Cover Story

The Pensacola Revival: Shaken or Stirred?

At 5:30 p.m., the church begins to rock. A hundred teenagers in the choir loft jump to their feet, clapping and dancing as they sing. The vast congregation responds in kind, and soon the cavernous auditorium is literally shaking. Maybe there's too much shaking. After 15 minutes a man takes the pulpit with an important announcement: "We ask the people in the balcony not to jump or bounce. It wasn't designed for that. You can come downstairs here if you want to worship."

Issue: "Pensacola," Dec. 20, 1997

(In Pensacola, with reporting by Edward E. Plowman)--When the service begins in earnest at 6:05, the announcement is all but forgotten. The excitement begins on the platform, where a man in a purple sportcoat begins running in place. The man to his left follows suit, and soon the two are dancing together behind the pulpit. The spirit spreads to the balcony, where children roll down the broad steps while parents try their best to bounce without shaking the floor. On the front row of the balcony, one gray-haired woman attracts even more attention than the ministers dancing on the platform. Looking like a geriatric cheerleader, she crisscrosses her arms in front of her and chops wildly at the air above her head. When she finally falls to the floor and thrashes about for five minutes, her fellow worshippers burst into applause. At last the thumping, driving music fades into a slow worship chorus. The cheerleader struggles to her knees, her hands raised to heaven. Wiping his brow with a handkerchief, one of the dancing ministers announces, "I'm not going to make any excuses. I just want to dance tonight because the glory of the Lord has returned to his church." Father's Day 1995 was the date of the return. Since then, the Brownsville Assembly of God church in Pensacola, Fla., has drawn hundreds of thousands of the curious and faithful to what has been billed as one of the largest revivals in modern history. Leaders say an average of 3,000 people attend services four nights a week, Wednesday through Saturday, with even more on Sunday mornings. The marquee out front tallies the number of saved souls the way McDonald's used to tout the number of hamburgers sold. "Over 114,000 decisions for Christ," the sign read earlier this fall. But this past summer, editors at the 65,000-circulation Pensacola News-Journal began to wonder about suggestions from critics that there was more to the Brownsville story than had been previously reported. They assigned a team of reporters to ask more questions, look more closely at the leaders and their past, consult theologians, interview dissidents, check with city officials about the revival's effects on the community, and dig out financial details-how much money was coming in, where it was going. The core revival team came under especially close scrutiny: Pastor John Kilpatrick, 47, who directs the revival and preaches on Sundays; resident guest minister Steve Hill, 43, who preaches the weeknight services and presides over prayer, healing, and "impartation" exercises among those who respond to his call to gather at the front of the sanctuary; keyboardist Lindell Cooley, 34, who sets the pace and mood with music; and Michael Brown, who heads the Brownsville Revival School of Ministry next door. After four months of detective work, the News-Journal finally published the results of its probe in 36 stories spread over five days. The News-Journal charged that Mr. Kilpatrick and Mr. Hill essentially choreographed some spectacular parts of the revival, showing people how to be "slain in the spirit" and berating them if they did not fall to the floor when touched. Reporters charged that Mr. Hill had acknowledged in an interview that he had lied about important parts of his past in order to increase the "impact" of his autobiography, Stone Cold Heart. The News-Journal charged that Mr. Kilpatrick had feathered his own nest with revival proceeds and that an orphanage in Argentina supposedly supported by Mr. Hill's ministry receipts had not received support. And so on. The News-Journal reported that the first revival service at Brownsville contained objectionable conditioning and training. Church officials refused comment to WORLD; in response to inquiries they referred to a church Web site (www.brownsville-revival.org) that called the newspaper's account "riddled with inaccuracies and misstatements" and stated that "not one single aspect" of the revival effort "was planned out in advance." The Web site report stated that Mr. Hill's book is true and his ministry helped start the Argentina orphanage, which is now government-funded. More information than the church Web site provides, however, is needed if the church is to refute the newspaper's charges of financial scandal. WORLD tried to obtain from church officials more information that would refute the press accusations, but without success. Church officials have declared there will be no further statements to the press beyond what appears on the Web site. Rose Compton, Mr. Kilpatrick's secretary, said the newspaper series had had "a detrimental effect" on the revival, but "the spirit is stronger than ever." Just how strong remains to be seen. The revival now is officially on hiatus until January. Denominational officials, still wary of scandal after the Jimmy Swaggart revelations, are cautiously supportive of the Brownsville leadership. Thomas Trask, General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God, said the ministers "assure me that they have their financial house in order." However, he