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Charismatic Christians Get Spirits Sparked

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Drawing charismatic Christians from Seattle to San Diego, the West Coast Believers’ Convention in Anaheim this week is a testament to the phenomenal growth of a movement once viewed skeptically as a fringe element.

The weeklong event at the Convention Center has more than 2,000 registered participants and drew more than 5,000 Tuesday night to hear Texas-based minister Kenneth Copeland preach.

High-profile preachers like Copeland and his wife, Gloria, who head Eagle Mountain International Church in Fort Worth, have spent decades appealing to mainstream Christians by making charismatic worship more accessible.

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With their emphasis on direct divine inspiration, healing powers and speaking in tongues, charismatics historically have made many mainstream Christians uncomfortable. But the emphasis on the benevolence of God, the power of forgiveness and the benefits of optimism is a strong draw.

“It’s the segment of Christianity that is growing fastest around the world right now,” said Lee Grady, editor of Florida-based Charisma magazine, with circulation of 250,000. “While the mainline churches are declining, charismatic and Pentecostal churches are growing and are healthy. It’s where the action is.”

Part of the reason, Grady said, is the charismatic movement’s acceptance of women as leaders.

“A lot of evangelicals are still arguing about whether women can minister today,” he said. “And here’s Gloria Copeland already doing it and doing it well.”

Dressed in a bright pink suit, Gloria Copeland stood at the podium Wednesday morning to tell how to teach the Bible to children and keep them interested in Sunday school.

“Going to church ought to be fun,” she said in a talk laced with personal, humorous anecdotes. “If you go to church and it’s a drag, you’re going to the wrong church.”

Indeed, her Bible lessons are the main draw for many participants at this year’s convention.

“Gloria keeps you grounded, and Kenneth gives you new insights,” said Stephen Rodriguez, 20, clutching his Bible under his arm as he left the Wednesday morning session. “They preach that God is a good God. I love that. We have enough trouble in this world as human beings. It’s good to know that God’s on your side.”

Rodriguez, who took vacation days to make the road trip from Phoenix, said Gloria Copeland is known for her teaching, while Kenneth Copeland is known for his fiery oratory and speaking in tongues.

Whereas charismatics historically have been members of Pentecostal congregations--fundamentalist Protestant churches emphasizing direct inspiration by the Holy Spirit--high-profile leaders like the Copelands have a broader appeal. Those who track the charismatic movement say it increasingly includes people who are members of large nondenominational churches and some mainstream congregations.

Global Evangelization Movement Research, an organization based in Richmond, Va., estimates that charismatic Christians now number more than 523 million worldwide.

The convention is a chance for believers to meet and worship with thousands of other charismatic Christians. It serves as a pep rally and a chance to recharge spiritual batteries. Some of those attending are pastors seeking inspiration for their own sermons. Study sessions are laid-back, with participants taking extensive notes and marking convention materials with highlighters as they listen raptly.

Some said the movement’s emphasis on positive thinking is the big attraction, for they find it disheartening to live by Christian ideals in a secular world.

Firefighter Brian Coney of Yorba Linda said he attends to renew his faith and surround himself with like-minded Christians.

“I came here to keep my spiritual acumen sharp,” said Coney, 42. “It has the tendency to get dull because the things you encounter every day can make you feel like there’s not a God.”

Coney, who goes to a charismatic church in Walnut, said he became a Christian in 1972 and has been following the Copelands’ ministry and reading their books for 25 years.

Fighting fires as a profession became a symbol for his internal battle to keep the devil at bay, he said.

Kim Warf, 37, drove from Mesa, Ariz., for the convention. Becoming a Christian is the easy part, she said.

“The key is to stay on track and not get distracted by the devil,” she said. Of the Copelands and their colleagues, she said, “These men and women of God are pointing us in the right direction.”


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