Many Americans headed for church after the Sept. 11 attacks, but in one corner of American Protestantism the faithful have been fleeing the pews--at the insistence of a powerful spiritual leader. According to Harold Camping, members of Reformed churches--which are attended by about two million Americans and include the Dutch Reformed Church and various Presbyterian and Baptist congregations--should stay home on Sundays. Perhaps it's not a surprise that this former elder is picking up converts, along with a host of critics.
Mr. Camping is sounding the trumpet over his Oakland, Calif.-based Family Radio network, which boasts 40-odd stations plus satellite, short-wave and Internet capability. Lest anyone believe that Mr. Camping hopes to become the patron saint of Sunday morning golfers and fishermen, it should be understood that he believes church attendance may be injurious to one's spiritual health. Indeed, he assumes that we may be in the End Times, when false doctrines are everywhere preached, often at Satan's instigation. There is little choice, he argues, other than to "depart out" before it's too late.
This crusade is not going over well with everyone in the Reformed movement, many of whom fear that Mr. Camping is attempting to establish a cult--with himself as the object of adoration. "He says don't go to church, but uses his radio network to set himself up as the source of religious authority," argues Dave Rastetter, a deacon at the Faith Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Akron, Ohio, and a leader of the anti-Camping forces. "That's why this story is important not only to our churches. This is exactly how cults get started, including the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Mormons."
Whatever his ultimate intentions, Mr. Camping has deeply shaken the Reformed world since his movement began picking up steam some eight months ago. Mr. Rastetter notes that he met with 100 or so pastors two weekends ago on Long Island and asked them how many of their churches had lost members because of Mr. Camping's crusade. "Each one raised his hand," he says. "Some signaled they had lost a handful of members. Some signaled a couple of handfuls. Many of these churches only have 50 or so members, so when 10 people leave, that's a major decline. And it's getting worse." Two churches, he added, have completely disintegrated, including Mr. Camping's Alameda, Calif., congregation.
Mr. Camping refused a request for an interview, but his Family Radio Web site offers some insights into his thinking. "On the one hand we see churches everywhere becoming more and more apostate," he explains in a long posting. "Yet on the other hand we see a ministry like Family Radio becoming more and more useful to the Lord in sending the true Gospel into the world." Indeed, Mr. Camping seems to see an overarching design at work. "God, about 200 years ago, anticipating the present situation, began to make some drastic changes in the world. After almost 1,300 years of history, mankind has discovered, and begun to use, radio waves and all other electronics. . . . It is obvious that God prevented these discoveries from happening until it was God's good pleasure to make them available to accomplish His purposes."
Mr. Camping's critics are not so sure whose purposes are best being served but believe that they have a good idea. Besides starting a cult, they argue, Mr. Camping may be attempting to overcome an earlier embarrassment: wrongly predicting the end of the world as we know it, which he once indicated was set for 1994. Mr. Rastetter admits to having signed on to that prediction. "But he kept changing the date, and I got fed up with all that stuff. Now I hear he's about to release another one." Last time around, the prediction was explained in a 500-plus-page book that rose to number four on some religious best-seller lists.
Meantime, the anti-Campingites wage their campaign on their own Web site, where they blame Mr. Camping's "allegorical interpretation" of the Bible for leading him astray. "You know what you can do with allegorical interpretations," says one critic. "You can prove anything you want." If nothing else, Mr. Camping is proving that Judgment Day, at least among his peers, has already arrived, and he is not faring so well. The title of one posting: "Excommunication."
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