added, they have chosen not to divulge the inner workings of the church. This is an ecclesiastical matter, not one for general "public consumption," he said in a statement sent in response to inquiries from WORLD. But the public-at least much of the charismatic public-has long been consumed with the revival, and church leaders have reveled in their national media coverage, from 20/20 to Time to Spin magazine. Now, they may fall on the very sword they helped to sharpen. Lost in all the charges about finances and fictionalization has been another longstanding kind of criticism: quiet but persistent questions about the doctrinal foundations upon which the Brownsville revival was built. Hank Hanegraaf, author of the book Counterfeit Revival, has long charged that the Brownsville movement is built on emotionalism and mind control rather than on solid scriptural teaching. Indeed, his criticism was so sharp that Mr. Kilpatrick once prophesied he would be struck down for questioning the work of the Spirit (a prophecy Mr. Kilpatrick later retracted, under pressure from Assemblies of God leadership). Mr. Hanegraaf survived, but so too did the revival of which he was so critical. Signs out front give instructions for lining up, a process that may begin hours before service time. Long lines are such a problem that revival leaders, as a sign of goodwill toward disgruntled neighbors of the church, offer special tickets allowing them access to the services without the usual long wait. It's not unusual to find cars in the parking lot with license plates from states as distant as New York and Michigan, and at least one family in the congregation one night had flown in from California. Brownsville leaders insist that those visiting the revival from all over the world aren't getting simply a show or a sugar-coated, feel-good gospel. Yet undeniably there are traces of both on a typical night. During testimony time, one young woman shares with the congregation that through the revival she has been healed of an eating disorder. "For weeks Satan has said to me that I'm big and I'm fat and I'm ugly. But I'm beautiful in Jesus Christ," she concludes to rousing applause and shouts of support. Mr. Hill seems to catch the spirit of this Christian Oprah show. He calls down from the choir loft a strapping young man who has recently enrolled in the missions school. "Don't they make a nice couple?" he asked the congregation as the impromptu couple stood side-by-side. Audience members blessed the match with still more applause and shouts of amen. Soon enough, however, Mr. Hill took the pulpit and got down to the nightly business of preaching against sin. "You need to get back to the point where little things bother you," he chided the congregation almost as soon as he took the pulpit. In the course of his sermon, Mr. Hill condemned a long list of sins: drinking, pornography, pride, masturbation, homosexuality, cursing, hypocrisy, and adultery. "Jesus says, 'You've got to wash your hands before you come to eat at my table,'" he told his listeners as the altar call approached. A taped choir sang, "I'm Running to the Mercy Seat," as congregants charged toward the pulpit and fell to their knees in the aisle when they found their way blocked by masses of the penitent. Mr. Hill leads the weeping, laughing, twitching crowd in a prayer of repentance: "I ask you, Sweet Jesus, forgive me. I ask you to cleanse me. I repent of my sins. I ask you tonight to be my Savior, my Lord, my very best friend." It's a touching prayer, repeated verbatim by hundreds of lips, but it comes out of nowhere. At no point in the sermon did Mr. Hill preach on the doctrine of salvation. Perhaps the converts have been here before and have heard salvation carefully explained. Or perhaps, like the cheerleader in the balcony, it is the excitement of the moment that moves them. Perhaps exhausted by her aerobics during the opening song service, the woman slept soundly through most of the hour-long sermon, only to begin again with her jumping and jerking the moment the altar call was announced. When the prayer was over, the anointing began. As Mr. Hill, Mr. Kilpatrick, and other "prayer team" members waded into the expectant crowd, people scrambled over pews to get into the path of their favorite counselor. The scene was pure bedlam. Music continued to blare from the PA system, competing with Mr. Hill's cordless microphone, which remained on. "Jesus!" "Yes!" "Thank you!" he shouted repeatedly as he laid hands on those gathered before him. A simple touch on the forehead was enough to send most falling backwards into the arms of a "catcher" wearing a red armband, who then lowered them gently to the ground. A gaggle of gigglers followed the catchers, doubling over with seemingly uncontrollable laughter each time someone fell to the floor. More sober workers with jewel-toned blankets over their arms followed in the wake of the red armbands to cover the legs of women who fell immodestly to the floor. Like those women in the aisles, the Brownsville church now finds itself in an awkward position, and many Christians want to avert their eyes. But if even a few of the charges leveled by the News-Journal prove to be true, the reputation of the Church will be hurt by the recriminations, as they were following the Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart scandals. And once again, the question will be raised: However pure the motives, can any religious movement sustain itself over the long term when fueled more by emotion than sound doctrine?

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