published Sunday, October 27th, 2013

Million-dollar ministry: How Cleveland evangelist Perry Stone built a ministry empire

Eleanor Wilson sings along during a worship service at evangelist Perry Stone's annual conference, called "The Main Event," at the Omega Center International in Cleveland, Tenn., on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013.
Eleanor Wilson sings along during a worship service at evangelist Perry Stone's annual conference, called "The Main Event," at the Omega Center International in Cleveland, Tenn., on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013.
Photo by Doug Strickland.
  • photo
    Evangelist Perry Stone holds an oversized styrofoam heart as an assistant holds a brain over his head during a sermon called "What happened to my brain when the tempter came" at his annual conference, called "The Main Event," at the Omega Center International in Cleveland, Tenn., on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
    enlarge photo

PERRY STONE PROPHECIES

1996 -- While resting his head on a Bible, Perry has a vision that shows an attack on the World Trade Center.

1998 -- Perry is asleep and hears a voice that says George W. Bush will be the next U.S. president. "It says, 'It's my will for the governor of Texas to be president,'" Stone said. "And I didn't even know who the governor of Texas was."

Nov. 3, 2000 -- Perry is praying when he hears the Lord say, "He will win by one." After the election Perry realizes what it means: "What happened with the win by one was -- let me get this right -- one Supreme Court justice tilted toward Bush, one state, Florida, and he won [a majority] by one electoral vote," he said. "The number one was all over it."

April 2011, a week before Osama Bin Laden's death -- While half-asleep, Perry hears a conversation that predicts Bin Laden's death. "I heard what sounded like walkie-talkie static," he said. "Then, 'We have the target. Bin Laden is dead.' And it said, 'Verify with DNA, verify.' I heard this conversation as loud as we're talking right now."

Source: Perry Stone

TIMELINE

1976 -- Perry preaches first sermon at age 16

1985 -- Voice of Evangelism Outreach Ministries is founded

1982 -- Perry marries Pamela Stone

2000 --Manna-fest TV program starts on Trinity Broadcasting Network

2013 -- Omega Center International opens

Source: Perry Stone Ministries

Selma Tillich paused in the hallway outside the sprawling auditorium and remembered the day she was saved.

The music from the night's service was already rising and falling rhythmically behind her and about 2,500 people were worshipping inside the brand-new, 3,000-seat auditorium. A full band and robed gospel choir were onstage belting out classics while TV cameras stream images to two large screens and latecomers filled up the bleachers in the back.

Worshippers spun, or danced, or clapped their hands. Some, like Tillich, drove hundreds of miles to hear the night's sermon.

Everyone was waiting for one man -- a man Tillich has been following for 36 years.

Perry Stone. He's a 54-year-old evangelist with a thick black beard who's quietly built a multimedia ministry empire in Cleveland, Tenn. He travels the world and regularly preaches to thousands. His TV show, "Manna-fest," airs on 84 networks and stations and is available in 249 countries.

"I got saved at a Perry Stone camp meeting in Virginia when he was 18," said Tillich, a retiree. "I'm so thankful that the Lord used him to help me get saved. We love him. He's wonderful and he's true."

The 6-foot-tall preacher's nonprofit Voice of Evangelism Outreach Ministries employs 35 people and pulled in $11.8 million in revenue in 2011, mostly from donations.

Stone has written more than 80 books, recorded hundreds of DVDs and CDs and just put the finishing touches on a $22 million church and conference center in Cleveland this summer, built debt-free. The gathering place complements Stone's original Voice of Evangelism headquarters, about a mile away.

He's built a robust following of people like Tillich, and sends out a bimonthly magazine to about 31,000 people. Tillich and her husband drive to as many of Perry's services as they can -- so far this year they've made it to about 10 throughout the Southeast in Florida, Tennessee, West Virginia, Georgia.

Tillich buys his DVDs after each service and shows them to a group at her church on Monday nights.

"He's genuine," she said, clutching one of his books. "Perry feeds you. A lot of these other people, it's a religion. To him, it's like being in touch with the Lord."

Stone lives in a 6,100-square-foot house on a quiet drive in Cleveland. He's a die-hard Alabama football fan, with an African Grey parrot who squawks, "Roll Tide." He peddles everything from Holy Land perfume to aprons on his website, claims to sometimes see visions that predict future events, and has been called both a heretic and false prophet by critics.

