Mystery Worshipper: Mark Wuntoo
Church: Benny Hinn Ministries
Location: Royal Victoria Dock, East London
Date of visit: Saturday, 3 October 2009, 2:00pm
The event which is the subject of this report took place at ExCeL London, a prestigious international exhibition and conference centre located in the Royal Docks area of the Borough of Newham in East London. The venue may be reached by luxury yacht, train, four-wheels, on foot or even by air. Built alongside the Royal Victoria Dock, ExCeL looks like a giant warehouse constructed of steel girders, suspended steel roofs and plain brick walls. Cable and heating ducts and insulated pipework are all exposed. The public reception area begins in an expansive covered walkway leading to a spacious internal boulevard where a reception desk was well manned. An abundance of security staff was in evidence, all of whom were very pleasant and helpful. In view of the construction of the building, some of the halls and public spaces are noisy, although today's auditorium was acceptable, in spite of the lack of soft furnishings.
Benny Hinn Ministries, a multi-million dollar organisation based in Texas, USA, is mainly dedicated to televangelism and mass conference and healing extravaganza. Pastor Toufik Benedictus (Benny) Hinn, 56 years old, lives in Southern California and describes himself as a "statesman, author, broadcaster, bridge builder and evangelist." It is claimed that the organisation's television station is seen daily in 200 countries. It also provides crisis relief, children's homes and feeding programmes, as well as hospital and emergency care, around the globe. Their various websites and other media outlets emphasise the assumed gifts and successes of Pastor Benny Hinn.
Exciting and progressive! The Royal London Docks, once a busy shipping heartland, have been reinvented as a place of learning, business, sport and leisure. The developed area includes the University of East London, a floating hotel, listed heritage buildings and London City Airport. There is limited housing provision with some gentrification of old poor working class housing estates. Just a few miles away, in the same borough, are the sites of the 2012 Olympics. Newham Borough includes a number of very large Pentecostal African congregations and branches of Britain's major Caribbean-led denominations. Many of the other churches are struggling or have closed their doors, with some having been converted into places of worship by people of other faiths. Newham is a vibrant and exciting district: "A place where people choose to live, work and stay," as the borough publicity claims.
"Pastor Jim" (worship leader), a second unnamed worship leader, "Dr Todd" (preacher and replacement for Benny Hinn), and Benny Hinn via trans-Atlantic telephone link. Benny Hinn was scheduled to appear in person but was denied entry to Britain by the Border Agency for lack of "a valid certificate of sponsorship". A support party consisted of ten men in dark suits sitting in two rows at the front of the platform, but all they did was to bow and shake the preacher's hand when he sat down.
What was the name of the service?Miracle Service – which, according to the publicity for this three-day series of events, would strive "to equip you, as God's child, for these last days". It was not clear whether "God's children" are those already converted or those the organisation is seeking to save.
How full was the building?
By my count, there was room for about 10,000 in the auditorium. It was claimed that there were 7,000 present, and I think that was probably correct when latecomers were included. The audience – oops, I mean congregation – were diverse, young and old, male and female, white and black; perhaps there was a small majority of middle-aged black women. When the representative of Benny Hinn Ministries asked "partners" to stand and be honoured and clapped, many hundreds of people did so.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A young man who was part of the ExCeL security team was very welcoming and answered my questions about the venue. We chatted about the absence of Benny Hinn. There were a very few ushers dotted about the auditorium. When I sat down, a woman nearby was very friendly, although I had to start the conversation. Then a ram's horn arrived and sat next to me. That is to say, a young couple with a two-year old in a pushchair came in, the man carrying a ram's horn. He warned me not to be surprised if he blew on the horn now and then.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a moulded plastic chair, one of a long row anchored to the floor. It was OK for the first two hours but it then got a bit hard. On the other hand, there was no time to become bored.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very noisy. The 200 voice choir was practising as I arrived an hour before kick-off; this was followed by loud pre-recorded music. People were talking to each other above the music and all the hard surfaces acted as echo boards. Nearby, an usher and others were praying for a man in a wheelchair. If the subsequent exuberance is anything to go by, I think that the majority of people were expecting to have a good time. One very friendly woman told me that Hinn's absence wouldn't make any difference. "He's only a man; it's all about Jesus."
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good afternoon. All choir members take your seats. Thank you." Later, when the service started: "How many of you know that God has got something tremendous for you today?"
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. No words at all, not even on the screen, which seemed to be used solely to highlight those leading the proceedings. Those of us who did not know the songs were left feeling excluded, if not disappointed. This is a strong indication that this meeting was aimed at "the converted" and, I suppose, they are the ones Benny Hinn calls "God's children."
