Taking their Acts On the Road
GoMemphis.com, Mar. 8, 2003
By Jacinthia Jones
Remember the old-fashioned outdoor revivals, when traveling preachers drew souls from miles around with little more than a tent and a microphone?
These days, traveling evangelists prefer football stadiums and concert arenas with jumbo screens and high-tech sound systems – and they’re packing them in.
If you think their messages of inspiration, hope, faith healing and everything in between is for those believers on the fringe, think again.
Like never before, men and women, black and white, Christians of all types are flocking to see, hear, experience these ministries.
Next week in Memphis, the traveling Women of Faith conference is bringing stories of triumph over tragedy to The Pyramid while controversial and charismatic evangelist Benny Hill is conducting one of his Miracle Crusades at the Mid-South Coliseum. Both are expected to draw thousands.
“Itinerant evangelism has been a part of American religious life for 200 years. In other words, it’s nothing new,” said Charles Lippy, the Leroy Martin Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
The fact that traveling ministries now fill stadiums are a more modern day phenomenon, though, starting with the Billy Graham Crusades of the 1940s and 1950s.
“There’s something appealing about a fresh face from out of town and part of it, whether we want to admit it or not, is that there is an entertainment side to it,” Lippy said. “It’s a way to punctuate or interrupt ordinary life with something that’s a little bit different.”
And while the earlier crusades used to attract mostly evangelicals and Pentecostals, today’s Christian events are attended by “people who just crave the Word,” said Rev. Bill Atkins, pastor of Greater Imani Church and Christian Center.
“It’s no different than what attracts some people to an ‘NSync concert or go to see Luther Vandross. It’s what Christians do nowadays.”
There used to be a time when people were only exposed to the preaching of their own pastor and little else, Atkins said. But today, people are exposed to many other ministries through radio, television and the Internet.
Local pastors said the popularity of televangelists and their traveling ministries that sweep into town for a weekend doesn’t hurt local churches. But “some ministers are intimidated by them,” said Atkins, who takes his own crusade on the road each summer to cities where his television broadcasts are aired.
Dr. Roy Stauffer, pastor of Lindenwood Christian Church, said these visits can actually strengthen local churches.
Last year, his church sent a busload women to see Women of Faith in St. Louis and another 85 plan to attend The Pyramid event.
“This really speaks particularly to the younger generation of women as opposed to the traditional women’s organizations in the church which are transitioning or dying out,” Stauffer said. “Our women have never been so fired up.”
Women of Faith, advertised as the nation’s largest women’s conference, attracts women of all backgrounds for its soul-stirring testimonies by women for women. More than 2 million women have attended the conferences since they started in 1996.
Organizers are expecting 8,000 to 10,000 people for the two-day Great Adventure conference, which costs $69 ($59 each for groups of 10 or more).
Women of Faith publicist Cari Weinberg said attendees have described it as a big slumber party where women go to “get a charge for their spiritual batteries.”
Patt Hardaway, who is in seminary and helps with the Lindenwood women’s ministry, went to see the production last summer in St. Louis.
“I wasn’t sure what I was going to think about it,” she recalled. “I just didn’t know if they were going to try to tell us what kind of woman you had to be or whatever.”
Instead, Hardaway and the other women laughed and cried together and came back rejuvenated.
“It was really just a sharing of experiences that women have in common . . . more than it is pounding you with doctrine or anything like that.”
But appearances by evangelists like Benny Hinn draw a mixed reaction.
Hinn is a charismatic televangelist known for his theatrical healing services. His animated gestures inspired Steve Martin’s portrayal of a faith healer in the movie Leap of Faith.
“People who go to see Benny Hinn are attracted to the ministry of healing, and that’s by faith,” said Atkins at Greater Imani. “Benny Hinn doesn’t heal anybody. If they do actually get healed it’s the Lord that heals them.”
Hinn has been the subject of numerous news articles and investigative news shows that have questioned his healing crusades and criticized him for failing to account for the money he raises on television and during crusades.
“He’s fleecing the faithful,” said Lindenwood’s Stauffer. “Think of the good that could be done with the millions and millions of dollars he makes probably weekly, the difference that could be made in the world and yet, he’s just racking it in with that rah-rah stuff he’s doing.
“Women of Faith? Good for the church. Benny Hinn? Nah.”
“He gets cheap shots all the times,” said Randel McCarty, pastor of Cathedral of Praise, one of the local host churches of Hinn’s Memphis crusade, which also will include a mass choir comprised of 600 singers from church choirs around the city.
McCarty said Women of Faith and Benny Hinn both ultimately help local churches.
“Our attendance will be up after these two venues come to town,” McCarty said. “Both of these venues are here, not for the building of individual kingdoms, but for the building of the body of Christ.”