When he strides on stage in a black suit and maroon turtleneck to preach to Tillich, he looks completely at ease, cracking jokes, praying and singing. He takes his place behind a Styrofoam pulpit that's shaped like a castle wall, with four pillars and a faux stone finish.

"Who says coming to church has to be boring?" he shouted, to cheers from the crowd. "I'm just tired of Christians who look like they were baptized in lemon juice."

Ketchup and cash

A fourth-generation preacher, Stone grew up in Virginia and started preaching before elementary school.

"I can remember when he was 5 years old and he'd get his cousins on the steps and preach to them," said his mother, Juanita Stone, shaking her head. "I guess that's where he started."

He was a curious child, she added, always tinkering and tearing Christmas presents apart to see how they worked. And he was a natural performer, said his sister, Diana Stone, even as a 10-year-old.

"We went on vacation and he got mad because Mom and Dad wouldn't let him do something," she remembered. "So he went back up to the room and opened ketchup packets and poured ketchup on himself and laid on the bed so it looked like he was dead when they came in and found him."

She laughed.

"He's always been kind of theatrical, I guess," she said. "Even as a kid he'd dress up in something and make people laugh. He's never lost that."

Stone gave his first official sermon in 1976 at age 16, and decided to write a book as well. He couldn't pay a publisher, so he traded a drum set to a printer in exchange for printing 500 copies of his book.

"I sold that book for a dollar," Stone said, and laughs. "I didn't make much. But I loved to write, and I started writing booklets; all of them were 32 pages. And that was the start of the outreach ministry we have today."

At 18, he started to travel and preach, and became known for long revivals. While other preachers would preach every night for a week, he'd preach every night for five, seven, 11 weeks.

"One time I preached 16 weeks every night without a break," he said. He founded Voice of Evangelism in 1985 and became interested in prophecy after his first trip to Israel. He wanted to prove that the prophecies detailed in the Bible's Old Testament were coming true.

"We went all over the country documenting three major prophecies that scholars taught were not supposed to happen until the Lord returns that were already happening," he said. "Then I'd preach on Saturday nights -- "Prophecy updates from Israel" -- with slides. That was back in the slides days. You can tell how old I am. That became our most-requested teaching."

Slides and books turned into videos and DVDs, CDs and T-shirts, tours to Israel. All for sale. At his annual conference this year, attendees walked past 11 tables of merchandise to get in the door.

"To stand where Jesus stood, to see what he saw, you'll feel his miracles come alive inside you," read a banner advertising Stone's 10-day tour to Israel.

When Stone takes the stage, one of the first things he does is offer a mini-lesson, a nugget from the Lord. God wants to pour out his blessing on you, he tells his audience. Picture a goblet, he says. You can't pour anything out of a goblet if you put your hand on top and block the opening.

"God does not control your blessing, you do," he said. "We're always looking for God to do blessing, blessing, blessing. But if our hand is over the goblet, God won't do anything. We need to remove our hand from the goblet. So how do we do it? We do it by obedience."

In about one minute, he continues, the ushers will be coming around for the offering.

There's a loud rustling as the crowd reaches for the white donation envelopes on the backs of the seats in front of them. Stone breaks into a song.

Prophecy and powerpoints

Stone says one of his prophetic visions happened when he was preaching in Florida in 1996, and he lay down for a mid-afternoon nap.

"I had my Bible out and I was so tired I put my head on the Bible," he said. "Within seconds, I had a vision where I was not there and I saw in the vision the World Trade Center, shrouded in black. There were five gray colored tornado-looking twisters coming off it. They had fire in them, and sparks. Then they had paper. And I came out of it and I thought, 'Oh Lord, something is going to happen to the World Trade Center.'"

Three years later he commissioned an artist to draw a picture of the vision, which he showed on Christian television in 1999.

"I had predicted a terrorist attack on the trade center," he said. "When the plane hit and I saw the black smoke, that's the first thing I saw in the vision. When the buildings collapsed and I saw the dust, I went crazy. I totally freaked out. That was it."

