From Disney to the divine Christian crusaders, finding Florida's conservative climate to their liking, are making Orlando their new 'Holy Land.'

November 29, 1998|By Mark I. Pinsky | Mark I. Pinsky,ORLANDO SENTINEL

Already the world's theme-park capital, Orlando, Fla., is emerging as a spiritual capital - a new Holy Land for Christianity's modern crusaders.

More than a dozen international ministries, evangelical organizations and seminary branches have sprung up here or moved to the Orlando area, and more are on the way. In coming months, two multimillion-dollar complexes are scheduled to open, both designed in part to convert tourists into pilgrims.

"It looks like Orlando will be the third evangelical Jerusalem in the U.S.," said Quentin Schultze of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. The others are Wheaton, Ill., home of Wheaton College, and Colorado Springs, Colo., home of Focus on the Family.

Schultze predicted that Orlando will exert a growing influence on the nation's religious life, especially in evangelical, charismatic and fundamentalist communities.

"The two ways that evangelicals shape culture are through education and communication," said Schultze, noting that central Florida is now home to Reformed Theological Seminary, Charisma magazine and Campus Crusade for Christ.

"I think you're going to see significant growth in the next 10 years," he said, as the pace of relocation increases.

In addition to the spiritual influence, the migration of evangelical organizations has a practical, economic impact, bringing thousands of jobs to the Orlando area and increasing the area's attraction as a site for religious meetings and conferences.

But this phenomenon also has raised troubling questions among some local, mainline clergy who fear the conservative influence that these organizations exert.

"It is sad that our society hears these voices from the religious right and assumes that that is all of central Florida speaking," said the Rev. James Armstrong, pastor of First Congregational Church of Winter Park. "This narrow interpretation of the faith does not represent our community."

Armstrong said the growing number of national evangelical organizations affects the local religious atmosphere, fostering a more exclusive view of belief. He cited as an example the numerous community prayer observances that no longer include clergy from mainline Protestant denominations or from Jewish, Muslim or Hindu faiths.

Why are there so many evangelical organizations in the Orlando area? For some of the same reasons many businesses come here: low-cost land and labor, good airline connections and the weather.

"Evangelicals are following their people to Florida and the Sun Belt," said Randall Balmer, professor of religion at Columbia University. Observers say retired people living in Florida are a high percentage of donors to national evangelical organizations. It's a matter of "following the demographics of people who will support your institution," said Christian Smith, a University of North Carolina sociologist.

The region's moral climate also is a factor.

"The Southeast is the most conservative part of the United States - politically, socially and religiously - so it fits us perfectly," said Luder Whitlock Jr., president of Reformed Theological Seminary.

On Jan. 26, the school will move into the first phase of its $26 million branch in Oviedo, Fla., eight years after establishing a temporary campus in Maitland, Fla. Whitlock said that since moving here, Reformed's central Florida campus has become VTC the largest of the seminary's three branches.

"The community is very favorable to Christianity - without being fanatical about it," said Steve Brown, who moved his Key Life Network radio show from Miami to Maitland four years ago to join Reformed's faculty.

Orlando was once best known in the religious world as the home of flamboyant televangelist Benny Hinn. But the spectrum of religious groups here now has become more sophisticated. In addition to high-profile evangelical groups, there are now legal organizations, such as Liberty Counsel, and financial-services providers, such as the Timothy Fund, both serving the nation's Christian community.

And the pace is accelerating. Orlando is one of three finalists being considered as a relocation site by Wycliffe Bible Translators, a Huntington Beach, Calif.-based organization with 200 employees. The nonprofit group specializes in producing Bibles for distribution by missionaries in developing nations.

Susan Van Wynen, the organization's communications director, cited Central Florida's "evangelical climate" and the presence of other Christian groups as key attractions.

In late April, Campus Crusade for Christ will occupy the first phase of its 260,000-square-foot, $42 million complex near Orlando International Airport. The world's largest evangelical organization was lured to the area seven years ago, in part by guarantees of $2 million in road improvements for the new headquarters on 285 acres on Lake Hart.

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