Rodney Howard-Browne, the often flamboyant Pentecostal preacher, tip-toed into New York City for a six-week crusade in Madison Square Garden starting July 7.
Previously, the South Africaborn Howard-Browne has styled himself as the "bartender of holy laughter," a charismatic manifestation that has ranged from uncontrollable laughter to the noises of animals. Five years ago, his teaching on "holy laughter" initiated the "Toronto Blessing" that led to a worldwide charismatic renewal and controversy (CT, Oct. 24, 1994, p. 78). The manifestations became so contentious that the Vineyard Association of Churches severed ties with the Toronto Airport church where they originated (CT, Jan. 8, 1996, p. 66).
Joking that he might be "a closet evangelical," Howard-Browne opened his Madison Square Garden rallies in the fashion of evangelist Billy Graham—with a straightforward gospel presentation to an orderly audience.
Howard-Browne argued that too many people had concentrated on his "joy thing" and had missed his biblical message. "Critics have gone overboard on the holy laughter," he said. Consequently, the New York meetings emphasized soul-winning and not church renewal by "holy laughter."
Indeed, the tough New York press initially gave favorable reviews to Howard-Browne. New York Newsday wrote, "The first evening of the six-week crusade was a festival of forgiveness—a message of God's all-encompassing love, without harsh judgment of New York City."
However, most of the press left after the first couple of nights and Howard-Browne changed to a furious hellfire and brimstone style. It may be that the change was an effort to turn around the low attendance for his first meetings, averaging about 3,000 in an arena that can hold 20,000 for a crusade that cost $4.5 million through the first week.
Although Howard-Browne claims that 2,100 churches back the campaign, so far out-of-town supporters outnumber New Yorkers.
Moved by his own immigrant experience, Howard-Browne has visited the Statue of Liberty four times. "New York represents the American melting pot," he says.
Howard-Browne initiated his "holy laughter" preaching a decade ago in upstate New York. "People began to laugh uncontrollably," he recalls. "The less I preached, the more people were saved." Last year, Howard-Browne says, he had a supernatural dream in which Graham talked about his 1957 crusade in Madison Square Garden. When Howard-Browne awoke, "I knew I must return to New York."
But in that era and with that evangelist, 20,000 people filled Madison Square Garden night after night—and 100,000 went to Yankee Stadium to hear Graham.
Different New York church leaders have criticized Howard-Browne for not cooperating with them as well as for his "holy laughter." How ever, several prominent local Hispanic and African-American pastors have pledged to eventually bring out their people.
In a city disrupted by electrical blackouts and erratic subway service due to July's Texas-style weather, the New Yorkers who ventured into the crusade were favorably impressed. "The sincerity and intensity of feelings were really impressive," said Dmitriy Nikolayev, an immigrant from St. Petersburg, Russia. "The music, the speeches of professional speakers, or just ordinary people like the basketball player [Meadowlark Lemon of the Harlem Globetrotters] were direct and full of desire to share their understanding of Christianity."
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