Saving souls rarely makes news, unless somebody starts saving lots of souls in a bizarre way that looks really spooky on videotape.
The mass-media sawdust trail has, in the 1990s, led to the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship and to the Brownsville Assembly of God in Pensacola, Fla. So far, several million people have attended well-documented rites in which worshippers collapse in tears or laughter or say that they have found healing for various addictions or diseases. Meanwhile, critics keep sounding warnings about fraud and heresy.
It would be easy to dismiss this as merely another mating dance between camera-friendly Charismatics and jaded journalists who love a wild story. But one outspoken evangelical is convinced something else is going on - another clash between faith rooted in human emotion and faith built on centuries of scripture and tradition. The new super-preachers may look and sound like conservative Christians. But radio commentator Hank Hanegraaff is shouting what many are saying quietly: some of these super preachers are New Age prophets in Christian clothing.
"What was once relegated to the ashrams of occultists, you can now experience at the altars of many huge churches," said Hanegraaff, president of the Christian Research Institute in Southern California. "This is all about human experience overwhelming biblical truth. ... When people start saying that doctrine is a bad word - look out. When people start talking about the mind being the obstacle to enlightenment - look out."
Hanegraaff's recent book, "Counterfeit Revival," attacked the very foundations of the modern Pentecostal revival that has touched much of Protestant Christianity, and even Roman Catholicism. He is in the thick of a new media storm swirling around the preachers in Brownsville. Yet note this paradox: Hanegraaff and his family attend a Charismatic church, the Pacific Hills congregation in the Calvary Chapel movement.
The bottom line: miracles are always controversial. Yet the churches that are growing -- worldwide -- are those that preach a supernatural faith. There are, of course, skeptics who believe that biblical accounts of supernatural events are merely tales of ancient frauds. Others, often liberal Christians, say the Bible is full of myths written before science explained many mysteries. On the other side are many conservative Christians who argue that the biblical accounts are true, and that God still performs miracles, but that believers stopped receiving miraculous "gifts of the Holy Spirit" soon after the birth of the early church. Others say modern believers may be able to perform some miracles, but not others. The arguments go on and on.
On top of that, there are splits in the Pentecostal camp centering on clashing views of "speaking in tongues," an ecstatic experience in which believers are said to speak in a "heavenly" language. Some Charismatics say this occurs to some, but not all, "Spirit-filled" people. Others insist that anyone who has not done this is somehow "less mature." Some ultra-traditional Pentecostal believers go much further and argue that someone cannot go to heaven unless they have received the true "baptism of the Holy Spirit" and spoken in tongues.
Thus, many people engaged in bitter fights over events in Toronto and Pensacola have totally different understandings of how God works through the church and scripture. These debates have been raging for a generation and there is no sign they will end anytime soon.
Nevertheless, many who fiercely disagree with some of Hanegraaff's pronouncements will agree with one major theme: some Charismatics are spewing joyful revelations about life and faith that threaten the authority of scripture and centuries of sobering church teachings. Above all, their emphasis on everyday miracles tends to deny the reality of sin and human suffering. It makes healing and happiness more important than repentance and salvation.
"It doesn't matter if the people who are having all these highly personal experiences are liberals or New Agers or whatever," said Hanegraaff. "Pure personal experience has a very, very, very bad track record when it comes to providing truths on which people can base their lives. ... What we're seeing is more people moving from faith to feeling and from facts to fantasy."