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.