Benny Hinn, on the short list of American evangelists who can fill a basketball arena with followers, will preach at Kemper tonight for a special Good Friday event.
Hinn is famous, some say infamous, for his international TV show and his ability to attract thousands to crusades focused on prayer, healing and raising money for Benny Hinn Ministries in Irving, Texas.
"It'll be packed," said Stephen Winzenburg, a communication professor at Grand View College in Des Moines, Iowa, and an expert on television preachers. "It's amazing the crowds he attracts - faithful, dedicated followers. Buses of people will come from 15 states."
Hinn, dressed in white, entertains the crowd with an emotional night of prayer and preaching, with laughter and tears. Followers worship with uplifted arms and trembling legs. Many in wheelchairs, others deaf and blind, still others with chronic conditions come forward to be healed by the Holy Spirit through Hinn. Hinn connects with a sizable but specific part of the charismatic and Pentecostal Christian community, said Tim Morgan, deputy managing editor of Christianity Today magazine.
"He's a showman," Morgan said, "way out of the comfort zone for many conservative Christians who feel his style and teachings don't resonate with their theology."
Hinn's crusades are fueled by his TV show and by a giant public relations effort that includes billboards, mailings and phone calls to supporters. Hinn's 1993 crusade in Kansas City drew 15,000 to Kemper on a Thursday night.
Hinn has drawn criticism over the years for a wealthy lifestyle and for raising funds for projects that weren't built, but his followers stick with him, saying he brings multitudes to Christ and good works to the world.
Hinn rarely grants interviews. In response to a call from The Star for information about tonight's event, a ministry representative said, "I'm sorry, I can't give out any information about the crusade." Several pastors of local charismatic churches didn't return phone calls or said their schedules were too busy this week for interviews.
On the Benny Hinn Ministries Web site, www.bennyhinn.org, the mission's pastor wrote about recent accomplishments:
"This ministry is touching the lives of thousands each and every day, not only through the This Is Your Day' television program, worldwide Miracle Crusades, Covenant Partner Conferences, Miracle Conventions and more but also in a very practical way by providing shelter, food, clothing, medical supplies and educational materials for many around the world who are less fortunate."
Morgan said Hinn continues to draw big crowds even while the trend among evangelicals is away from crusade-style gatherings. Many church leaders decided such events didn't have much impact.
"They don't see the life change," Morgan said. "They see a little bump in church attendance, then it's back to the usual."
Hinn's events typically begin with solo singers backed by a large choir, leading up to Hinn's appearance on stage in a white suit.
"It's like a messenger of God has appeared," said Winzenburg, who has attended a crusade.
Hinn leads the crowd in more singing and in prayer, then he preaches. Buckets are passed for donations, and credit card slips are available.
Newspaper and other reports have said Hinn raises $100 million a year from contributors, but the ministry doesn't disclose finances. That's typical of TV evangelists, Winzenburg said. Of 21 television preachers he surveyed, only three would provide audited financial documents.
During the healing session, people wishing to be cured are called up on stage, but not everyone gets invited.
"That appears to be carefully regulated and scrutinized, and only certain people get close to him," Winzenburg said. "He will blow on them, tap them on their foreheads, and they fall backward. He'll have people jump up and down to prove they've been healed."
The claims of instantaneous healing are controversial, and the ministry isn't open to providing documentation, Winzenburg said.
The Rev. Robert Lee Hill of Community Christian Church in Kansas City said the healing ministry is a tradition in Christianity going back to Jesus. But a worry is that people may focus too much on healing in the sense of miraculous intervention. Other types of healing are worthy of attention and thanksgiving, including healing from a surgeon's hands, Hill said.
"We have great faith that those are great gifts from the almighty as well," he said.