By Mark Ellis –
It’s not every day that a liberal newspaper in one of the most liberal cities in the U.S. features an opinion piece gushing with admiration about the impact of one church in a community.
But the San Francisco Chronicle prominently displayed a piece about Bethel Church extolling the remarkable influence of the charismatic megachurch led by Pastor Bill Johnson.
“Is this heaven, or Redding?” asked Joe Mathews, a columnist for the newspaper. He noted that Bethel’s “commitment to community is so intense it’s almost supernatural. No institution in our state is better at engaging with its hometown.”
He was shocked to find the church touches almost every aspect of civic life in Redding. “It is grounded not in the language of activism but in celebration and love,” he wrote.
Mathews came away with a conclusion for community-minded activists: “Stop overthinking things, and just throw yourself, heart and soul, into addressing people’s needs.”
The columnist chronicled an amazing list of beneficial actions rooted in love.
“When Redding’s civic auditorium was failing, Bethel helped put together a nonprofit, Advance Redding, to fix its management. When the Redding Police Department was about to lay off four officers, Bethel raised money to keep the cops on. After the Carr Fire destroyed more than a thousand residences last summer, Bethel gave $1,000 in cash to every family, church member or not, that lost a home.”
Because the church’s impact goes beyond the confines of the city, they were able to convince United Airlines to start daily nonstop service between LAX and Redding earlier this year.
“Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry, a national leader in attracting foreign students, has helped internationalize the city,” the author noted.
The church encourages people to serve in key ways. “First, it teaches that, through God, individuals can triumph over challenges and experience miracles. Second, the church constantly celebrates Redding and highlights opportunities to join community projects.”
The mayor of Bethel, Julie Winter, also happens to be on the church board. “Bethel really encourages everybody to take ownership of the area, to live your faith in a way that’s felt,” Winter told Mathews. “Bethel says that … God is for you — so who can be against you? So why not start that new business? Why not volunteer to make this city an amazing place? Why not, in my case, run for City Council?”
The writer for the Chronicle admitted the church has attracted its share of controversy. “Some Christians complain that Bethel deviates too far from mainstream Christianity, while others question its healings and showy practices (like the “fire tunnel”),” he noted.
“The church’s counseling for “unwanted same-sex attraction,” and its opposition to state legislation banning gay conversion therapy, have been divisive, including within the church itself.”
Some naysayers in Bethel have wondered if the church is taking over the town. “But many view Bethel as heaven-sent: Its theology may be strange, but where would the city be without it?” Mathew wrote.
“Usually, when my phone rings, somebody wants something,” Police Chief Roger Moore said. “But when they call, it’s always to ask if we need anything. They have never asked me for anything.”
This year, the church approved a $148.8 million expansion of its campus.
“New businesses tied to Bethel members are thriving. Diego and Deborah Tantardini, who came to Redding from Milan because of the ministry school, have opened an Italian bakery, deli and catering service.
Sam LaRobardiere, once a construction worker on the East Coast, started Theory Collaborative, a sophisticated cafe. “I always had great ideas, but it wasn’t until I got in this environment that people asked me what I was going to do about it,” LaRobardiere said. “This community is a place where you can realize lifelong dreams.”
“In Redding, as it is in heaven.”