Our congregation has known the outpouring of the Spirit for more than 50 years. Through the leadership of my father, Karl Strader, our church experienced the Latter Rain Movement, Voice of Healing, Jesus Movement, Charismatic Movement, Word of Faith Movement, Prophetic Movement, Renewal Movement, Apostolic Movement and many others. But on April 2, 2008, itâ€™s as if the Holy Spirit moved into our church in a fresh, dynamic way ... and Heâ€™s never left!
I had invited evangelist Todd Bentley for a five-day â€śSigns and Wonders Conferenceâ€ť at our church. Todd had spoken at Ignited Church the year beforeâ€”the first time weâ€™d metâ€”but something was different this time. The expectation was extremely high.
Two weeks earlier in Australia, New Zealand prophet Rob DeLuca had prophesied a coming anointing on Todd that would â€śboomarangâ€ť around the world. Rob said the boomerang was to have double the force when it came to central Florida, and he even mentioned the Lakeland revival of 1993. He didnâ€™t know that Todd was headed to the very congregation that experienced that revival.
When we heard about the prophecy, we knew something special was about to happen, but we had no idea just how big it would be. As with any planning in church leadership, we wanted to leave room for the Holy Spirit to do whatever He wanted. Since Todd had informed me that his following week of meetings had just been cancelled, I told him that we were prepared to extend a week if we wanted to. However, he had already changed his tickets to fly home and was looking forward to a week of rest. Obviously, those plans changed.
The Start of Something Big
That first Wednesday night was explosive. The building was comfortably filled, but something in my spirit had told me to prepare for overflow crowds. We wired both our childrenâ€™s room and our youth room with closed-circuit monitors, which enabled us expand from the 700 seats in the sanctuary to more than 1,300 with the two overflow rooms. (We also wired the outside patio, which could seat an additional 400.)
By the second night the first overflow room was filled. The atmosphere was charged with the electricity of God. Incredible miracles began to take place. Even Todd appeared to be taken back with the ease at which they happened. Both of us conduct overseas crusades and regularly see great miracles take place in other countries, but weâ€™d never seen them flow in America like this.
The third night, when Todd walked into the room, our eyes met while standing on the front row. â€śI think we need to go another week,â€ť I told him. It turns out he had just told his staff, â€śI think we need to talk with Pastor Stephen about going another week.â€ť
We announced it that night.
Every night from that point was like taking another step deeper into the anointing, as if we were reaching another level. The crowds now filled both of our overflow rooms. In fact, by Sunday we had to lock the doors because the fire marshal required us to limit the capacity to 1,300. Hundreds watched on screens outside the building on the patio, and hundreds more had to be turned away. People would begin lining up to get in as early as 3 p.m.
For those of us in leadership, the first three to four weeks were consumed with finding facilities to accommodate the growing crowds. Once it became obvious that our church couldnâ€™t hold everyone, my brother-in-law, Shane Simmons, who pastors Life Church in Auburndale, Fla., allowed us to use his 3,000-seat facility only 20 minutes away. It wasnâ€™t long before we overflowed his building and began to turn hundreds away. Next, we moved into the Lakeland Center arena, which seats 8,000 or more.
We filled that building.
We then moved to Joker Marchant Stadium, spring training home of the Detroit Tigers baseball team. The stadium seats 10,000 and has a grassy knoll overlooking left field that can hold another 2,000 people.
From there we held an open-air meeting at the Sun â€™n Fun Campground at the Lakeland airport, and about 12,000 people came. In fact, the police told us a traffic jam developed that was so bad it blocked thousands from getting into the campground for miles down the road.
We finally settled at the campground using two tents attached side-by-side that would hold 10,000. By that time, the nightly crowds ranged from 3,000 to 8,000, with more coming on the weekends. Throughout the changes, weâ€™ve continued to meet at Ignited Church each morning, Sunday through Friday, and on Saturdays weâ€™ve moved to the tent to fit the larger crowds.
During the first few weeks our staff and volunteers nearly burned out because of the day-and-night, seven-days-a-week schedule. Weary and exhausted, many of us became physically sick. The common joke was, â€śLooks like youâ€™re too sick to come to the healing meeting!â€ť We eventually settled into a flow, rotating so some could take a day offâ€”although for many of us, that never happened. (I personally went nearly 60 days straight and had to spend two days in bed sick.)
As with most moves of God, there are those who question the authenticity of whatâ€™s happening in whatâ€™s been dubbed the â€śLakeland Outpouringâ€ť or the â€śFlorida Healing Outpouring.â€ť Yet it seems this time the critics have not only become quicker to respond, but also louder with their objections.
