Some residents, saying Bethel Church’s civic influence threatens the city’s integrity, hand out “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid” stickers.
KEEP TABS ON THE LATEST CALIFORNIA POLICY AND POLITICS NEWS
God brought Golibé Omenaka to Northern California. The journey started in Manchester, England, when he encountered the teachings of a Redding-based megachurch called Bethel, and took off when a friend prophesied that God had called Omenaka to Bethel.
Specifically, God called Omenaka to the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry, where the 24-year-old would undertake a spiritual transformation and be trained in miraculous healing.
In the two decades since the School of Supernatural Ministry’s founding, more than 10,000 people from around the world have made the same pilgrimage, turning Redding into an unlikely global epicenter of Christian culture.
Today, walking around this former logging town of 90,000 residents, you can meet people from a dozen countries in a day. This year, the school graduated 2,500 students, representing more than 70 countries; the youngest was 18, the oldest 85.
It was founded by a fifth-generation pastor, Bill Johnson, who heads up local Bethel Church, and started with a few dozen local students. Today the school enrolls more international vocational students than any other school in the country, by far, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement data. In 2017, Bethel had 1,792 international students enrolled. The institution with the next highest enrollment was Dean International, a flight-training school in Florida, with 888 international vocational students.
“We are a supernatural school. We believe that healing is for today,” says Leslie Crandall, who oversees first-year students.
Students are taught that God is actively at work in the world, and miracles did not die with Jesus; they’re taught that God can manifest his healing power through their prayers, according to students and leaders. “We believe that God is still speaking, and he can speak to his kids and he does,” Crandall says.
When Omenaka first encountered Bethel’s teachings back in England, he balked. “My internal response was this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of in my life,” he says.
A leader at his church in Manchester wanted him to go on something called a “treasure hunt,” a practice originated by Bethel. He was meant to search the streets of his city for people in need of healing. Guided by impressions from God, he would find strangers to pray for and, ideally, heal.
YouTube is full of treasure hunters—small groups, usually of young people, wandering the streets, airports and malls of the world asking to place their hands on strangers—a Redding-born practice exported around the globe.
Omenaka grew up religious, still, the idea of modern-day miracles didn’t sit well with him at first. “I was afraid, to be honest,” he says.
But as he opened himself to the unfamiliar teachings, something shifted in him. “When you pray for a complete stranger on the streets, and they get healed of a leg injury, and they say, ‘What the heck have you done to me?’ that kind of changes the way you look at things.”
It changed things so much that Omenaka enrolled at the School of Supernatural Ministry. After eight years, he’s still in Redding. He met his wife here, and they have two kids. Now, he’s a pastor at the school.
Omenaka’s story is typical of students here. For most, it’s a far-flung brush with Bethel that draws them to Redding.
Bethel’s influence goes far beyond its megachuch of 11,000 members and school with international pull. Bethel music is played around the world, and its studios have produced a handful of Billboard 200 hits the last decade.
Then there’s Bethel.TV, a subscription service that streams church services, e-courses and original shows produced by Bethel. Bethel’s weekly podcast has 20 million downloads a year; there are dozens of books written by Bethel leaders; several conferences each year, centered on everything from music to medicine, bring more than 25,000 people to Redding. There’s also Bethel’s tech school, K-8 school and art school, and its international leadership network, Global Legacy, created by a former top-level British prison executive.
“It represents a new form of Christianity that could reshape the global religious landscape for years to come,” write sociologists Richard Flory and Brad Christerson in “The Rise of Network Christianity: How Independent Leaders Are Changing the Religious Landscape.” Bethel and other neo-Charismatic powerhouses like it are untethered to traditional church structures or denominations. They’re savvy digital marketers who leverage the power of electronic communication to expand their reach, according to Flory and Christerson.
For those who flock to the School of Supernatural Ministry, proximity to Bethel’s vaunted spiritual leaders, Bill Johnson and Kris Vallotton, and the promise of direct access to the supernatural are a powerful draw. But many stay for the sense of community or spiritual growth.
“I came here thinking I will grow in my prophetic, I will do all kinds of miracles,” says Henk Van Diest. He and his wife sold their house in the Netherlands and moved their family to Redding to attend the school.
He enrolled for two years and spent three years working in Bethel’s healing rooms, where people receive prayer. “I saw so many miracles,” he says, “but in the end, my relationship with God is the most important thing. It became more about my identity.”
The School of Supernatural Ministry is not accredited and doesn’t confer degrees, but each year thousands of students pay the $5,250 tuition for an unconventional religious education. The school is less about studying religion than living it in the world.
“It’s not only head knowledge, like rational,” Van Diest says. “It felt sometimes like open-heart surgery.” He and his wife plan to stay in Redding for a fourth year and are preparing to sell their real estate business in the Netherlands.
Flory, the director of research at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California, speculates that’s partly why, while religion is in decline, especially among younger people, this expression of neo-Charismatic Christianity — Charismatic meaning emphasizing miracles and manifestations of the Holy Spirit — is one of, if not the, fastest-growing forms of Christianity in this country and the world.
California is home to two of the world’s most prominent examples: Harvest International Ministry (HRock Church), based in Pasadena, and Bethel.
“California is not the only incubator of Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianity,” says Flory, “but it is one of the most important. There’s less religious infrastructure that tells you what you can and can’t do here.”
In general, Flory says, Pentecostalism is associated with specific denominations like the Assemblies of God, while Charismatic tends to refer to a more independent form of Pentecostal Christianity that exists beyond traditional denominational bounds. But both emphasize miracles, prophecy and other gifts of the Spirit.
In the popular imagination California may not be a particularly religious place, but there are more than 200 megachurches here (churches with regular attendance of more than 2,000 people), more than in any other state. Pentecostalism itself was born here. “California has, for everybody, been a land of opportunity, not just liberal hippie types,” Flory says.
Ultimately, Bethel wants to be more than a school with international pull, more than a megachurch. Flory says its objective is nothing short of cultural transformation.
He describes the leadership’s goal this way: “Let’s get the right kinds of Christians in the right kind of public sectors of American society: politics, economics, Hollywood, etc., and then through their efforts we’ll bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth in the here and now.”
But some Redding residents don’t want to be part of the experiment.
“Redding is their test case of turning a city that is a democracy into a theocracy,” says Laura Hammans, a member of Investigating Bethel, a Facebook group with more than 1,000 members.
Hammans is one of a dozen members of the group meeting at a Redding park one afternoon. Another member, Donna Zibull, is passing out stickers that say, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.”
“We’ve handed them out freely because we want to get the message out there,” Zibull says. “Some people are afraid to put them on their car.”
Afraid, she says, because the church’s influence feels like it runs through the core of the city. Redding’s mayor, Julie Winter, is a Bethel elder; Bethel paid the salaries of several police officers when the city couldn’t afford to; a Bethel-connected nonprofit took over management of the city’s civic auditorium and now holds Supernatural School classes there; Bethel’s influence was central to getting a direct flight from LAX to Redding approved last year; and there’s a $150 million Bethel expansion underway that will triple the church’s capacity and allow the school to grow by 1,000 students.
For some, the line separating church and state is hard to trace at this point, threatening the integrity of the city. “They have this really well-organized program to innervate everything with their influence,” says David Boone, another member of Investigating Bethel. “You get this feeling that they know they’re a sort of virus, but they think they’re the good virus that we all need.”
For many others, Bethel is a positive force, one that’s given the city a much needed economic boost and made it more vibrant and diverse.
Either way, Bethel’s outsize influence on this little city is unavoidable. Redding has become a new kind of Christian mecca.