Bethel Church, a local megachurch known for signs and wonders, is also Redding’s best spot for a night out, at least according to a list of top ten nightlife experiences by Tripadvisor, which gives the church 4.5 stars for its overall visitor experience.
The ranking is an indication of Bethel’s outsized influence in the small Northern California town of Redding, population 90,000. The church, which claims 11,000 regular attendees and, in 2018, had $60 million in annual revenue, has sometimes been called the Disneyland of evangelicalism. It’s a place, some say, where congregants and visitors can receive prophecies about their future, have their dreams and tattoos interpreted, see feathers and glitter fall from the church ceiling, and meet the spiritual leaders of a movement that’s become known around the world as a place where God’s presence manifests, including through miraculous healings.
Like Disneyland, some travel great distances to visit Bethel. Many of Redding’s Tripadvisor reviews come from faith tourists, people who visit Bethel from all over the country, and the world, in hopes of experiencing a miracle or other special touch or word from God. Visitors to the church take advantage of multiple weekend experiential services, a prayer chapel and garden, healing rooms, prayer lines, and prophetic booths.
Most of these activities are free, but they often include an opportunity to donate to Bethel, where leaders teach generosity as a key “kingdom” value and tell followers that the choice to give financially attracts God’s attention and draws heaven’s blessings and favor. In addition to donations, Bethel also benefits from a multitude of fee-based revenue sources including sales from products available in their coffee shop and bookstore, tickets to their numerous conferences, payment for media streaming services, and tuition from their schools.
Many visitors come to experience a miracle, but while Bethel Church has extensively documented anecdotal claims of healing, they were unable to provide documentation of any medically verified miracles for Shasta Scout. Meanwhile, faith tourists, and their financial contributions, continue to provide revenue for the church, through what some academics call a multi-level marketing approach to ministry.
Scientific Research Group Seeks to Verify Claims of Healing At Bethel
The discrepancy between the thousands of healing stories and the lack of medical proof does not seem to have slowed the steady stream of faith visitors who sacrifice time, money and the risk of hope for healing, to attend Bethel’s services and events.
Asked in June of 2021 whether Bethel takes any responsibility for determining whether the anecdotal healings they publicize have really happened, former Bethel Communications Director Aaron Tesauro wrote that the process is complicated.
“Being able to verify physical healings through medical records retrieved before and after healing is a time-consuming process, and one that not every person is willing or able to pursue,” Tesauro said, in a series of statements for Shasta Scout that were recently confirmed by current Bethel Communications Director Brad Everett.
To facilitate that process, the Global Medical Research Institute (GMRI), an independent non-profit group of doctors and scientists that investigates claims of healings, has been working in partnership with the church since 2017 to verify some of the claimed healings at Bethel. The organization conducts research processes to investigate the medical effects of prayer and seeks to publish their results in peer-reviewed medical and scientific journals. Tesauro indicated that two GMRI case reports were recently published in such journals, although neither report is connected to Bethel Church’s ministry.
Staff at GMRI told Shasta Scout they grew interested in researching miracles after seeing little rigorous scientific and medical research into those claims. The organization launched in 2012 and has since worked with a variety of organizations, including universities, hospitals, medical practices, film-makers, and religious organizations to find and investigate claims of miraculous healings.
They said the science on miracles so far supports the broad claim that miraculous medical healings can occur, as evidenced by randomized controlled clinical trials that have shown improvement in health outcomes following in-person prayer. While skeptics say documented improvements may be due the placebo effect, GMRI countered that they control for such effects in their research, and that the placebo effect “may account for some but not all of the observed effects of prayer for healing.”
GMRI staff are given use of on-site facilities by Bethel, although the church does not control their research, they said, or otherwise financially support their work. While GMRI said they review thousands of claims of miraculous healing, only a small percentage meet their requirements for scientific verification. These requirements include strong medical documentation prior to prayer, instant or nearly instant healing after prayer, strong medical documentation of a recovery, and a recovery that is impossible to account for by medical means.
GMRI has not yet documented any medically verified miracles at Bethel during their three year partnership, but staff said they are investigating a number of specific healing claims from Bethel that seem likely to meet their criteria for verification and will comment further on specific cases after they are published.
Their website reveals the religious motivations behind their research, indicating that their findings will allows Christians to fight workplace discrimination for medical providers who wish to offer prayer for patients. They also hope their work will protect the rights of Christians to claim that God can heal, a statement that has been labeled as false advertising in the United Kingdom.
Despite Lack of Proof, Bethel Extensively Documents Anecdotal Claims of Healing
Those who follow Bethel’s theology believe miraculous healing to be an imperative of the Christian faith. Leaders teach that Christians should “get what Jesus paid for,” or receive the full benefit of Jesus’ death on the cross, which includes making the world a place where sickness no longer exists.
The church provides plenty of anecdotal evidence that such healings occur. During a School of Healing and Impartation held at Bethel in late January of 2022, Bethel saw “countless healings and miracles,” according to a promotional email shared after the event, along with video testimonials.
A key component of Bethel’s teachings is that healing can be released through spoken words, touch, and even thoughts or sleeping dreams, and through time and space. A Bethel Church page dedicated to healing testimonies contains thousands of such stories, under subtopics that include emotional, financial, relational and physical healings. Tesauro said the church utilizes a part-time staff member, known as the “church historian” to gather, organize and document personal stories of healing.
