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Friday, Jul 21, 2017
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Bentley's Lakeland Revival Keeps Moving Spirits, Closing Date

LAKELAND - Cassandra Serine and her two teenage children already were planning to leave Thomasville, Ga. They say they wanted more from their lives and their church there. They found it on God TV, live from Lakeland. Eight days ago, the Serines joined the inflow of pilgrims drawn by coverage of what organizers are calling the "Florida Outpouring," evangelist Todd Bentley's monthlong healing revival. Since then, they've slept each night in a tent in a Lakeland-area campground. They spend the rest of their days moving between Lakeland's Ignited Church, where the revival started in early April, and the larger local venues where it's playing now. A month in, and more than a week after it moved to stadium- locations, Bentley's healing revival is rolling on. By now, the number of worshippers likely has topped 70,000, based on crowd estimates from venue operators. Organizers are planning to keep the revival open at least two more weeks. The Serines say they're getting what they need to survive.
"We just pray each day to God for provision," said Cassandra Serine, 47. And how's that working? "I'll show you," said her 17-year-old son, Michael, whipping out his wallet and showing off at least $300 in fresh, crisp $20 bills. "People just give us money," said Michael Serine, who repeatedly interrupted a brief interview to kiss his mother and hug men and women coming and going in the halls of Ignited Church. Just a week ago, he was a stranger there. Cassandra Serine said the revival is giving her and her children the religious immersion - what they call "anointing" - they always have sought. Whatever plans they had eight days ago are on hold. "When you come to a place like this, people who have a prophetic gift can unlock what is going on in your life," Serine said. Trancelike States Bentley, 32, is a tattooed, body-pierced religious barnstormer who travels the world organizing revival meetings. He says the power of God rescued him at age 18 from a life of drugs, crime and sexual misconduct. His services emphasize the power of God to transform lives and ease personal burdens. Though he preaches to a mostly Pentecostal audience, Bentley said he eschews religious categories. In addition to the evening services, which began in early April, a regular 10 a.m. service at Ignited quickly is outgrowing its 700-seat venue, said Lynne Breidenbach, a spokeswoman for the event. One of Bentley's staff members typically officiates at the morning meeting. That's where the Serines were at midday Wednesday, standing just outside the jampacked sanctuary. The daytime service appeared far more subdued than each night's extravaganza. Nevertheless, a sign on the door to the sanctuary admonished worshippers: "Please do not lay hands on people unless given instruction to by the pastor. Thank you." The growth of the morning service follows the pattern of the original revival, which organizers say started as a typical five-day Bentley visit to Ignited Church. Word of healings and an especially intense religious energy spread quickly, driven by Internet streaming and coverage on the God TV satellite channel. It reached the Serine family via their DirecTV satellite service. Within days, organizers were planning for an extended stay and accommodating crowds in the thousands. The revival returned to the Lakeland Center arena this week after spending the weekend at Joker Marchant Stadium, where the Detroit Tigers play spring training baseball. Bob Gomeringer, a Lakeland retiree, works part time parking cars at Lakeland Center events and finds the services unsettling. He hears loud music - "the same song being played over and over and over again" - coming out from the arena. He watches ministry workers carry in buckets "to rake in all the money" during offerings. What concerns Gomeringer most are the young people, many of whom appear to be in a "trancelike state" when they come out of the arena, he said. "They just don't look or act right," he said. Monday night, he found a young person lying on the ground. Gomeringer was ready to call an ambulance when the prostrate man's friend stopped him. "He told me that his friend was fine, and that he was just full of the Holy Spirit," Gomeringer said. "And if I wanted some of that power, to get inside and get some of it myself. No, thank you. This isn't the kind of spirit that I'm interested in." Gomeringer has attended Methodist churches for more than 50 years and said what's happening in Lakeland is quite different from the Christian faith he's known throughout his life. "It's not prayerful or private. This is extremism," Gomeringer said. For the Serines, that's precisely the point. The extreme religious emotion