Is this heaven, or Redding?

The North State city sits between the godly and the earthly—and not just because of the divine spectacle of nearby Mount Shasta.  Redding is home to a church with a commitment to community so intense it’s almost supernatural.

Bethel Church isn’t a household name, but it should be. No institution in our state is better at engaging with its hometown than Bethel, which has 11,000-plus members in a city of 91,000 people.

While experts advise that civic engagement should be strategic, planned and targeted at specific issues, Bethel’s engagement with Redding is big and broad, touching almost every aspect of civic life. And it is grounded not in activist jargon but in celebration and love—for God and for the place itself.

This lack of structure in Bethel’s assistance to its hometown is intentional (“You can’t be trained for the freedom of heaven in a structure of law,” one church official says). And it suggests a broader lesson for other kinds of institutions seeking to improve your community: don’t overthink it, and just throw yourself, heart and soul, into responding to people’s needs.

When Redding’s civic auditorium was failing, Bethel and its members quickly put together a nonprofit, Advance Redding, to revive it. When the Redding Police Department was about to lay off four officers because of budget troubles, Bethel launched a fundraising drive to pay the cops. After the Carr fire destroyed more than a thousand residences last summer, Bethel gave $1,000 in cash to every family, church member or not, who lost a home.

Bethel also has connected Redding to the world. Bethel  has a global disaster response team and a Christian music collective with international reach, and even helped convince United Airlines to start daily non-stop service between LAX and Redding. And Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry, which attracts students from more than 50 countries, has internationalized the city.

Bethel inspires service in Redding with two big messages. First, it teaches that, through God, individuals can triumph over challenges and experience miracles. Second, the church constantly celebrates Redding, and highlights opportunities to be a part of community projects.

“Bethel really encourages everybody to take ownership of the area, to live your faith in a way that’s felt,” says Redding Mayor Julie Winter, a church board member. “Bethel says that… God is for you—so who can be against you? So why not start that new business? Why not volunteer to make this city an amazing place? Why not, in my case, run for city council?”

Bethel, founded as a small Assemblies of God congregation in the 1950s, was transformed by Bill Johnson’s arrival as its senior leader in 1996.

Johnson encouraged experimentation and turned Bethel into a non-denominational “ecstatic” church that values healings, prophecies, accessible preaching, and community action. This mix has attracted a young, diverse membership in an older, whiter region of the state.

It also attracts controversy. Other Christians complain that Bethel deviates too far from the mainstream. Many question Bethel’s healings and showy practices (like the “fire tunnel”) And the church’s offers of counseling for “unwanted same-sex attraction” and its opposition to state legislation banning gay conversion therapies, have been divisive, including within the church itself.

Bethel’s growth has raised public concerns about whether the church is taking over Redding. But I think the notion of a Bethel takeover of misunderstands the church and its ambitions.

In an interview, Bill Johnson emphasized that he didn’t want to take over anything, expressed discomfort with the church’s size, and praised other churches and city institutions for their work.

Johnson may be a revivalist—he cites early 20th century L.A. Pentecostal preacher Aimee Semple McPherson as an inspiration—but he is a decidedly 21st century one. Instead of creating a new denomination or building satellite churches, Bethel spreads its visions inexpensively through informal networks, via the Internet, books, music and conferences. Revenues from those events and materials help fund its  service to Redding. Christianity Today has reported that Bethel’s independence and its networking approach make it “the heart of a charismatic boom in North America and around the world.”

In this, being from an obscure city  is an advantage. “God works mysteriously, and sometimes he takes the small things to declare a big message,” Johnson says. “It’s one thing if you do a great work through a great place. It’s another if you do a great work through a place that most everyone would overlook. But that’s his nature—God tends to work through broken people and broken things.”

A $148.8 million expansion of Bethel was recently approved after what city officials say was an extraordinarily detailed review—in part because of concerns about the church’s influence. But at city hall, most seem to view Bethel as a heaven-sent asset: it may be strange, but where would the city be without it?

“Usually, when my phone rings somebody wants something,” says Police Chief Roger Moore. “But when they call, it’s always to ask if we need anything. They have never asked me for anything.”

At Bethel services I attended, Redding was a focus, with electronic billboards showing opportunities to engage. At a service at the Cascade Theatre, pastor Candace Johnson encouraged members to participate in the Redding City Identity Project, a civic effort to give the town a clearer positive identity.

Around the city, new businesses are thriving, many tied to Bethel members. Diego and Deborah Tantardini, who relocated to Redding from Milan because of the ministry school, have opened Tantardini Bakery Deli Catering. Filmmakers Joy and Matthew Thayer, Bethel members, operate Speropictures, a production studio. Sam LaRobardiere, once a construction worker, owns Theory Collaborative, as sophisticated a café as any in San Francisco.

“I always had great ideas, but it wasn’t until I got in this environment that people asked me what I was going to do about it,” says LaRobardiere. “This community is a place where you can realize lifelong dreams.”

In Redding, as it is in heaven.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.