Stone's prophetic claims are perhaps the most controversial part of his ministry. Dozens of blogs, websites and videos call him a heretic, a wolf in sheep's clothing, a cheat. One website posts his picture with the words "False Teacher" stamped across his forehead in bold red ink.

"[The critics] are usually the people who disagree on the prophecy part," he said. "They're not sinners, they're not heathens, but they disagree with you on prophecy. But if they disagree with your prophecy then you're a false prophet."

Stone has also drawn ire for teaching that the Christian tradition of communion, taken daily, can bring physical healing, spiritual healing and emotional healing. He designed a communion kit and sells a book titled, "The Meal that Heals" to help people receive that threefold healing.

None of the people behind the critical websites returned requests for comment. And Stone says all of his products, books and teachings are backed by the Bible.

"Don't go to a website and say Perry Stone said this little blurb," he said. "You have to hear the before and after. Listen to the whole teaching, then come back and criticize and tell me you don't believe and we'll go from there. If I'm going to teach something that is a little controversial, I'll prove that point from the Word first, or I'm not going to put it out there."

He doesn't have much formal education -- he attended Lee University off and on for eight years but never graduated, eventually earning a bachelor's from little-known Covenant Life Christian College. But he says he's spent 80,000 hours studying the Bible.

"All day," he said. "They bring lunch to my desk. Here's what I'm doing. Writing books, writing articles for the magazine, writing articles for the Internet, writing messages, doing PowerPoints for those messages, writing a study Bible, writing 30 messages for Israel. I'm wearing myself out just thinking about it."

He publishes some of his books through Charisma Media, a multimedia company that publishes both magazines and books. Steve Strang, Charisma Media's president and founder, said Stone is one of their best-selling authors.

"I've been covering the Christian community for most of my career," he said. "I know virtually every evangelical Pentecostal leader in the country. And I would say that Perry Stone is right at the top of the list when it comes to things like integrity. He's not a real flamboyant person, he doesn't promote himself a lot, yet he has a huge following."

Every weekend, Stone hops in Voice of Evangelism's twin-engine plane and preaches at churches around the country. He never charges a set fee to preach, although he sometimes asks for help to cover the travel expenses, and will take an offering during the service.

He doesn't earn any royalties on his books or other products -- all the money goes back into Voice of Evangelism, where he earned a $104,115 salary in 2011. He pays about $4 million a year for his twice-weekly TV show on Trinity Broadcasting Network and other networks and does the production in-house, with a full prop department to pump out oversized Styrofoam visual aids. Voice of Evangelism's emails reach about 70,000 people.

Stone's salary is set by the nonprofit's board, chaired by long-time Chattanoogan Rick Towe, formerly senior vice president at Covenant Transport. He said Stone has managed money well over the years.

"They're very frugal with their money," he said. "He's a great guy. And what you see on stage is what you see all the time. He's pretty steady. He doesn't have any agenda, it's just to preach the gospel."

Stone said he stays in ministry because he believes he is affecting lives for the better.

"It's watching people's lives be changed," he said, tearing up. "That's the whole motivation for me. If I did not see lives change, I would be doing something else. I would absolutely be doing something else."

Prayer and props

Going into a message, Stone always feels a burden of responsibility.

"I always have a weight on me," he said. "Sometimes it is stronger than others. Because you start realizing that for those two hours, God has made you responsible for every person in that room. You can't miss his will for that moment. So for me personally, the size doesn't matter. I can preach to 20 or 8,000 and I feel the same weight. You never know if that's somebody's last service on earth."

A couple hours later, Stone is on stage getting into the night's main sermon. He pulls out an oversized Styrofoam heart and a big Styrofoam brain. An assistant holds the brain over his head and he holds up the bright red and blue heart in front of his chest.

"You know what, everybody get your phone out," he says. "I'm going to hold the heart up and everybody get a picture on the count of three and send it to Facebook."

About 2,500 people reach for their phones and hold them up, creating a sea of blue glow.

"Ready?" he asks. "One, two three."

Click.

"Now I want you to text these words: 'What happened to my brain when the tempter came?'" He smiles. "That's tonight's message. So let's get that out there."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com.

about Shelly Bradbury...

Shelly Bradbury covers police and crime in Chattanooga and Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She's been with the paper since 2012, working first as an intern and then as a business reporter. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint ...

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