LAKELAND – Dale Borgelt brought no X-rays to the Lakeland Center stage on Tuesday night – just pain, faith and a sheet of paper listing his date with a surgeon.
“Lord, remove the tumor,” Bentley shouted as he delivered a quick, open-handed blow to Borgelt’s midsection. Borgelt fell backward, eased down by the evangelist’s young staff members. A few moments later, after other healings unfolded above him, Borgelt stood.
“It still hurts,” he told Bentley. Not as much, he added.
Whether healing in a medical sense is delivered here may be hard to measure, but more people each night are finding reason to believe and pouring into the 7,000-seat arena. The Lakeland movement, still in its first month, is drawing comparisons to the “Toronto Blessing” in 1994 and the Pensacola Brownsville Revival that fired up the next year.
Look for more of these hyper-charged events, led by charismatic healers with devoted followers, said Hank Hanegraaff, president of the Christian Research Institute.
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Taking a break?
“We’re in desperate times, and we’ve got desperate people. And they’re looking for a quick fix,” Hanegraaff said in an interview from Charlotte, N.C. “But all they’re getting is false hope.”
Borgelt decided to seek divine help for his spinal tumor in Lakeland as he was watching TV at home in Omaha, Neb. He was tuned in to “The Florida Outpouring,” as Bentley and his organizers are calling the event.
As he left the stage Tuesday, the crowd cheered. New people looking for miracles took his place. Hearing loss. Arthritis. Cysts. One wheelchair-bound woman walked with the help of two of Bentley’s staffers and then took a few steps alone. “I feel good,” she said. The crowd kept cheering and praising Jesus.
Back on the arena floor, Borgelt seemed dazed. “I do sense that it’s better. But it’s still there.”
Will he go ahead with the surgery, scheduled today?
“I’m just going to wait and see what the Lord’s going to do.”
Never Something This Big
Bentley travels the world with his Fresh Fire Ministries “sparking revival fires and equipping the body in power evangelism and healing ministry,” according to the Fresh Fire Web site.
But these weeks in Lakeland are different.
“Never have I been a part of something this big,” Bentley said during an interview at Lakeland’s Ignited Church, where the revival began.
Stephen Strader, the church’s pastor, invited Bentley for a five-day stint, starting April 2. These revival meetings are common – for Bentley, Strader and others.
God had something bigger in mind this time, both men said, filling the atmosphere at the revival with holiness and commanding Bentley to stay.
“On the second or third night, we just looked at each other and said, ‘We’ve got to extend it another week,” Strader said.
“It’s electric. It’s tangible,” said Bentley. “That’s what people are coming for and also the notable miracles.”
“It’s like the day of Pentecost,” said Brenda Copeland, of Lakeland, who has attended the events with her children and grandchildren. “We’re living in perilous times,” she said, and God “has told little Lakeland to throw its weight around.”
Tuesday’s meeting brought visitors from across the United States. Strader and one of Bentley’s assistants have begun holding 10 a.m. morning services at Ignited. More than 85 percent of the crowd at one meeting indicated they were from out of town.
The momentum is understandable to J. Lee Grady, editor of Charisma magazine, one of the oldest and largest Christian publications. As the nation struggles with economic and political turmoil, “moral depravity” and the threat of terrorism, Grady said, “God is going to show up on the scene in a remarkable way and pour out the Holy Spirit on us.”
“The Lakeland Revival is one manifestation of that.”
Hanegraaff, of the Christian Research Institute, sees darker implications to what he terms “counterfeit revivals.” He says participants leave believing they are truly healed, but back in the real world, they find nothing has changed.
“That’s when they start thinking God has abandoned them or doesn’t love them,” Hanegraaff said. “The vast majority of what is claimed to happen in these revivals …doesn’t happen.”
Hanegraaff, host of the nationally syndicated Bible Answer Man radio show, said when large groups get together and are under the influence of song and repetitious actions, they get worked up into an altered state of consciousness.
“It makes them hyper-suggestible, where black becomes white. They obscure reality and enshrine absurdity.”
A true revival, he said, starts with reformation in the pews – when believers have meaningful prayer, share the Gospel with others and learn the Bible.
Once they have a genuine transformation, only then can they impact the world, and “that’s when revival breaks out.”
Not Your Grandmother’s Evangelist
True or not, something is breaking out this month in Lakeland.
The meetings quickly outgrew the Ignited Church and a larger Auburndale church. Monday night, it moved to the Lakeland Center. Friday, with the Lakeland Center already booked, the event will move to Joker Marchant Stadium, where the Detroit Tigers play spring training baseball. The meetings start at 7 p.m.
Mike LaPan, executive director of the Lakeland Center, estimated the crowd at nearly 7,000 Monday night and 4,000 to 5,000 Tuesday and Wednesday. Fresh Fire paid the Lakeland Center about $15,000 per day, said LaPan, who complimented the crowds for their behavior.
On Tuesday afternoon, Bentley’s staff talked excitedly about inquiries from NBC and CNN. They said there is interest in the revival from someone affiliated with Benny Hinn, the Christian televangelist and faith healer who was born in Israel to Palestinian-Armenian parents and became a Christian as an adult.
“Wouldn’t it be great if Benny came?” one staffer said.
Though he preaches to charismatic, Pentecostal crowds, Bentley said he’s not culturally a part of any religious tradition.
“I grew up a drug addict,” Bentley said. “I got saved at 18 in my drug dealer’s trailer because I had an experience with God.” His purpose, he said, is to preach intimacy with God. And that’s what he says the healing services provide.
With tattooed arms and neck, pierced ears and chin and an intense, expressive face, Bentley looks and sounds the part of lost soul-turned-prophet of the masses.
“In a sense, Christianity has become this religious, organized structure,” he said. “People are realizing that the power of God is real, that the kingdom of God is isn’t just a bunch of people sitting around talking.”
Bentley said not everyone is healed at the revivals and he makes no claims otherwise. His salary is paid by Fresh Fire, which also is covering costs for the events outside of Ignited Church. Lynne Breidenbach, a revival spokeswoman, said Bentley would not publicly discuss what he is paid.
No admission is charged to the events, but an offering is taken late in each session. Strader, the Ignited Church pastor, said the magnitude of the revival has proven a financial burden, not a boon.
“There isn’t anybody making money,” he said.
Grady, the editor of Charisma, said Bentley is not “your grandmother’s evangelist” in a column he wrote last week.
“My feeling is that he was a very troubled guy before he found the Lord,” Grady told the Tribune.
“I believe he is a genuine guy and has been used in many places since his ministry began. But of course, mainstream folks will consider him off the wall because of his appearance and background.”