In the interests of fairness, I watched a broadcast of Todd Bentley from the 'Lakeland Healing Revival' on God TV last night. I know, I can't believe what I just typed: I watched God TV. Anyway, the alternatives included the Eurovision Song Contest and Britain's Got Talent! But watching the broadcast is the closest I'm likely to get to someone I wrote about. Here are my thoughts on what I viewed:
1. I have no doubt that the guy is sincere. He's loud and passionate, and just because my personality style is much quieter, I'm not going to diss him for that. I was less sure about Roy Fields, the worship leader's insistence on extravert styles of worship, rather than letting the expressions of worship come from the hearts. I don't suppose he either was being insincere, it was more about the mode of worship and church he knows. Traditional churches that insist on people not being bodily expressive are just as wrong, in my estimation.
2. I'm still nervous about the approaches to the testimonies of healing. All but one of them came without medical verification. The one that did was where a nutritionist accompanied the testifier. And in fairness, another woman was supported by a doctor. A third said she was going to ask for another X-ray, which at least meant she was serious about verification, but I would have been happier hearing her story after that test. Bentley also read out the thirteenth case of a resurrection from the dead, but admitted he was reading it out before the story had been verified.
In every other case, the people were coming onto the stage within a few days of symptoms having improved. I do hope and pray, and especially as someone who does believe that God heals in response to our prayers, that none of these people is disappointed. But when it is so quick, there is still the danger of a case of psychological remission. I am happy to give Bentley the benefit of the doubt that in his excitement, but I fear it is getting the better of him. What will happen if any of these people have relapses? There is a danger for the spiritual effect upon them, and for those who heard it. The name of God will be besmirched.
Likewise, I wondered about the practice of getting people to donate their walking sticks, zimmer frames and wheelchairs so quickly. The relapse question looms large. And what is Bentley's team doing with the collection? I don't suppose they are being held in case the original sufferer needs them back – that would be inconsistent with the tone struck. But are they being given to hospitals, for example, or are they being kept as trophies? I'm not accusing him of anything dishonest, I just felt like I wanted an explanation when I heard it. Perhaps one has been given on other evenings. Does anybody know?
3. I still think – watching on a 28 inch TV screen rather than a small YouTube video that it looks like Bentley is giving the adults a gentle push when he prays for them in the name of his Big Bam Boom God. He never pushes the children (whose stories are, perhaps, the most touching). He blows gently on them. This does seem more appropriate and sensitive. But he doesn't seem to stop the prayer and laying on of hands until someone has fallen down and an assistant can arrive to cover them with a blanket.
4. I couldn't believe he was saying this, but Bentley really did ask those watching on TV or the Internet to lay their hands on the screen or monitor in order to receive the anointing, or the blessing they needed. It sounded like all the worst televangelist talk, of the 'Touch the television and feel my sincerity' variety. It seems to be linked into this idea of the 'transferable anointing', just as church leaders are travelling to Lakeland to receive the anointing and bring it home.
It all sounds a bit animist to me, but maybe I'm being unfair. What I do think is reasonable is that someone may have a particular experience of the Holy Spirit, and then they are so endued with divine power that when they pray for people, things happen that didn't before. I'm sure that God could 'transfer the anointing' via screens and monitors, but I wouldn't want to baptise that idea. I would see it as an act of grace. I suppose it would be like the stories in Acts about Paul's handkerchief, and those who wanted to have the shadow of Peter fall on them. One would have to be very careful to keep the focus on God and not an object that becomes the object of veneration. (The same is true, of course, regarding personalities.) I notice from Peter Kirk's account of his trip to Dudley that a handkerchief soaked in anointing oil is being used there as the ostensible means of 'transferring the anointing'.
5. Further to the regular invitations to 'come to Lakeland' is the need to theologise about the notion of the 'holy place'. It is something evangelicals have either denied, been wary about, or just not thought about. God is God. God is omnipresent. Yet God also chooses to manifest his presence in a particular place for his sovereign purposes. It is interesting that the notion of 'pilgrimage' is coming back in all sorts of Christian traditions. Some of that is purely spiritual: it is the sense that we have not arrived, for we are still on a journey. But a Lakeland or a Toronto becomes like a Protestant Lourdes, Walsingham or Santiago de Compostela. Again, the place must not be venerated, only the Lord of the place. Making pilgrimage to such a place needs to be from a sense that this is the place to which God has called me out of obedience, rather than an assumption that a visit is the current cure-all.
I have related before the story of visiting Glastonbury twenty years ago with my sister. We found the town, with its occult and new age shops, spiritually oppressive. We made a point of walking to the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, where Christian prayer had been offered for centuries. There we felt 'clean'. I have heard, too, stories of Christians entering houses and feeling a sense of peace, only to discover afterwards that the previous residents were a Christian family. I would be reluctant to suggest that spiritual power somehow resided in the ground or the premises, but perhaps there is something in the sense of dedicating a place or objects as holy to the Lord. Presumably we wouldn't do that unless we believed that God took us at our words in making the dedication, and acted accordingly?
Overall, then, there is still the usual church mix of the good, the bad and the indifferent. However, with this phenomenon it is all magnified to a huge extent. May all of us, whatever our views of Bentley and Lakeland, echo the words of John the Baptist: 'He must increase, but I must decrease.'