A quiet revolution is taking place in America religion, say Brad Christerson and Richard Flory, authors of The Rise of Network Christianity: How Independent Leaders Are Changing the Religious Landscape.
Largely behind the scenes, a group of mostly self-proclaimed “apostles,” leading ministries from North Carolina to Southern California, has attracted millions of followers with promises of direct access to God through signs and wonders.
Their movement, which Christerson and Flory called “Independent Network Charismatic” or “INC” Christianity, has become one of the fastest-growing faith groups in the United States. Apostles like Bill Johnson, Mike Bickle, Cindy Jacobs, Chuck Pierce, and Ché Ahn claim millions of followers. They’re also aided by an army of fellow ministers who fall under their “spiritual covering.”
Many of these apostles run megachurches, including Bethel Church in Redding California, HRock Church in Pasadena, and the International House of Prayer (IHOP) in Kansas City. But their real power lies in their innovative approach to selling faith. They’ve combined multi-level marketing, Pentecostal signs and wonders, and post-millennial optimism to connect directly with millions of spiritual customers. That allows them to reap millions in donations, conference fees, and book and DVD sales. And because these INC apostles claim to get direction straight from God, they operate with almost no oversight.
Nashville-based religion writer Bob Smietana spoke with Christerson (professor of sociology at Biola University) and Flory (senior director of research and evaluation at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California) about the appeal—and danger—of these burgeoning movements.
What’s the difference between INC Christians and the prosperity gospel movement or megachurch networks like the Association of Related Churches (ARC)?
Christerson: Probably the closest kinship would be prosperity gospel movement. But it’s a little different in that the INC movement has a network that cooperates more often. My sense of the prosperity gospel is that it consists of individual entrepreneurs, TV preachers, and megachurch leaders, but there’s not as much cooperation.
Also, the theology is different. The prosperity gospel would focus more on the individual’s health and wealth. This group is unique in that they really think God has put these apostles on earth to basically transform the world. It’s a sort of trickle-down Christianity, where these apostles are at the top of the mountain, exercising this power from the top down. That’s how the kingdom of God comes in.
Ironically, this group isn’t really focused on building up big congregations. Their ideas are spreading through other means, like high-profile conferences and the media products that they are selling.
Flory: These apostles are able to access a lot more money, because they are operating with a pay-for-service model, rather than relying on people’s donations and their goodwill. Congregations bend over backwards to keep people happy and keep the butts in the seats; people don’t have to pay unless they feel like it. But this is a completely different financial model, and it tends to generate much more money.
How do the people in this group identify themselves? Are they Pentecostals? Charismatics? INC Christians?
Christerson: They would use the word prophetic or apostolic—or they would align themselves with one of the apostles. They would say, “I am a follower of Bill Johnson,” or Mike Bickle, or Cindy Jacobs. People would tell us, “he’s my apostle” or “he’s my prophet.” The other term we hear a lot is “spiritual covering”: There’s this idea that you are under spiritual covering of your specific apostle or prophet. A related term is “impartation.” The apostles basically impart their power to you. If you are under them, the power that they have straight from God trickles down to you.
They consciously avoid any kind of formal organization or denomination. They see the strength of weak ties—it allows them room to experiment and to work with all kinds of different people. They can focus on putting together these big events—they don’t have to support a staff or donate to a seminary. They can just go straight to the marketing activities.
How do you become an apostle? What’s the process?
Christerson: It’s all sort of self-appointed. Leaders in the moment would say that people are recognized as apostles because of the influence that they have—not only over your own congregation but over other leaders. But there’s definitely a good deal of self-appointing going on. Peter Wagner, a leader in the New Apostolic Reformation movement, referred to himself as a “super apostle,” because he was influential with a bunch of other apostles.
It’s easy to see the advantages for leaders—it’s great to be the guy at the top of the pyramid since they get all the cash and no one tells them what to do. But it also seems like lay people really like this model. What do they get out of it?
Christerson: For the young people, they’re searching for meaning, and they’re also looking for adventure and excitement. These kinds of churches appeal to them in ways that traditional congregations just can’t. They are not merely trying to learn how to know God, live a godly life, or share their faith with other people. They really believe they are participating in this cosmic spiritual battle to transform the world. They are involved in this battle for whole cities and nations.
And then you have the appeal of direct access to God—getting direct downloads from God. God is going to talk to me and tell me what to do. Or my leader is getting direct downloads. For many people, that’s more exciting than a 45-minute sermon examining the Greek terms from Paul’s writings.
INC movements don’t have same “priesthood of all believers” theology as the Protestant Reformers, because power is still flowing down from particular apostles, and then others can access it. There is definitely a hierarchy. But since they are not building institutions, there is a lot of freedom for people to experiment with the tools they get from these apostles. So that opens up a lot of opportunities for people to lead, innovate, and create their own way of doing Christianity. That participatory aspect is a major part of the appeal.
Rather than traditional worship services, many megachurches say they have “experiences.” What kind of experiences are INC churches trying to create?
Christerson: The traditional megachurch uses music and exciting preaching from great communicators. But we found that wasn’t the case with these INC-lings. They are actually not very exciting preachers. That really surprised us. For them, it’s all about encountering these supernatural manifestations. That’s the exciting experience.
It’s very spontaneous. We went to a conference where a number of apostles were speaking and Bill Johnson was doing a Bible teaching. He had probably talked 20 or 30 minutes, and you could feel the restlessness in the room. He said, “I know you are just waiting for me to stop preaching because you want the power. But just hang with me here.” People weren’t there to listen to him. What they wanted was for him to lay hands on them.
