Abbotsford faith healer proves divisive for Christians
With his full-body Jesus tattoos and facial piercings, Todd Bentley looks more like a bike-gang member or World Wrestling Federation fighter than an evangelical preacher.
But in the past few months, the burly B.C. bad boy has turned into the hottest, most divisive Christian faith healer in North America.
Bentley, 32, who preaches about once being a young criminal in Gibsons and who now bases his ministry in the Bible Belt city of Abbotsford, has drawn roughly 300,000 people since April to his wild revival meetings in southern Florida.
Up to 10,000 people a day have been flocking to a Florida baseball stadium to lose themselves in ecstatic music and appeal to Bentley for divine healing, which the T-shirted, bling-wearing redhead sometimes offers by kneeing the sick in the stomach or kicking them with his biker boots and shouting “Bam!”
Despite drawing tremendous crowds to his mesmerizing, rock-music-filled services, Bentley has sharply polarized North American evangelicals.
A number of rival conservative Christian radio hosts, apocalypticists and charismatics have attacked the Canadian preacher for, among other things, claiming to have gone to heaven and met and talked with angels, Jesus and the apostle Paul.
Those critics have called his ministry “demonic,” “occult,” “deceitful” and “plain silly.”
Bentley’s growing legions of defenders, however, say God often uses “flawed people” to perform miracles and heal the sick.
Bentley’s controversial revival meetings, which have been running every day in Florida for more than 18 weeks — replete with people writhing on floors in religious ecstasy — have also taken a toll on Bentley’s family.
His large Abbotsford office, called Fresh Fire Ministries, acknowledged Monday on its website that Bentley and his wife, Shonnah, who have three children, have separated.
His wife and children have returned to Canada.
Bentley also announced he will end his Florida revival, called The Outpouring, on Aug. 23.
Bentley’s imminent departure from The Outpouring, so he can instead travel throughout North America and to Britain, has come in the midst of rising media coverage questioning the authenticity of his healings.
London’s Express on Sunday started a campaign last month to keep the Canadian revivalist out of Great Britain and, as of this week, Fresh Fire Ministries “postponed” a planned gathering in Birmingham, England.
Bentley was not available for an interview Thursday with The Vancouver Sun. An official at Fresh Fire Ministries, Bruce Merz, avoided answering questions, directing The Sun to the ministry’s website for information.
The Fresh Fire website said the intense “worldwide awakening” started by Bentley in Florida has created “pressures and burdens … which have helped to create an atmosphere of fatigue and stress that has exacerbated existing issues in [the Bentleys’] relationship. We want to affirm that there has been no sexual immorality on the part of either Todd or Shonnah.”
Bob Burkinshaw, of Trinity Western University in Langley, an evangelical independent school, says he is aware of people who are “quite excited” about Bentley, who has drawn thousands to his revival meetings at a Pentecostal church in Abbotsford.
“But I suppose I’m one of those who is moderately skeptical. These things are rarely black and white,” said Burkinshaw, a specialist in Canadian church history at the private evangelical university.
Evangelical Christians believe God does heal the sick, but “the issue is one of method,” Burkinshaw said. “Many say, ‘God doesn’t do command performances.'”
Bentley’s on-the-edge faith-healing appeals to “people on the margins of respectable society,” a U.S. subculture Burkinshaw says was drawn to revivalism during much of the early 20th century, before evangelicalism expanded into the middle- and upper-classes.
Rather than thinking of Bentley’s followers as gullible, passive sheep, Burkinshaw suggested understanding them as people who come to the events planning to build on the mesmerizing music and passionate preaching so they can “experience God’s presence.”
The Search: “Award-winning spirituality and ethics columnist Douglas Todd talks about everything we’re told not to discuss in polite company: religion, morality, politics, sex, death, God, love, meaning and all the things that matter.”
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