A few years ago, Bishop Carlton Pearson was living the typical life of a popular charismatic preacher _ with a growing congregation, popular conferences and award-winning CDs.
But things have changed as more people learned of his "gospel of inclusion," a controversial theology that all have been saved, not just particular brands of Christians.
In three years, his interracial congregation in Tulsa, Okla., has dropped from about 4,000 attending on Sundays to as low as 1,200. His spring "Azusa Conferences" that once took in as many as 10,000 a night didn't surpass 4,500 this year. And a music company has suspended its relationship with him, citing doctrinal differences.
"I exclude nobody from the redemptive work of the cross," the 49-year-old preacher said in a recent interview at a hotel outside Washington, D.C. "I believe that Jesus redeemed the entire world."
In interviews and online, Pearson says he thinks the focus of many of his evangelical brethren _ who believe a personal confession that Jesus is savior gains entrance to heaven _ has been wrongly placed on what people need to do for God instead of what God has done for them.
Among numerous Scriptures he cites is 2 Corinthians 5:18-19, which he says reads "God was reconciling the world" _ not just Christians _ "to himself, in Christ." He believes heaven will be fuller than most evangelicals predict and hell is reserved only for those who have had an experience with God and then rejected him.
"Somehow over the years, we have gradually taken the beauty, responsibility and, thus, the glory of the wonderful gift of salvation away from Christ and put it almost entirely upon weak, frail and deceived humanity," he said in an eight-page explanation titled "Jesus: The Savior of the World," on his church's Web site.
Some of the top names in charismatic circles have rejected Pearson for his views, which he began espousing three years ago. But, after the controversy was highlighted by a front-page newspaper story in Tulsa last month (September), people of a variety of faiths also have welcomed his perspective. Pearson hoped to answer questions of Christians and non-Christians alike at a "Contending for the Faith Once Delivered" summit that began Wednesday (Oct. 2) and concludes Saturday at his interdenominational Higher Dimensions Family Church.
Pearson, who considers himself to be a misunderstood person in the mainstream more than a maverick, hopes his critics will hear him out.
"I emphatically and unequivocally repudiate the so-called doctrine of inclusion as heresy," Bishop T.D. Jakes of Dallas said in a statement he still stands by that was first issued earlier this year.
"While I do consider Carlton Pearson to be a friend, I believe this theology is wrong, false, misleading, and an incorrect interpretation of the Bible."
Evangelist Oral Roberts has questioned Pearson's views, writing he fears Pearson might turn into a cult leader. Pearson resigned from the board of regents of Oral Roberts University, his alma mater in Tulsa, and the school no longer rents its Mabee Center to the controversial preacher or permits his church buses to pick up students for his services.
In a statement about Pearson's theology, the school wrote: "This doctrine eliminates the redemption that Christ bought on the cross and contradicts the Bible. Therefore, this ministry as well as many others has not endorsed this doctrine and Oral Roberts Ministries did not renew Azusa's contract for the Mabee Center so as not to give the indication that we are in support of this teaching."
Pearson, who was a singer in the 1970s with Oral Roberts Ministries, went on to record several praise and worship music albums. Integrity, a Mobile, Ala.-based company, had planned to release his latest recording on Oct. 5, he said, before the controversy grew.
"Integrity is a company which serves the evangelical church, and to align ourselves with you and your position at this time would bring us into public disrepute," company officials wrote Pearson in a Sept. 13 letter.
But the story in the Tulsa World also has drawn more positive reactions from people whose paths Pearson rarely crossed before.
"I'm absolutely thrilled," said Sheryl Siddiqui, community relations chairwoman for the Islamic Society of Tulsa, who found Pearson's comments refreshing in a community she said has often been divided by religion.
"His opening up to recognize that we are all part of the same community _ Tulsa _ and part of the greater community _ human _ and that we all have spirituality . . . to recognize that about people, this is real progress," she said.
Leaders of the Tulsa Jewish Federation invited Pearson to breakfast and are making plans for a second meeting with him that might include leaders of a range of faiths.
Martin H. Belsky, president of the federation and dean of the University of Tulsa College of Law, said Pearson's inclusive views were welcomed by the federation. Belsky, who teaches about law and theology with Protestant ministers, said it's easy to pick a paragraph out of the Old or New Testaments to support any view.
"I don't think the lesson of either of those documents is that we should exclude," he said. "The lesson of both of these documents is a faith can sustain you and we have different paths to the faith."
Pearson, who thinks his inclusive message is the way to world peace, said he told the Jewish leaders who asked about his interest in evangelism: "I don't want to want to convert anybody. I just want to convince everybody."
Pearson has marveled at the range of responses, which he said have included invitations to consider membership in Episcopal, Orthodox and New Age organizations.
"My Jewish friends, my Hindu friends, my Muslim friends are saying to me, "Mr. Pearson, we don't have a problem with Jesus,"' he said, affecting a foreign-sounding voice. ""It is his followers . . . we don't understand."'
Some colleagues of Pearson in the International Communion of Charismatic Churches are carefully walking a middle road for now, avoiding land mines that already have created fissures in some segments of Christianity. They think interest in his theology presents an opportunity rather than a problem.
"I have witnessed and seen that there is a large population of the unchurched community that is paying attention to what he is saying," said Bishop David Huskins of Cedar Lake Christian Center in Cedartown, Ga.
Though he doesn't agree with all of Pearson's statements, Huskins is among those who hope the controversy swirling around his friend will move from "assassination mode" to "restoration mode."
Bishop Kirby Clements, who is on staff at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Decatur, Ga., said the start of dialogue among groups that were previously antagonistic is welcome.
"That to me is just as miraculous as the dead being raised," he said.
The Rev. Russell Bennett, president of the Tulsa Interfaith Alliance, called Pearson as soon as he read of his views.
"He has not become a theological liberal by any means, but he has worked his way to a position with which we are in full accord," said Bennett, pastor of Fellowship Congregational Church, a United Church of Christ congregation in Tulsa. "I think he really does have an evangelist's heart of reaching people with the message of God's inclusion."
Pearson, in general, is not shy about controversy. He urged other blacks to support President Bush during his election campaign. And he made an unsuccessful bid for the mayor of Tulsa, a loss he believes was due in part to voters' opinion about his theology.
Now, spurred on by letters, e-mails and phone calls sparked by the controversy, Pearson intends to continue to preach from his perspective as "an inclusionist" within the evangelical church.
"It's important for me to invite people to Christ, to be born again and to take this wonderful message and tell the people not only what they need to do but what he's already done," he said.