Despite a mass exodus of his congregation and a large drop in numbers at his annual Azusa summer conference, Bishop Carlton Pearson of Tulsa, Okla., has said he will stand by his commitment to preach a "more appealing and attractive message of God's unconditional love for all."
In a lengthy interview with "Charisma" magazine, the pastor of the more than 5,000-member Higher Dimensions Family Church offered a revealing look at his ministry's current standing in the wake of his recent shift to what has been called the "gospel of inclusion" -- a doctrine that states no declaration of belief in Christ as Savior is necessary for going to heaven.
Pearson's preaching caused a split in his congregation three years ago. Four pastors left and founded other churches. The bishop came under widespread public scrutiny earlier this year after he lost a bid for mayor of Tulsa and after a May article in "Charisma" called attention to his "new" doctrinal stance.
His annual conference has always averaged 7,500 to 10,000 people a night, he said, but not this summer. "This year, we never had a crowd above 4,500. In my church, people left by the hundreds. We probably lost thousands. But some are already coming back," he said.
Although he does not like the term "inclusion," Pearson said he does believe that Jesus' death and resurrection paid the price for all the world to spend eternal life in heaven, without the requirement that people repent, confess and receive their salvation.
Citing verses in Hebrews, Romans, Isaiah, Timothy and Revelation, among others, Pearson said Scripture clearly shows that the "vast multitudes" will be in heaven. He interprets that to mean most of the world, not just the 20 percent or so of the world's population who are Roman Catholic or Protestant or who claim to be born again.
"I have been preaching this for several years," he told "Charisma." "It's not 'new.' But evidently someone heard it who was not a regular part of this congregation and didn't understand."
Pearson said he is not the only one introducing what he labels a "paradigm shift." Other pastors also preach a gospel that includes the world, calling themselves "Universal Reconciliationists," he said.
Where Pearson veers from evangelical doctrinal norms is in stating that human beings are neither required nor given a choice to determine their eternal destiny. The presumption is they will go to heaven. Only those who have "tasted of the fruits" of real intimacy with Christ and have "intentionally and consciously rejected" the grace of God will spend eternity separated from Him.
Other pastors have asked to have Pearson removed from the speaking lineup of conferences, such as the August Prophetic Awakening 2002 in Fresno, Calif.Integrity Music has been weighing a decision on whether to release Pearson's new "Azusa: We Cry Out" album to the Christian and mainstream markets.
Pearson has said he is open to "loving correction" if he can be shown that he is off-base. However, he admits he has been hurt by the outright rejection by high-profile leaders who have not even spoken to him directly. "I've lost some of the dearest, most respected friendships I've ever had," Pearson said. "But even though they misunderstand or misinterpret me, I still highly value them."
Pearson said he plans to hold a Contending for the Faith conference at Higher Dimensions Oct. 2-4 to answer questions and clear up any misunderstandings about the teaching of universal reconciliation