Lakeland - On day 41 of the "Florida Outpouring" revival, the crowd is down somewhat. There are only about 3,000 people in The Lakeland Center arena, but then, it's a Monday night.
People are here from states as far away as Texas, Ohio and Maryland, and from Florida locales like Palm Beach, Jacksonville and the Panhandle, according to the license plates in the parking lot. And that does not include people reportedly coming to Lakeland from overseas - Africa, Europe, Australia - to be present at this Pentecostal revival.
It resembles a rock concert. The crowds have listened to an hour of loud, power-chord Christian rock music, singing, "We are the generation who'll stand and fight; in the midst of all the darkness, carry the light."
Tonight, visiting evangelist Todd Bentley says he has been told by a prophet, Bob Jones, that 13 wise virgins would carry the revival forward. So Bentley calls teenagers up to the stage and "anoints" them, touching them and watching many fall backward, a practice Pentecostals call being "slain in the Spirit." It's just the beginning of an hours-long service.
Bentley came to Lakeland at the invitation of Stephen Strader, pastor of Ignited Church, to lead a one-week revival beginning April 2. Every day since then, Bentley has preached, prayed in tongues, relayed prophetic messages and laid hands on people wanting to be healed from a wide range of troubles, from financial difficulty to mental illness to cancer. Leaders say the revival could go on for months.
In future articles, The Ledger will examine some of the controversies and claims of the revival, but if some of what is happening seems surprising to the uninitiated, the revival is following a well-worn path. It is the fourth lengthy Pentecostal revival in the past 15 years, and one occurred in Lakeland at the now-disbanded Carpenter's Home Church, led by Strader's father, Karl Strader.
"This is kind of looked-for and prayed-for in the Pentecostal world," said Vincent Synan, emeritus dean of the School of Divinity at Regent University, a Pentecostal school in Virginia Beach, Va. "Everyone is looking for the next revival. When they hear of it, they want to go."
Bringing in crowds
But there is something different about the Lakeland revival. For one thing, Bentley - 32, a bald, bearded and tattooed Canadian - is drawing a younger and more raucous crowd. And it could be the first revival ever to be driven by the Internet.
Attendance reached about 10,000 one night recently when the revival was held at Joker Marchant Stadium. Recent crowds have ranged from 3,000 to 7,000 per night, with about 800 in the mornings, although the numbers swell on weekends, Stephen Strader said.
Because of the crowds, revival leaders had to abandon the 700-seat Ignited Church sanctuary for evening services. They have wandered to at least four other venues to accommodate the crowds, most recently at The Lakeland Center.
Revival leaders are expected to announce today that beginning May 26, they will hold evening services on the grounds of Sun 'n Fun Fly-in under a giant inflatable "air dome" that will hold up to 10,000 people. It will be the home of the revival "indefinitely," said Lynne Breidenbach, a spokeswoman for the revival.
"Todd is hiring staff and renting apartments. They're setting up camp to stay for three or four months," Strader said.
For everyone who has attended the revival in person, there are many more around the globe who have been watching it streamed live on the Internet. Strader began sending hundreds of e-mail dispatches about the revival during the first week, and soon after Ignited began streaming the services live on Ustream (www.ustream.tv). The site has received 1.2 million visits as of Friday, Breidenbach said. More recently, the services have been broadcast by God TV, a small Christian network.
"We went global in less than two weeks," Strader said.
Synan agreed that in Lakeland, the Internet has added something new to the time-honored tradition of revivals.
"It may be the first revival spread abroad on the Internet. It sounds like a new feature," he said. "This new technology might be the wave of the future for revivals."
Revivals, of course, are commonplace in American Protestant churches, going back at least as far as colonial times. Most last about a week or two. As a rule, they are designed to renew the dedication of the already-faithful and to convert nonbelievers through stirring music and fiery preaching that focuses on the eternal destination of sinners - salvation for believers, damnation for the rest.
The Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles in 1906 that is credited as the birth of the modern Pentecostal movement, however, was the prototype for Pentecostal revivals to follow, including the Florida Outpouring. Its focus was on an immediate, here-and-now encounter with God through ecstatic worship and signs that God, through the Holy Spirit, is present. Those signs include the "gifts" from God, say Pentecostals, of supernatural healing and declarations considered prophetic or predictive of the future.
"These manifestations are very common in American church history - screaming, falling out, shouting, jumping. In frontier America, this very emotional, expressive kind of worship was very common. The Pentecostals added speaking in tongues and healings," Synan said.
Some Pentecostal observers are calling the Lakeland revival the "third wave," following the "Toronto Blessing" that began in January 1994 and overlapped with the Brownsville Revival that began in June 1995 at Brownsville Assembly of God in Pensacola. In both of those revivals, there were daily services for more than two years, and both featured claims of miraculous healing and prophetic messages and worship practices not usually found in most churches, such as speaking in tongues and "holy laughter," in which worship leaders and portions of the crowd are seized with long bouts of hysterical laughter.
In a recent interview, Bentley said although he did not attend the Toronto revival, he has been influenced by it.
"The intimacy, the worship, the love of God - it made Jesus personal," he said. "It had the same kind of manifestations and power. I have a high respect for that renewal, the focus on the father heart of God."
But even before the Toronto revival, there was one in Lakeland.
In March 1993, Karl Strader invited South African evangelist Rodney Howard-Browne to lead a revival at Carpenter's Home. Howard-Browne, now pastor of The River at Tampa Bay, a church in Tampa, is a proponent of holy laughter, and he led 16 weeks of revival services during the following 10 months, with some weeks off.
"It was a terrific revival. We had about 3,000 or 4,000 a night. The radio station would play the services, and that just had people laughing. People thought we were out of our minds," recalled Karl Strader.
It did attract worldwide attention, Stephen Strader said, but it took about six months. Carpenter's Home had a TV broadcast, but it was only one hour a week.
"We didn't have Internet. There was no media coverage, no e-mails," he said.
The Toronto revival began at the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church under evangelist Randy Clark just as the Carpenter's Home revival was ending. It drew attention - and ridicule - for some practices that were even more unusual than holy laughter, such as people roaring like lions, barking like dogs or flapping their arms. Eventually, at the request of the Association of Vineyard Churches, the church withdrew from the association and changed its named to Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship.
The following year, a revival began at Brownsville Assembly of God under visiting evangelist Steve Hill. It too attracted attention well beyond Pensacola and continued nightly for more than four years, but it was a more orderly revival, Synan said.
"They had these manifestations, but they were not central. It was more evangelistic. A lot of people were converted," he said.
By Stephen Strader's own admission, the Florida Outpouring is not orderly.
"If you go to services by Benny Hinn, Joyce Meyer or T.D. Jakes, you see folks dressed up in coats and ties. This is not polished. This crowd is bikers, poor people. It's chaotic, it's disorganized, it's sandlot baseball. It's a working man's revival," he said.
Karl Strader said there is a difference in style from his 1993 revival.
"I think there's quite a bit more intensity. The music is not ours. It's too long for some of us. But it's reaching my grandchildren, and they're loving every minute of it," he said.
Synan said every-day revivals begin to wane after about three years, but Stephen Strader uses analogies from sports leagues to natural disasters to imply that the Lakeland revival could be even bigger.
"We feel like this is going to have a lasting impact," he said. "The first two were tidal waves. This is a tsunami."