After he finished, people came up to the stage, and they were being slain in the spirit. People were falling down and getting healed. That’s what they are there for. They don’t want to sit and watch other people. They want to access the power themselves to make a difference in the world.
Flory: The desire for this kind of experience is broader than just this group. It works out in interesting ways among these INC Christians, but we see it across different religious groups that we have studied at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture. Particularly among evangelicals, we’re seeing a more experiential, embodied way of understanding religion.
It’s remarkable how effectively INC personalities can get their message out without owning a television studio or buying airtime. How do they manage?
Flory: INC leaders have leveraged digital technology to get their message out—smartphones in particular, where you can get anything you want as long as you have some kind of digital connection. That just expands the world exponentially for these people.
Christerson: It’s also basically free to put your product out there. IHOP is particularly good at doing that. They say their website—in terms of viewed video content—is one of the top 50 websites in the world.
Between the internet and the conferences, they have figured out ways to leverage that big, exhilarating, hyped-up experience you get in a stadium venue. That’s where their networking comes into play. They can bring in four or five apostles, and then their followers flock to see them. People have these significant experiences that juice them up to contact the apostles over the internet. If they can go to a conference two or three times a year to get a new jolt, that becomes the new rhythm, as opposed the weekly rhythm of church life.
Let’s talk about the “7 mountains” theology, which is popular in these circles. On some levels, it sounds like theocracy. Christians are in charge of every part of life: the “mountains” of business, government, media, arts and entertainment, education, the family, and religion. On the other hand, it sounds like there’s no actual plan—aside from putting these Christians in charge. So what’s going on?
Christerson: They really believe that God is behind it all, that he is appointing people into these high positions, and that they will know what to do when they get there. They will be listening to God, and he will use them to supernaturally make America or the world into the kingdom of God. Some of the people that they claim are in these high position—like Betsy DeVos, Ben Carson, and Rick Perry—are part of the Trump administration. But they are not Pentecostals, and they have nothing to do with these groups. The movement just latches on to them and claims God is using Trump to bring in the kingdom.
Some INC people describe Trump as a King Cyrus figure—he’s not one of us, but God is using him to defeat our enemies and restore our nation. If Trump collapses or gets impeached, they will not look very good. Some of them have staked their reputation on Trump’s performance, but not all of them.
They don’t have policy goals, other than anti-abortion and anti-gay-marriage sentiments. They don’t have an idea of what it takes to reduce poverty or curb international conflict. None of that is even on their radar.
It’s a very different approach than other religious groups take. If it’s the Catholic Church, the religious right, or the religious left, they actually have a strategy. They have think-tanks and organizations, and they’re involved at different levels with political parties. This is nothing like that.
Flory: In some ways, it’s a really romantic vision. For most of the 20th century, most Pentecostals and evangelicals were pre-millennial—they imagined that God’s reign would appear in full only after the second coming of Christ. But the INC movement is explicitly post-millennial. In their minds, God’s kingdom can come to earth before Christ returns—and, by the way, it will be in America. There is this interesting combination of America first, Americans as God’s chosen people, and a romantic vision of God working it out through the people he chooses.
Do INC leaders engage in any self-reflection about the dangers of holding major power without oversight?
Christerson: I haven’t seen a lot of self-awareness on their part. They think they are an instrument of God—and that’s all they need. There’s a suspicion of any kind of accountability structures, because these limit the power of God working through individuals. When you have a church board and an elder board that hires a pastor, then that pastor can’t do the things that God is telling him to do—because he has to go to the board to get everything approved. The real danger, they would say, is when institutions become more powerful than the individuals that God calls.
But they do seem different than the prosperity gospel preachers, in that wealth isn’t flaunted.
Christerson: Peter Wagner talked about the differences between the two groups. He said that the prosperity gospel thought that money was a blessing for the sake of blessing. For his own New Apostolic Reformed movement, the prosperity comes from God in order to transform the world for God.
Interestingly, INC leaders think that the business world is the key to all of this—because wealth is more powerful than all other forms of power. They anticipate this huge transfer of wealth to believers. But they see this wealth as an instrument for bringing about God’s kingdom on earth.
For prosperity preacher, it’s more that God is going to bless me individually to show me favor and to show that he is God. We didn’t get that from the INC leaders. They dress casually and don’t drive expansive cars or fly in their own planes.
Many INC apostles are very successful. So why have they stayed out of the spotlight, at least in the broader culture?
Christerson: One reason this movement hasn’t gotten a lot of press is that the leaders don’t seek it out. They have their own networks for disseminating information and getting attention. They are not sending our press releases. For example, they had this Asuza Now conference at the Los Angeles Coliseum, and it drew 50,000 people on a rainy day—if not for the bad weather, the crowd probably would have been even bigger. And it didn’t even make the Los Angeles Times. Fifty thousand people show up for an apostle’s conference at the LA Coliseum, and nobody covered it. That was mind-boggling to me.
They don’t seem to be on anybody’s radar, in part because they are not promoting themselves through normal institutional channels.
And yet they do seem like friendly people, at least in public. And they seem to lack the kind of ostentatiousness that turns people off from prosperity gospel preachers or televangelists.
Christerson: They are super down-to-earth. And there isn’t the angry edge we’ve seen from certain religious-right activists or the more traditional pre-millennial dispensationalists who want to fight evil. For these guys, God’s taking over the world, and they are just riding the wave.