pervading the revival is at the center of their experience. Michael Serine and his sister Allyssa, 14, spoke several times about being "drunk" in the Holy Spirit. And at times, the boy's demeanor - he often swayed and rarely stood still - suggested a certain tipsiness. Michael said he felt a deep sorrow Friday night when he didn't immediately feel full of the spirit after Bentley touched him. "It was absolute grief," he said, comparing it to the loss of a loved one. By the end of the weekend, though, with the help of praying multitudes and a well-placed slap from one of Bentley's co-ministers, Michael Serine found the "anointing" he was seeking, he said. All of this alarms Gomeringer's wife, Carolyn, 63, who also was raised in the Methodist church as the daughter of a minister. The film clips she's seen on this Lakeland movement cause her great concern - particularly at an economically depressed time when people can't pay their bills or afford medical care. It's just plain scary," she said. "They're getting hyped up and spaced out. They're being influenced all right, but in my opinion, it's all in the wrong way." She doesn't think that "something of God" would look like this. "The Bible tells us that the anti-Christ will be coming in the final days," she said. "That's why we have to be careful. If this man is really into healing, why can't he just go to Children's Hospital? A lot of kids need help there." Prophetic? A number of revivalgoers talked of the Lakeland events as fulfilling religious prophecies. Like the Serines, Barry McAlpin, a 43-year-old minister and veteran of overseas missions, first encountered the revival via God TV. He said many "phophetic voices" long have predicted "a move of God is coming to America." Many other events have claimed to be that movement, McAlpin said, and he has learned to withhold judgment. So he drove from his Sevierville, Tenn., home to see for himself. After two days of watching, he thinks the healing and miracles he has seen are real. He cited a woman who rose from a wheelchair, though he admits that it's impossible "to know what's in her heart." "It appears to me, because of how quickly it's spreading, that it's an authentic move of God in its embryonic stages," McAlpin said. He cautions believers to remember that God, not Bentley, is responsible for whatever's happening. "Todd's being used by God," he said. James Goll is the co-founder of Encounters Network, a Franklin, Tenn.-based ministry that "teaches and imparts the power of intercession, prophetic ministry and life in the Spirit." Goll, who travels the world to equip churches, leaders and movements, also is the author of nearly 40 books and study guides. He came to town last weekend to attend the revival. On Sunday, he delivered a short message to the group. Goll said the Holy Spirit spoke to him a dozen years ago, telling him, "I will raise up a new young champion. His name will be Todd. You will need his raw faith, and he will need your vision." Three years later, he met Bentley in Nashville and knew he had found the right man. "I've done my due diligence," Goll said by telephone Wednesday, noting his 34 years in ministry. "I've got an excitable, demonstrative side when I see the Holy Spirit in action. But I also have a scholarly side, and I've investigated many movements. "And this has the potential to be a breakthrough for Lakeland and for the rest of the nation. This could be a new beginning, something fresh. And we need it bad." Goll said this revival has the three elements that could keep it a sustained movement: It has the fruit of the spirit, which emphasizes character. It has the gifts of the spirit, which deal with revelation and power. And it has the wisdom of understanding how everything can cooperate. "Usually wisdom is the lacking ingredient," he said. "That's the difference between something that's a flash in the pan, or here today and gone tomorrow. This seems to have all three strands needed to keep it strong and sustained." That means Goll fully expects he will be back after making a short mission trip to Israel. And he intends to bring his wife, who has Stage 4 cancer. He said he believes this revival is the real thing. "It has just begun," he predicted. "But it has not yet begun to crescendo. That is coming." If that's the case, there are practical upsides for the Lakeland area, which Gomeringer acknowledged amid his criticism. "It's helping our economy," he said. "People got to eat; they got to stay in hotels. And I'm picking up a lot more hours, even though we're coming into the slow season. So maybe he's bringing some healing to this area after all."

Reporter Billy Townsend can be reached at (863) 284-1409 or wtownsend@tampatrib.com. Reporter Michelle Bearden can be reached at (813) 259-7613 or mbearden@tampatrib.com.

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