The amazing amount of controversy has admittedly caught me off-guard. I had no idea how prejudiced the Christian world is to Todd Bentleyâ€™s ministry. I never found anything in his ministry that concerned meâ€”including his tattoos. Frankly, I had to work through being offended by some of my ministry friends who were expressing their â€śconcernsâ€ť publicly. Some wrote in their e-mails, blogs, magazines or newsletters; others voiced their concerns through sermons. The heresy hunters were quick to point out that â€śeven [Stephenâ€™s] friends are speaking against him.â€ť
What hurt was that these ministry friends never tried to contact me. Most still have not. Even when I tried to reach out to ask why they didnâ€™t call or e-mail me, it was as if they had a blind spot to what they had done. They never apologized, but simply said they felt they had to â€śexpress themselvesâ€ť because so many of their constituents were asking them for answers.
Admittedly, Iâ€™ve needed a lot of prayer and counseling to keep my spirit pure of offense. Iâ€™ve also had to apologize to some for my rebukes. In fact, I work my way through repentance daily.
One of the side effects of this outpouring has been a work of holiness and the fear of God. I canâ€™t go for more than a few minutes in any kind of sin before I feel Godâ€™s hand squeezing me. Temptation of any kind is met with a swift move of the Spirit, followed by strong repentance. Thatâ€™s one of the reasons why I know beyond any shadow of a doubt that this is God.
Show Some Support!
For some reason, the body of Christ seems to have ignored the Scriptures that admonish us to hear both sides of the story. Even the secular press would at least contact us for a comment before writing a story about us. Yet our Christian brothers and sisters never once tried to contact us. They appear to have ignored the passages that tell us to go to our brother who we feel is â€śovertaken in a faultâ€ť (Gal. 6:1, KJV). Instead, they have used the bully pulpit of their e-mails, newsletters and Web sites to express their concerns that often have been based on incomplete or faulty information.
Todd, a few friends and I were able to formulate statements and theological responses to some of these concerns, but even these seem to be ignored or refused. It appears that many are simply predisposed to believe this outpouring is demonicâ€”period. Itâ€™s like trying to convince non-Pentecostals that speaking in tongues is really for today; no matter what Scripture you give them, they have chosen not to believe.
Hereâ€™s what I believe is the bottom line: If what has been happening here in Lakeland is in any way a move of God, why isnâ€™t the body of Christâ€”especially Pentecostals and charismaticsâ€”praying for us? Why havenâ€™t they contacted us to let us know that although they have some concerns or are uncomfortable with some things, theyâ€™re still praying that God gives us wisdom? Where are the apostles? Where are the fathers of the faith?
There have been a few who responded immediately in supportâ€”John Arnott, ChĂ© Ahn, Patricia King, to name some of those supporters. Several others came, though only for one night or part of a service. And a few apostles have reached out to me personally when I asked for their help, including Peter Wagner and another major leader who asked me to withhold his name for a season. Iâ€™m thankful for them all.
Still, there are those who have labeled the Lakeland Outpouring as a work of an â€śangel of lightâ€ť or a deceiving spirit or familiar spirit. Do they truly know what they are saying? Isnâ€™t it a sin to attribute the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan? How can we worship for up to two hours in each service, preach the gospel, exalt Christ and emphasize holinessâ€”and yet be operating in a demonic spirit? Iâ€™m baffled by their assessments.
A New Move
My prayer for the body of Christ is that we learn that â€śeye has not seen, nor ear heard ... the things which God has prepared for those who love Himâ€ť (1 Cor. 2:9). I pray that when we â€śseeâ€ť something new, we truly investigate it from all sides before we label it â€śnot of God.â€ť Is it possible that God is doing something new?
The reality is that there is mixture in every Christian endeavor. There is flesh, there is the counterfeit; and yes, even the demonic tries to infiltrate. But Iâ€™ve been in church board meetings where there was more demonic involvement than anything Iâ€™ve ever experienced in one of the outpouring meetings.
In Matthew 13:24-30, Jesus told the parable of the wheat and the tares. The field workers complained about the mixture of the tares with the wheat, yet when they asked if they should pull up all the weeds, the owner responded, â€śNo ... lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them.â€ť
Honestly, sometimes I think that the body of Christ hasnâ€™t learned a thing from our past mistakes. We rejected the Latter Rain, Word of Faith, Prophetic movementsâ€”virtually all of them when they first appeared. And most were dismissed simply because we couldnâ€™t understand them.
Hereâ€™s what I know: I love Jesus more now than ever before. I canâ€™t even write these words without tears flowing from my eyes. People are being saved in the meetings and in the marketplace. Many in the body of Christ have a renewed faith in miracles, and weâ€™ve received more than two-dozen recorded resurrection stories since we began. Multiple funerals have been canceled! Iâ€™d say that is pretty good verification.
I currently have more than 5,000 praise reports on my computer that I havenâ€™t been able to read yet. Toddâ€™s ministry, Fresh Fire, and GOD TV have multiplied thousands! What will it take for us to even suggest that maybe, just maybe, God is doing something fresh?
Stephen Strader is the senior pastor of Ignited Church in Lakeland, Fla., where the Lakeland Outpouring began in April.