Believers tout the healing powers of evangelist Hinn, critics dispel them

The Gazette/July 15, 2003
By Kamon Simpson

Colorado Springs, Colo. -- Wherever Benny Hinn goes, the masses follow. They are the believers and seekers, the faithful and the hopeful, and most of all, the desperate.

They travel for hours and fill arenas across the country to hear the televangelist preach.

They come to be healed.

Hinn, swathed in white from his shoes to his Nehru-collared jacket to his sculptured helmet of hair, has long has been a divisive figure among Christians, many of whom have questions about his finances and theology.

Hinn rarely grants interviews, and his ministry did not respond to a half-dozen requests for this story.

"Benny Hinn is not somebody that many evangelical leaders think about or talk about with any regularity because he is considered marginal and controversial and not credible," said Tim Morgan, a senior editor for Christianity Today magazine. "Christian critics have problems with everything from his worship service to his financial accountability to his theological views.

"At the same time, he's very much a hero in the charismatic Pentecostal movement. It's easy to say that he's a polarizing figure. People react positively or negatively, but they can't ignore the fact that Benny Hinn is coming to town."

Hinn's 30-minute "This Is Your Day" TV program is seen daily in more than 100 countries. Each month, he takes his ministry on the road with miracle crusades, going to St. Petersburg, Russia in July, then New York and Berlin in August.

No televangelist is bigger than Hinn, whose ministry takes in an estimated $100 million a year.

Although he never attended a theological seminary, he is the most popular and prominent figure in the Word Faith movement, whose followers believe faith can be activated by certain words while speaking in tongues.

In the Pentecostal movement, the fastest growing segment of the Christian faith, charismatic worshippers experience physical encounters in which they often fall after being "slain" by the Holy Spirit.

"I'm going, and I'm encouraging our people to go," said Pastor Glen Pummel of The Grace Place, a Colorado Springs Foursquare Pentecostal church. "I'd like our young people to have a point of reference for a miracle. We live in a time in the church where it's been real easy for us to disregard miracles.

"I've seen people go to (Hinn), needy people. I saw them respond to a call he made for salvation. I literally saw people come back changed."

At every stop, those seeking a cure for illness, many in wheelchairs and on crutches, greet Hinn. Some are on stretchers and hooked to respirators.

Hinn, 50, is a slender man born in Israel to a Greek father and Armenian mother. As a showman, he rarely disappoints. He inspired Steve Martin's character in the 1992 movie "Leap of Faith."

"He uses his showmanship skills to work the crowd," said Stephen Winzenburg, a professor at Grand View College in Des Moines, Iowa, who researches evangelists. "He's very much like a circus ringmaster when he's there in the arena. He's controlling the environment. People may be coming for healing, but it's very much controlled hysteria."

Hinn's crusades have been described as a professional sound and light extravaganza, with warm-up singers taking turns on stage against the backdrop of an angelic choir, leading up to a chorus of "How Great Thou Art," Hinn's cue.

Eyes closed, arms spread, he takes the spotlight to cheers, hallelujah praises and swoons.

He preaches.

He prays.

He sings.

And the people wait.

Before the healing can begin, Hinn asks for money, sometimes suggesting donations of no less than $100. Credit card forms are passed around with buckets to collect the cash.

It's part of the "prosperity gospel," the message of giving to the Lord as an investment, of financial miracles leading to physical ones. It has been a time-tested fund-raising tool for evangelists such as Oral Roberts, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Falwell, and is a staple of the crop of Word Faith preachers such as Kenneth Hagin, Frederick Price and Joyce Meyer.

Followers say God anointed Hinn, who says he zaps people with power he absorbed from the graves of dead faith healers.

He begins his healing session with a list of miracles he says are happening in the arena. He barks out the diseases like an auctioneer - heart condition to his left, arthritis to his right, cancer in the upper deck. He tells those healed to leave their seats and come toward the stage.

