How a growing Christian movement is seeking to change America

Last week, from Oct. 6 to 9, the National Mall in Washington, D.C. was filled with tents, worship music and prayer for the “Awaken the Dawn” rally. The purpose of the event, according to organizer Lou Engle, was to “gather around Jesus,” to pray for the nation and its government. It ended with a day of prayer by Christian women.

This wasn’t the first such event. On April 9, 2016, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, tens of thousands of people gathered to pray for the supernatural transformation of America.

Five years earlier, in August of 2011, more than 30,000 people cheered wildly as the then U.S. presidential candidate and Texas Governor Rick Perry – now secretary of energy in the Trump administration – came to the center stage at “The Response: A Call to Prayer for a Nation in Crisis” at Reliant Stadium in Houston.

Worshipers pray with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, seen at center and on screen, at The Response, a daylong prayer and fast rally, Aug. 6, 2011, at Reliant Stadium in Houston. AP Photo/Pat Sullivan
These three events and the leaders who organized them are central players in a movement that we call “Independent Network Charismatic,” or INC, Christianity in our recently released book, “The Rise of Network Christianity.”

Based on our research, we believe that INC Christianity is significantly changing the religious landscape in America – and its politics.

Here is what we found about INC

INC Christianity is led by a network of popular independent religious entrepreneurs, often referred to as “apostles.” They have close ties, we found, to conservative U.S. politicians, including Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry and more recently President Donald Trump.

Charismatic Christians emphasize supernatural miracles and divine interventions. But INC Christianity is different from other charismatics – and other Christian denominations in general – in the following ways:

  • It is not focused primarily on building congregations but rather on spreading beliefs and practices through media, conferences and ministry schools.
  • It is not so much about proselytizing to unbelievers as it is about transforming society through placing Christian believers in powerful positions in all sectors of society.
  • It is organized as a network of independent leaders rather than as formally organized denominations.

INC Christianity is the fastest-growing Christian group in America and possibly around the world. Over the 40 years from 1970 to 2010, the number of regular attenders of Protestant churches as a whole shrunk by an average of .05 percent per year, which is a striking decline when one considers that the U.S. population grew an average of 1 percent per year during those years. At the same time, independent neo-charismatic congregations (a category in which INC groups reside) grew by an average of 3.24 percent per year.

Its impact, however, is much greater than can be measured in church attendance. This is because INC Christianity is not centrally concerned with building congregations, but spreading beliefs and practices.

Bill Johnson, pastor of Bethel Church in Redding, California. Kevin Shorter, CC BY
The influence of INC Christianity can be seen in the millions of hits on many of their web-based media sites, large turnouts at stadium rallies and conferences, and millions of dollars in media sales. In our interviews with leaders, we found that Bethel, an INC ministry based in Redding, California, for example, in 2013 had an income of US$8.4 million in sales of music, books, DVDs and web-based content as well as $7 million in tuition to their Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry.

Appeal of INC

As part of our research, we conducted in-depth interviews with senior leaders, staff and current and former participants in INC Christian ministries. We also conducted supplementary interviews with Christian leaders and scholars with knowledge of the changing religious landscape and attended conferences, numerous church services, ministry school sessions, healing sessions and exorcisms. In all, we conducted 41 in-depth interviews.

Our primary conclusion is that the growth of these groups is largely the result of their network governance structure. When compared to the oversight and accountability of formal congregations and denominations, these structures allow for more experimentation. This includes “extreme” experiences of the supernatural, unorthodox beliefs and practices, and financing as well as marketing techniques that leverage the power of the internet.

In our research, we witnessed the appeal of INC Christianity, particularly among young people. We saw the thrill of holding impromptu supernatural healing sessions in the emergency room of a large public hospital, the intrigue of ministry school class sessions devoted to the techniques of casting out demonic spirits and the adventure of teams of young people going out into public places, seeking direct guidance from God as to whom to heal or to relay specific divine messages.