glory and being overwhelmed by God’s goodness and kindness.’
Johnson has reminded critics that God often does something that could give ‘offence’ to onlookers. Some of the manifestations in other recent ‘revivals’ in Toronto, Brownsville and Pensacola included phenomena that were written off by sceptics. They say that being ‘slain in the spirit’, uncontrollable laughter and having teeth filled with gold fillings are all evidence of a movement it’s wise to stay well clear of. Yet, historians of revivals would say that God often confounds onlookers when he is at work. As Johnson himself has said: ‘You can’t invite God into your house and not expect to have something outside of the box happen.’
UNUSUAL MIRACLES AND METHODS
Bethel has developed a range of unusual ways of bringing people inside and outside the Church into connection with God.
Two rows of Christians form a tunnel by linking raised arms. As the congregation walk through the tunnel, the Christians pray for God to bless those who walk and in many cases they are overcome with God’s presence and barely able to walk, or laugh uncontrollably. ‘Fire tunnels’ are often used at the end of conferences and events.
Introduced by Kevin Dedmon, ‘treasure hunting’ is a method of supernatural evangelism which takes prophetic and healing prayer out of the church and onto the streets. Teams will ask God for prophetic words about people they will meet later that day. These might be to do with appearance, location, ailments, names or particular words. When encountering people who fit the description, treasure hunters ask if they might be ‘God’s treasure’, perhaps showing the words written down, and offer to pray for them, for healing or any other need.
Life Resurrection teams
These teams pray in the local hospital for people who have died to be restored to life. In one hospital, patients are asked if they want the Life Resurrection team to pray for them in the event that they die.
SERVING THE CITY
If you are reading this with increasing incredulity, Bethel may also complicate your idea of how you can best connect with your community. Speaking of how Bethel have engaged with Redding’s population of 90,000, Valotton says, ‘The Lord spoke to us about people in our city who are Romans 13 people, they are civic leaders who are called “ministers of God” [by Paul]. We went to our city manager and sat down with him and said, “We have a heart to see our city prosper. We believe that God divinely put you in this position. The first thing we want to do is to start giving 10% of our outreach tithe to the city.”’
The manager started suggesting ways to use the money that might please the church, but Vallotton made it clear that wasn’t their intention.
The impossible has become a possibility
‘The principle is that we lay the money at our leaders’ feet and trust you to disperse the money as you see fit. We ask that you keep this private and just that we meet annually to discuss what may be needed and take special offerings for particular projects.’
Charlie Harper, head of Projects at Bethel, has spoken of the tension that was initially created by the church’s activity: ‘The Civic Centre was due to shut and so we came up with a solution to make it work. Some groups were upset, believing that this “cult” was going to take over their centre, and so for a while there were protests with placards! But over time most have been won around. We managed to double the bookings in the first year and our students have been able to work each week on beautifying the city, amounting to thousands of hours of volunteer labour.’
Vallotton has travelled internationally to share the approach that they have taken, including addressing MPs at the House of Commons. He believes Bethel’s model could be spread across the nations.
When it comes to Bethel’s use and understanding of the term ‘revival’, again the church has a slightly different take. Delighted by God’s sovereign works, they aim to develop ‘revivalists’ who know who they are in God and are able to see him touch all who they meet, wherever they are and whatever they are doing. Typical of this would be the occasion that evangelist Chad Dedmon saw a woman healed in Walmart which so excited the cashier it led to the surprising announcement over the store tannoy – ‘God is healing people in aisle 3!’
Johnson has looked at historic revivals that have typically lasted a relatively short time, and asks, ‘Why couldn’t we be the first church to see the revival we are part of stretch across the generations, so that our ceiling becomes the next generation’s floor?’
So, predictably, Johnson is even messing with the standard idea of revival. Is this the outworking of the often-anticipated revival when many churches were touched by a new outpouring emanating from Toronto 20 years ago?
Predictably, such a church has had a fair degree of criticism. Many have questions about whether the miracles and manifestations should have such a prominent place in church life. They argue that this can undermine the gospel, and be counterproductive in our evangelism. Some have a problem with any suggestion that apostolic and prophetic ministries are still at work today.
Other criticism tends to centre on two areas of theology. The first is Johnson’s view that Jesus, though fully God, served as a man full of the spirit and so performed miracles through the spirit. As such he serves as an example for us today who, as spirit-filled believers, can do similar things. They argue that this undermines the deity of Jesus (though Johnson strongly denies this).
The second concerns Bethel’s theology of suffering. Calvinists in particular have a problem with Johnson’s belief that we can never conclude that God has sent suffering to us. Johnson believes that God’s will is always to heal, whereas Calvinist doctrine holds that God wills and uses suffering for his greater glory.
There are also those who write off Bethel’s School of Supernatural Ministry as ‘Hogwarts for Christians’. If you can train people to do miracles, how can the miracles be from God? They claim that Bethel and churches like it have drifted into heresy, chasing signs and wonders.
So how do we tell if this is God at work or not? My questions regarding any church like Bethel have always been: Does this fit with what scripture leads us to expect? And does it give the kinds of fruit that the gospel demands? As far as I can see, the answer to both of these questions is ‘yes’.
The sick are healed, demons are cast out and people are honouring one another above themselves. The lost are finding Christ and a new generation of young people are excited about a God who loves them. Signs, wonders and miracles that many thought impossible now suddenly seem possible. There is much about Bethel that still puzzles me, and messes with my theology. But that sounds rather like the kind of things that Jesus would be doing, doesn’t it?