He tells the disabled waiting on the floor beneath the stage to get ready to say goodbye to their wheelchairs.

Security men scramble to keep order as people rush the stage, saying they are healed.

Ushers walk the aisles - looking for the best miracles to escort on stage to be interviewed by Hinn - screening people's necks and backs in search of the truly miraculous.

Those lucky enough to reach Hinn get his blessing. He touches them lightly, and they flail backward, seemingly unconscious, into the arms of catchers.

Hinn knocks catchers into other catchers. He throws his power like a baseball toward the choir, knocking them down en masse.

He takes off his jacket and rubs it over his body and swings it over his head. Sometimes people pass up handkerchiefs, and he lies on top of the pile, rubbing his power onto them.

Hinn, who started his ministry in 1984, says he has healed thousands.

Heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield says Hinn cured him of an irregular heartbeat that forced Holyfield out of the sport in the mid-1990s.

Science accepts the psychological benefits of faith healing, to a degree.

Outside of cancer remissions, Hinn's ministry has been unable to medically document healings to the satisfaction of critics, who argue he tackles varicose veins while leaving the disabled in their wheelchairs.

Some worry his followers won't see doctors or will stop taking medication because they believe in his power.

Some, like Gerald Trigg, a retired pastor of First United Methodist Church in Colorado Springs, wonder why Hinn doesn't visit hospitals and clinics instead of holding events in arenas and convention centers.

"Look, if anyone has been given the gift, any gift, it's not to get rich on," Trigg said. "It's to use for the sake of the kingdom of God. I have real reservations about anyone who is there to get money."

Reports from newspapers and television news shows suggest he collects $100 million a year, but Hinn's ministry does not disclose its finances.

In a recent appeal, Hinn asked supporters for $2.5 million to cover what he called a 10 percent drop in income for a six-week period in January and February. That would equate to raising $25 million every six weeks, or $216 million a year.

Hinn's ministry acquired nonprofit church status from the Internal Revenue Service years ago when it was affiliated with the Orlando Christian Center, a church.

He has moved his headquarters to Texas and lives near his television studio outside Los Angeles. The IRS classifies the ministry as a church, which means it does not have to make its finances public.

That lack of accountability earned the ministry an "F" from Wall Watchers, a Charlotte, N.C.-based group that grades the nation's largest faith-based groups at Wall Watchers notes that at Hinn's crusades, "offerings have a flair and feel of a healing lottery ticket."

Hinn's ministry is not a member of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a sort of Christian Better Business Bureau.

Most of the more than 100 evangelical Christian organizations based in Colorado Springs are members of ECFA, including the largest, Focus on the Family.

In December, "Dateline NBC" documented false healing cases, projects for which the ministry collected money but never pursued and Hinn's lifestyle, including his $3.5 million, eight-bedroom, nine-bathroom house in a Southern California gated community.

Other investigative reports revealed Hinn raised money for a $30 million healing center in Dallas that never was built.

Hinn's lifestyle - from expensive cars to $2,000 hotel rooms to $8,000 airline tickets - has been recorded extensively.

Other Christian critics take issue with Hinn.

Hank Hanegraaff of the Christian Research Institute, a California-based group that monitored Hinn's ministry, calls Hinn a false prophet.

Hanegraaff's book, "Counterfeit Revival," criticizes Hinn, saying he "drags Christ's name through the mud."

Hanegraaff and other critics keep a record of the claims Hinn makes at his crusades and on his television show - that Fidel Castro would die in the mid-1990s; that all gays would be killed by fire by 1995; that Jesus would appear on the platform with Hinn at one of his crusades.

Hinn lashes out against such criticism. He once said, "Sometimes I wish God would give me a Holy Ghost machine gun. I blow your head off!"

"You have to give Benny Hinn credit for persistence," said Morgan of Christianity Today. "He has found a Christian community that just thinks he has the hand of God on him and his ministry. All the criticism just bounces off, almost like Teflon. It has no impact."

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