What musical instruments were played?
Keyboards, a large five manual organ (played by the only woman on the platform); bass guitar and full drum kit. There may have been other women on the platform but, if so, they were hidden behind the dignitaries. Oh, yes, and there was, of course, the ram's horn next to me.
Did anything distract you?
The meeting was fast-moving and held my attention throughout. There were a few occasions when people screamed very loudly; this caused others to look around. And there was the ram's horn. This was blown at various points during the meeting, seemingly to indicate support for what was being said on the platform.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A swinging-from-the-chandeliers rave! An ecstatic Pentecostal romp! Leaders were prone to adulation of Benny Hinn and of themselves: "I am so thankful for our Pastor Benny, who has preached to thousands and thousands of people around the globe." "Benny loves you; he is here in spirit." "There is a strong anointing on me here today." "God has anointed me as a financial deliverer." "I've just had a picture of a meeting in hell that is taking place now; there are 5,000 demons and the devil is telling them to stop the events at ExCeL or he will fire them." "I have written 18 books although the teachers said I couldn't write." "I have preached to thousands although I used to have a speech impediment." And so on. Always, the people responded with applause and praise. Benny Hinn appeared as a glossy picture on the screens and a voice down the telephone line. His 40 minute telephone call to the meeting consisted of a lengthy explanation for being refused entry into Britain and other general messages of support and encouragement. He blamed the devil for attempting to stop the meeting. The final 10 minutes of his talk focused on healing whilst team members "ministered" to the sick. I observed that only four people fell (or were pushed) or stumbled to the floor as they were touched. One woman joyfully danced across the platform.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
As a Pentecostal orator: 6. As an expositor: 1. As an entertainer: 3. As an evangelist: 1. As a manipulator: 9. How good a preacher was he? Zero! I found myself wondering why God had not healed Dr Todd of the nervous twitch in his head and shoulders.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Dr Todd made a start at John 12 (Jesus enters Jerusalem) but quite soon digressed (or lost me, perhaps). The main section of his sermon was about sowing seeds and reaping a harvest, which seemed to get bigger and bigger as he progressed. Some time was spent in explaining to people that this seed of money was to be sown into Benny Hinn Ministries, with Benny Hinn sending an email to thank those who filled in the offering envelope and included some cash. Sums of cash were suggested, although no amount below ₤100 was mentioned. Someone present, Dr Todd said, was going to sow ₤100,000 and 70 people would sow ₤1,000 each. The message was wealth prosperity promised in return for sending cash to Benny Hinn Ministries. The sermon ended in an altar call answered by a group of about 300 to 400 people, who went to the front to "receive salvation." Having thus been saved, they were then invited to repeat a prayer after Dr Todd.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Nothing. Nothing at all. Except, perhaps, the smile of the two-year-old child next to me who did his own thing, totally oblivious to all that was going on around him.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
What wasn't? Certainly not the shouting and screaming. The manipulation. The self-righteous puffery. There was no reference to contemporary world events that, for me, was the most hellish part of all. And I do wish the family next to me had left their ram's horn at home. They were a youngish couple who appeared to be "working class poor". A very pleasant couple, obviously very devout. When the offering envelope arrived, the man filled in the paper with his credit card details.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After nearly four hours, I felt that I had given enough of my life to this exercise. I saw people leaving as soon as Benny Hinn had finished his telephone call, so I made a hasty exit before the stampede for the train. There were no ushers or other personnel to be seen, but plenty of friendly ExCeL security people to guide us out. As I left, I was told by an ExCeL steward that she expected to be there for another three hours. Maybe this would include waves of people falling to the floor or people jumping out of their wheelchairs but, given Benny Hinn's absence, I doubted it.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I'm sure that the many public cafés and stalls in ExCeL offer excellent fare, but Benny Hinn Ministries had nothing to offer me.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
0 – "Membership" in Benny Hinn Ministries starts at ₤20 per month for covenant partners, payable every month for a year, and rises to "a first gift" of at least ₤500 plus ₤20 per month for global impact team partners. Considerably more dear than what the "willing helpers" were charging in The Who's rock opera Tommy: "Buy your way to heaven; that comes to one pound seven. [Ring] Bless you, luv!" I neither wish to contribute nor have I the energy for such gatherings.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I would be very embarrassed to be associated as a Christian with this organisation. Mrs Wuntoo feared that the experience would kill or cure me (cure my injured ankle). She was relieved that it did neither. If anything, I think my ankle may have gotten a bit worse!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The ram's horn blown with great feeling. Hopefully, nothing more.