Radio host says abandon church
Saturday, January 25, 2003
OAKLAND, Calif. -- An influential Christian radio host, best known for his failed predictions of the second coming of Christ, has run into more derision and criticism for telling listeners to abandon church.
Harold Camping says his Bible studies have revealed that what he calls "the church age" has ended. He has told his worldwide radio audience that Satan has taken over all churches.
For the past two years, Camping has been teaching that God wants people to worship privately in their homes instead -- with no leaders, no baptism and no communion.
"The Bible says God is not saving people any longer in the churches," Camping said in a recent interview at Family Radio's headquarters in Oakland. "They're being saved outside the churches."
Critics call the idea heretical, and say the self-described Bible expert doesn't know what he's talking about. Some evangelical Christian leaders complain that his call is hurting their churches.
"He's in critical locations in the United States and the rest of the world. He has a large listening audience," said David Clark, who tracks Christian fringe groups. "He's got pastors all over the United States in an uproar. He's gone over the edge this time."
Camping, 81, parted ways several years ago with the conservative, evangelical Christian Reformed Church in which he grew up. Retired from his own construction business, he serves full time as the unpaid president of Family Radio, which he helped start in 1958.
The network grew and gained international attention in 1994 with Camping's well-publicized prediction that the world would end that September. Since then, he has made several more apocalyptic predictions.
Christ never came -- but the radio network has thrived.
From its base, a modest reddish-brown building sandwiched between a burger joint and an auto parts store on a road to the Oakland airport, the network has built a broad and powerful reach.
Its signal is broadcast or relayed on more than 150 stations and translators in the United States. It airs in several major metropolitan areas, on the Internet and in Europe, Africa and Asia. It reaches mainland China from a station in Taiwan and is building a station to reach much of Southeast Asia. The network also has expanded into television.
Its signature radio show -- "Open Forum" -- features Camping answering called-in questions, often rambling about obscure Biblical and religious references in his slow, deep voice. He repeatedly refers to Matthew 24, the Bible passage that speaks of how wars and other trials will precede Jesus' second coming.
The Sept. 11 attacks were "a diversion from what the real terror is," he said. "When Christ comes, there will be no more mercy, no more Gospel, no more salvation. ... God always follows through."
Devoted callers ask Camping -- who graduated with a civil engineering degree in 1942 from the University of California, Berkeley -- what the Bible says about everything from homosexuality to home schooling to financial planning.
He also hears from his share of skeptics.
"I understand you had some misunderstandings a couple of years ago. My only question is -- should people follow you now?" asked one recent caller.
It's not clear how many listeners are tuning in. Camping says he doesn't know. But donations, one measure of the network's effectiveness at reaching people, totaled more than $12 million in 2000, according to documents the nonprofit filed with the Internal Revenue Service.
Camping this month released a book, "The End of the Church Age and After," one of many he has written but the first devoted to his new beliefs about the church.
Church leaders have complained that Camping's teachings are costing them parishioners. Some are so angry that they have held special meetings to discuss Camping.
Many affected congregations are tiny, and the departure of just a few people can have a devastating impact, said Dave Rastetter, 35, a deacon at Faith Presbyterian Church in Akron, Ohio, and the man behind http://www.familyradioiswrong.com -- an anti-Camping Web site.
Rastetter used to enjoy listening to Camping and stuck with him despite his failed predictions.
But in 2000, he says, Camping became obsessed with teaching about Satan. At first, Camping said most churches were bad. Rastetter finally broke away when the radio host declared all churches bad, no exceptions.
Rastetter believes Camping was "trying to save face" after his predictions had failed to materialize.
Clark, who calls Camping "an authoritarian spiritual meathead," says the talk-show host keeps a tight rein on the radio network and refuses to answer his critics, who say they can find no trace of his teachings in the Bible.
"I believe he can be destructive to churches and individual lives. His worldview is nonnegotiable," Clark says.
Camping calls all the criticism "character assassination" but says he is not surprised that church leaders aren't embracing a teaching that, if true, would lead to their churches' dismantling.
Of his critics, he says, "I worry about their standing with the Lord."
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