Rows of believers sway in the pews at the Greater Life Christian Center in North Dallas to inspirational music, eager to be healed of their maladies, eager to get drunk on the Holy Spirit.
Some call what they witness here a purging of pain, of guilt. Others call it salvation.
“Holy laughter” is what Charles and Frances Hunter call the nondenominational movement that thousands have sought in Texas and in similar movements around the world.
The self-described “Happy Hunters,” from Kingwood, Texas, are at the crest of a new wave of Pentecostal-type enthusiasts who believe they will usher in the coming of Christ through, among other things, being filled with the Holy Spirit and engaging in uncontrollable laughter.
“It’s time to get into the spirit of the Lord. Hallelujah,” the Rev. Bob Barker, pastor of Greater Life and the Hunters’ son-in-law, says as he paces the stage on a recent Friday. “If you don’t like this, you’re going to hate heaven.”
One night a month the Hunters, who have traveled to 43 nations spreading word of the laughing revival, visit Greater Life to minister to worshipers at their daughter’s and son-in-law’s church on Walnut Hill Lane.
In their book “Holy Laughter” and at their services, the Hunters captivate audiences with stories of healings they say have occurred through holy laughter, including claims of worshipers having been cured of cancer, receiving “new spines” and a woman who, after a mastectomy, had her breast grow back at a service.
“Holy laughter is a part of what God is doing,” Charles Hunter, 75, says before a recent worship service. “There are phenomenal miracles. Some of the things are believable only because God does it to the people.”
“It depends on you,” cuts in Frances Hunter, 79. The couple often finish each other’s sentences.
“You have the choice. We can choose God or follow the devil. We’re opening up the gate for them.”
Not everyone believes the Hunters are performing the work of God.
Hank Hanegraff, president of the Southern California-based Christian Research Institute and one of the foremost critics of the laughing revival, says followers of the movement are “swallowing spiritual cyanide.”
On Hanegraff’s radio show, “The Bible Answer Man,” aired by 100 Christian radio stations nationwide, he tells listeners how to refute false doctrines, including what he calls the “Counterfeit Revival.”
“One of my concerns is that they are telling stories in pulpits which are all in the guise and in the name of God,” says the Christian broadcaster, who is writing a book on the phenomenon. “Basically, my job is to make (listeners) so familiar with the truth that when a counterfeit looms on the horizon, they know it instantaneously.”
Hanegraff accuses leaders of the movement, including the Hunters, of twisting Scripture and making healing claims so great that they are doomed to fail.
“It’s really nice to tell people, ‘Just come here and laugh and give your money.’ But they’re giving them quick-fix solutions to complex problems,” he says. “It makes a mockery out of Christ.”
The Hunters dismiss Hanegraff’s claims as pure negativity.
“He doesn’t believe in anything,” says Frances Hunter, waving her hand as if to shoo him off.
“The devil is 100 percent negative,” her husband adds. “Jesus is 100 percent positive. The devil doesn’t believe in what we’re doing.”
The Hunters say that they have witnessed holy laughter in their healing services for at least 20 years but didn’t know quite what it was until about three years ago.
Rodney Howard-Browne, an evangelist from South Africa, coined the phrase at a church in Lakeland, Fla. The Hunters say the phenomenon has reached places such as Russia, Finland, China, Chile and Mexico.
But Barker of Greater Life, who first witnessed holy laughter with his wife last August at Church on the Rock in Rockwall, Texas, says that one need not travel to find an audience for the laughing revival.
“Our country has become the ripest missionary ground,” he said.
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