If my Old Testament seminary professor hadn’t gotten to me first, I would have given myself over to the study of Church History. Stories of fallen preachers, scandal-ridden evangelists, church heresies, and humans battling for God fascinate me. I’m no scandalmonger. It’s stories of human contradictions and human reversals, including my own, that floor me.
Take, for example, the story of a modern fallen preacher.
Carlton Pearson’s church, Higher Dimensions, was once one of the biggest in Tulsa, drawing crowds of 5,000 people every Sunday. Pearson was one of the first black megapreachers back before there were megapreachers. But several years ago, scandal engulfed the pastor. Pearson didn’t have a sexual affair. He didn’t embezzle money from his church. His sin was worse: He stopped believing in Hell. Today Pearson teaches that sincere people who do not directly acknowledge Christ — such as Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Unitarians — will go to heaven. The finished work of Christ at Calvary redeemed all of humanity, not just Christians, back to God. To a conservative believer, a Pentecostalal especially, it’s “Holiness or Hell.” Anything else is heretical.
During the 90s, Pearson put on huge revival meetings there in Tulsa drawing thousands of people. I know because I attended a few myself. Based on my husband my computations, our daughter was conceived at the ‘92 Auzsa Conference. But that’s another discussion. (LOL)
Pearson called his revivals “Azusa” Conferences, ‘Azusa’ after the name of the original Pentecostal crusade 100 years ago. At Pearson’s Azusa Conference, as many as 40,000 people would fill the bleachers over seven days, and sell out all the hotels in the city.
Back then Carlton Pearson served as a “bridge” between traditional black preachers and the contemporary “neo-Pentecostal” movement. One might say that Pearson was the first African-American to be on national Christian television and getting African-Americans into this whole media age. Azusa provided a platform for lots of big names preachers and singers along with lots of promising, but lesser known, gospel luminaries (like T D. Jakes). One of his biggest supporters back then was his old mentor, Oral Roberts, who predicted that Carlton Pearson would be the next great leader of his people. Everything Pearson did was blessed, or so it seemed, from as far back as his days as a wunderkind and boy preacher growing up in the South.
But one day something happened.
One day Pearson was sitting in the living room of his spacious, comfortable home in Tulsa having his dinner in front of the TV set. There was a news story on about the refugee crisis in Rwanda.
With his own fat cheek baby daughter sitting nearby in her stroller, Pearson sat watching these African people — mostly women and children walking slowly back home with dull empty eyes, swollen bellies and skeletal bodies, emaciated, babies looking at the mom and the mama looking out in space. As a man of God, a preacher of the Gospel, and Evangelist, Pearson sat looking at those people on his TV set assuming that they were probably Muslim and going to Hell. After all, God wouldn’t do that to Christians
And then Pearson had a revelation.
Pearson said to God, “God I don’t know how you’re gonna call yourself a loving God and allow those people to suffer so much and then just suck them into hell.” The Spirit of God, Pearson says, responded back to him, ”Is that what you think we’re doing?” ”That’s what I’ve been taught,” Pearson replied. And the voice in his head replied: “Can’t you see they’re already in Hell?” And as clear as a bell, says Pearson, he heard God telling him to preach this new message that Hell is a place in life, and that after death everybody is redeemed. Everybody.
Powerful stuff, huh? Yeah, but dangerous too.
Once Pearson (by now Bishop Pearson) started preaching this new revelation, things started crashing in all around the him. After all, without Hell to believe in, what’s the point in believing in Jesus and being saved from Hell. After all, if the pastor can change his mind about Hell what else is he likely to change his mind about?
Within a few months of preaching his new gospel there was a mass exodus from his church. And I do mean a mass exodus. From 5000 members to a few hundred people. As he continued to preach his “gospel of inclusion,” membership in Higher Dimensions plummeted to a tenth of what it had been. He lost his megachurch complex facility because his dwindling congregation could no longer afford the payments, and had to rent meeting space from an Episcopal church across town (a church Pearson would never had stepped into years ago). Top gospel artist friends would not return his calls and found excuses not to go to the Azusa Conference. Invitations to speak at friends’ churches dried up. Pastors and friends around the country abandoned him, including people I know who know Pearson. Even prominent members of the Tulsa community stopped doing business with Pearson and Higher Dimensions (new name of the church is New Dimensions).
Pearson underestimated just how conservative conservative theology is.
A member of Pearson’s ministry, a friend of mine, who has remained with the pastor during this downfall and agrees with his teachings on inclusivity admits there were many, many Sundays when the pastor and the handful of parishioners who remained sat in the church and wept from the beginning to the end of the worship service at the sight of the empty pews. Those who left felt betrayed and made sure to let Pearson and others know. “The tide is turning and our church is on its way back, but there were times we weren’t sure our pastor was gonna make it” she told me. “We don’t believe in Hell anymore. But what we’ve experienced for our beliefs have felt like a kind of Hell”
For sure, there’s more to this story. There always is.
But this morning I woke up thinking about religion, friendship, vocation, preaching, public opinion, beliefs, scandal, the battle for God, and the price that comes with thinking and believing out loud. You get the picture.