Quit Your Church! 

It was bad enough when evangelical broadcaster Harold Camping falsely predicted the apocalypse. But his latest crusade really has Christians fuming.

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Rather than view The End of the Church Age negatively, as outsiders do, Morrell sees it as a return to the roots of Christianity. "In the Bible, the apostles went into the streets," he says. "They didn't meet in formal buildings or in houses. In the streets, that's the early church."

But Morrell raises a fair question: What's the harm in letting the Campers worship however they want to? Who's it really hurting?

Well, for one, there are aspects of Camping's behavior that appear to conflict with his teachings, prompting Reggie Wiggins' ex-wife, among others, to accuse Camping of being a fraud or a cult leader. During the 1994 tribulation, for instance, Family Radio was actively seeking donations through September, and planning a picnic for October -- pretty odd for a guy who's 99.9 percent sure the world is about to end. Even weirder, on Camping's Day of Reckoning, he closed on the sale of a house to one of his family members. Detractors also point out that he has never returned money, let alone apologized, to the people who gave everything to Family Radio in the mistaken belief that the end was imminent. "He put a question mark at the end of 1994 in his book," insists Camping's friend Tom Holt. "In the text of the book, he suggested that he could be wrong."

As for Camping's Dead Church Doctrine, some Christians favor a psychological explanation, pointing out that Camping's distaste for organized churches and their hierarchies may in fact stem from the broadcaster's break with his Alameda church in the '80s. After feeling forced out, he may have parlayed his disdain into an antichurch campaign.

But there may be more to it than that. According to the nonprofit's tax returns, Family Radio ran a deficit of more than $2 million in 1999, and almost $3 million the following year; some former employees report that the ministry began losing money after the 1994 flap. Could the timing of Camping's doctrine be somehow designed to keep his ministry afloat? Gistand believes so: "What's so obvious about Mr. Camping's doctrine is that the people are not to pledge allegiance to the local church, and are therefore not to support their local church," he says. "Instead, give the tithing to him. You would think that people would see through this."

Yet he's quick to add that Camping isn't out to make a buck for himself. Rather, he's obsessed with expanding his empire, and that takes money. "It's a bit too easy to put this whole thing into purely materialistic terms," concurs Geoffrey Hubler, Wiggins' former pastor. "I'm sure there are a lot of charlatans who want money, but the only commodity out there is not money. There are a lot of people who need control over other people. There are a lot of people who appear a certain way and the people who follow them become props in their own little world.

"The real spiritual commodity," Hubler adds, "is glory."

There's a possibility Camping may find the glory he's seeking. Even Martin Luther, after all, said salvation needn't be found in the church. And Camping knows that being a revolutionary is no popularity contest. The radio minister's Biblical analyses are in fact just unique enough that a number of theologians and religious leaders think the octogenarian could leave behind more than a vast network of radio stations when he dies. Like the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah's Witnesses before him, Harold Camping may leave behind a brand-new church.

"It's very conceivable that when he passes on, someone else could take up the basic seat of his teachings," Jesse Gistand says. "They could formulate it in a way to develop local fellowships all around the world who adhere to his teaching. It's not impossible at all, and of course this is the history of your false cults."

Yet, unlike the Witnesses or the Adventists, Family Radio doesn't seem to have a charismatic heir waiting in the wings. "If Mr. Camping were to die in the next three years," Gistand concedes, "this whole thing will phase out. There is no one capable of sustaining the type of aura he has. He's an old man, and that's the father-figure dynamic that's much more effective in getting people to listen seriously than say, a young man like myself."

Former employee Bill Patton has also speculated as to whether or not the organization will continue on as a new church after Camping passes away. "I have considered that a lot," he says. "The problem is, there's no one who could follow him that has the charisma he has. He has quite a huge following and is quite persuasive."

If the so-called Cult of Camping is based on one man's magnetic aura, and not so much his teachings, then it's possible that Family Radio will carry on when he's gone only by moving back toward the mainstream. "His charisma is that he speaks with great certainty," says Pastor Hubler. "People who want the questions settled find it very comforting."

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