But these narrative-style testimonies are highly subjective in nature. In one typical example, dated May 2020, a French graduate of Bethel’s School of Supernatural Ministry (BSSM) says that someone with chest pain was taken to the hospital where they were found to have a lung infection and COVID-19. After practicing healing teachings, the former student writes, the patient tested negative for COVID-19 two days after her initial diagnosis. “I release this testimony over you!” the person says. “COVID-19’s cure was found 2000 years ago!”
Examples such as this, which lack key information supporting the claim, abound throughout the church’s documentation of supposed faith healings.
But the testimonies nevertheless serve an important purpose in Bethel’s culture, increasing faith in what’s possible for God to accomplish in and through church.
Bethel’s reputation for healing is spread largely by the claims of leaders, whose words are shared across the world via Bethel TV and Bethel Music. But it’s also effectively spread by followers, who are taught to widely share their “testimony” or the story of what God has done for them.
In contrast to the legal definition of “testimony,” Bethel and many in the evangelical church use the word to refer to the recounting of a religious experience for which no particular proof is provided. The church says that “repeating the testimony” or retelling the story of what God has done in an individual’s life, whether that be physical, emotional, or spiritual, creates the power needed for God to do it again.
In Bethel’s weekly Healing Rooms, volunteer staff are taught to celebrate any perceived progress towards healing during ministry sessions, including sensations of warmth or tingling in the person’s body, changes in their pain levels, or unexpected laughter or shaking. When such sensations occur, they are encouraged to “increase the testimony” by cheering, laughing, clapping, jumping, or otherwise celebrating progress towards full healing.
Testimonies are widely disseminated via the church’s own dedicated media distribution channels, including Bethel Music, Bethel TV, and numerous books by Bethel leaders.
Bethel’s Reputation for Signs and Wonders Bring Faith Tourists, and Funding Streams
Regardless of the veracity of Bethel’s claims of healings, their focus on extensively recording those unproven claims and their theological demands to repeat stories of healing, financially benefit the church at the expense of vulnerable faith tourists, some of which come specifically for healing.
Bethel leaders teach generosity as a key “kingdom” value and tell followers that the choice to give brings heaven’s blessings and favor. Their website lists six primary ways to support the church including through direct tithes and offerings as well as via donations to their ministries, schools, missions, and associated ministries. In-person visitors are offered numerous opportunities to give during services and at a variety of specific ministry events, including visits to the healing rooms.
Visitors can also purchase books from the Bethel bookshop, many of which were written or created by Bethel staff as an extension of their popular ministry roles at the church. Those books include more than 30 written or co-written by Bethel Senior Leader Bill Johnson, as well as titles by Chris Gore, the Director of Bethel’s Healing Ministries who offers followers the ability to “steward their healing” and knowledge for how to “walk in supernatural healing power.”
Other revenue streams connected to Bethel’s healing claims include Bethel Music albums, Bethel TV streaming services, donations for add-on ministries like sozos, and fees for their numerous events, which often include healing prayer lines and “fire tunnels.” Thousands from all over the nation and the world also pay tuition to attend one of several Bethel schools, often coming because they seek spiritual, physical or emotional healing or the power to heal others.
Stories of signs and wonders at Bethel also benefit the church’s networks of members and attendees in Redding, who profit from religious tourism through a slew of businesses. Because Bethel teaches the principle of the “tithe,” (that the first ten percent of believers’ income should be donated back to God, via the church,) these business likely also feed back into Bethel’s financial success.
Some Say Bethel Uses A “Multi-Level Marketing” Ministry Model
The funding that Bethel receives through claims of signs and wonders is part of a revenue model that academics Brad Christerson and Richard Flory call a form of multi-level marketing.
They’re the authors of The Rise of Network Christianity, a book about Bethel and other churches, who are loosely affiliated through networks of ideology popularized by charismatic leaders. As Christerson and Flory argue, churches within the movement they call Independent Network Charismatic (INC) Christianity deal in perceptions of spiritual power that stimulate excitement and influence, driving revenue.
By “selling” the possibility of signs and wonders to their audience, Christerson and Flory say, Bethel and other churches are able to gain financially from a combination of donations, event fees, and product sales. Sales and donations are driven by charismatic church leaders who are endorsed as having special spiritual powers that can benefit those under their influence. This allows God’s anointing that supposedly provides favor, healing and prosperity to trickle down towards followers. Meanwhile money from followers flows upwards through donations and product purchases, benefitting both mid-level leaders and those at the top.
Given the church’s lack of verifiable evidence of healings, some might wonder why so many still flock to Bethel church’s ministries. But for many, the testimonies of signs and wonders are compelling enough.
A song released in May 2021 by Bethel Music’s Brandon Lake, titled, Too Good to Not Believe, recounts God’s power at work making cancer disappear, and metal plates in a leg dissolve. Speaking to the audience mid-song, Lake even recounts seeing the resurrection of a little boy.
“Don’t you tell me he can’t do it,” the singer implores his audience, it’s “too good to not believe.”
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Disclosure: Annelise Pierce is a former member of Bethel Church.