The lineups often stretch down the street. Hundreds of people, waiting for a miracle.
Over the past 25 days, an Abbotsford preacher has drawn more than 30,000 people to the Ignited Church in Lakeland, Florida.
What Todd Bentley thought would be five days of healing sessions and preaching has exploded into a roaring revival, with people coming from all over the world to be part of it.
The travelling preacher is as overwhelmed as the people who line up to be healed.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said in a telephone interview from his Florida hotel room. “It’s very overwhelming, very surreal.”
When the church doors open each day, hundreds of people pack the pews. The building fills up fast and some people have to be turned away.
The crowds who’ve come to see Bentley preach at the Ignited Church since April 2 have included travellers from as far away as Finland, Germany and the Netherlands. Although his planned five-day stint is long over, he now hopes to stay in Florida until the revival ends and the crowds dissipate.
All signs seem to indicate that will be some time coming. The meetings are scheduled to move to a larger venue, while at the same time Pentecostal churches across the United States and Canada have started holding overflow sessions, broadcasting Bentley on a big screen for their congregations.
Videos of the meetings are also being posted on Bentley’s website at freshfire.ca, where more than 270,000 people have viewed them so far.
In the videos, Bentley strides back and forth across the Ignited Church stage, gesturing wildly with one hand, a microphone clutched in the other. Bald, with a red beard, he often wears jeans and a black T-shirt. His arms and neck are covered in colourful tattoos. His chin and one eyebrow are pierced with metal studs.
“I don’t look like a typical preacher,” Bentley told The Province. “I want to be relevant to a younger generation, to bring them confirmation that God loves them.”
The Holy Ghost Man, as he has been known to call himself, says he does that through healing, a gift he claims God has given him.
“I never say you’re healed. I pray for healing, and God does the miracle. People tell me they’re healed,” he said, maintaining the ultimate goal of his ministry is to convert people to Christianity.
In a video taken at a recent meeting and posted on YouTube, Bentley calls out for people who have certain illnesses and afflictions — “. . . somebody broke the bones in your right foot, the top of your foot got crushed, the nerves are damaged in the right foot, somebody in the room . . .”
People claiming to have the described illnesses come up to the stage, where Bentley lays his hands on them and prays for healing.
In another video, an exuberant mother displays two X-rays to Bentley — the first showing her daughter’s elbow with a small crack in it, the second without. She claims the little girl’s elbow was healed when Bentley named the affliction during a recent meeting.
Six-year-old Elizabeth hides from the video camera, while Bentley calls the X-rays the “before and after of a miracle.”
Bentley’s life can also be divided into before and after, with his conversion to Christianity ending a life of addiction and beginning one of passionate evangelism.
According to an article in the Pentecostal magazine Charisma, Bentley was an only child, born to an alcoholic father and deaf mother.
At age 11, he began sneaking rum out of the family liquor cabinet.
As a teenager, Bentley bounced between foster homes before turning to the streets. By 17, he had overdosed on drugs three times.
The Charisma article goes on to say Bentley became a Christian at 17 after hearing about God from a former drug addict and friend of his drug dealer.
According to Bentley’s website, the experience brought him out of “a lifestyle of drug and alcohol addiction without cravings or withdrawal symptoms. He was also delivered from a lifestyle involving criminal activity, youth prisons, drugs, sex, satanic music and bondage . . . Todd was instantly transformed into a radical disciple and soul-winning evangelist for Jesus.”
Now 32, Bentley runs an Abbotsford-based organization called Fresh Fire Ministries. Along with a team of evangelists, he travels around the world, conducting healing crusades.
Home remains the Fraser Valley, where he lives with his wife, Shonnah, and their three kids.
The Florida meetings are free and open to the public, while any money collected by Fresh Fire goes to cover staffing costs and outreach work — like any other non-profit group.
Property records show Bentley lives a modest life. In addition to an Abbotsford home, he owns a 2007 GMC Sierra and a 2003 Harley Davidson motorcycle.
Bentley admits there’s been “scandal and counterfeit” in other healing ministries.
“But I’m just doing what I’m called to do.”
Skeptic Lee Moller wasn’t surprised to learn of Bentley’s claims. But he wasn’t ready to believe them either.
The chair of the B.C. Society for Skeptical Enquiry said there are “tons of faith healers who have never passed the simplest scientific test” as they prey on people’s hopes and fears.
“The one thing in this world that we all fear is death,” said Moller. “Faith healers hold out the promise of avoiding immediate death. The people who go to them are often facing terminal illness. They’re at a place where they have nothing to lose.”
But Moller then countered that perception, saying people do have two things to lose: The immediate opportunity to see a medical doctor, and money.
“If you don’t get healed, you’re told you didn’t have enough faith,” he said, adding those who claim they have been healed are often difficult to find after the hype has died down.
When The Province asked to speak to someone who had been healed through Bentley in either B.C. or Florida, Fresh Fire was unable to find someone at short notice, citing difficulties with outdated contact information locally, and record-keeping problems in Florida.
But Trinity Western University professor Dr. Joanne Pepper said there have been “documented reports” of miraculous healings by some faith healers, a term that is generally misunderstood.
“[Faith healer] doesn’t mean having faith in faith,” she said. “It’s not the power of positive thinking. It’s faith in [Jesus] Christ, his death and resurrection, that provides for our bodies being healed.”
The associate professor of intercultural and religious studies said many people distrust faith healers, but some can be genuine.
“The controversy comes when the person and their ministry is given greater significance than the person and the ministry of Christ,” she said, adding the motivation of the healer is often key to determining his or her legitimacy.
Christian revivals tend to “rise and fall,” she said. “If people are in crisis, they are often more open to spiritual stimuli.
“Who can say what’s in the mind of a single person?”