Peter Youngren making waves
But evangelist's expanding ministry shadowed by conflict, infidelity
By Josiah Neufeld | Tuesday, April 13, 2010
TORONTO, ONPeter Youngren is on a mission. The Swedish-born evangelist from St. Catharines is in the middle of a cross-Canada preaching marathon of 15 major Canadian cities. His goal is to see "1,000 people respond to Christ," Youngren told ChristianWeek over the phone from Regina.
Youngren's other purpose for the tour is to promote his new TV channel, Grace TV. Last year Youngren's international evangelistic ministry, World Impact Ministries, purchased the Christian Channel and rebranded it Grace TV.
According to press releases, the station has been increasing its reach by 1,000 homes per week since the purchase. In March, Grace TV launched on Shaw Cable in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C.
Youngren's ministry is impressive. Hundreds of thousands flock to hear him preach in Africa, India and other countries. Days after his cross-Canada tour wraps up in Toronto on April 18, Youngren will headline a gospel festival in Orissa, India where World Impact Ministries says it expects to see "well over 100,000 people to come to Christ." Next on Youngren's itinerary: Israel, Indonesia, Cambodia, Nigeria and Pakistan.
According to World Impact Ministries, Youngren's "soul-winning campaigns held throughout the world" draw crowds of 600,000, have led millions to convert to Christianity and resulted in thousands of new churches.
Youngren may be taking the world by storm, but the charismatic blond evangelist is also a lightening rod for controversy. Rumblings on the blogosphere allege Youngren is on the verge of a second divorce. A steady trickle of phonecalls and letters to the editor have hinted that not everything is in order in the Youngren household. With Youngren's prominence on the rise, ChristianWeek decided it was time to investigate the rumours in an effort to sort fact from fiction.
"A great failing"
Youngren's first marriage ended in divorce in 1982, and he remarriedthis time to RoxAnne Rutkey (now Youngren). But about eight years ago Youngren had an affair with a married woman in the Niagara congregation he was leading. The affair resulted in a child.
After news of the scandal leaked out in 2003, Youngren stepped down from his position as founding president of Open Faith Bible Fellowship, an independent association of charismatic pastors and ministries. The fellowship's current president Rick Ciaramitaro says the fellowship is no longer associated with Youngren "in any way shape or form."
"OBFF will have nothing to do with his ministry," Ciaramitaro says.
"Peter has not been in fellowship with OBFF since November of 2007. We do not support him as an organization in any way," reads a statement posted by Ciaramitaro on the fellowship website.
According to a member of the fellowship contacted by ChristianWeek, details about Youngren's infidelity were sketchy at first, and the board only learned about the child a few years later. Ongoing conflict between the board and Youngren ended in an unpleasant parting in 2007. The fellowship also stripped Youngren of ministry credentials he held through the fellowship.
"I had a great failing in my life eight years ago. I'm not trying to hide that. I didn't try to hide that eight years ago when it happened," Youngren told ChristianWeek. "All matters of my personal life were discussed at the time…
"Why, five years later, there was a parting of ways is something that could be explored, but I don't have any comment on it."
The statement on Open Bible Faith Fellowship's website also states that the fellowship is "not in agreement with [Youngren's] current action to divorce his wife on unbiblical grounds."
"That is not entirely accurate," Youngren said when ChristianWeek asked if he and RoxAnne are getting divorced. "I don't think something is news until it is news. So until someone has filed for divorce, which has not occurred, I don't think there's anything of newsworthiness there."
Youngren says he has not signed a separation agreement, and Canada's national divorce registry has no record of divorce proceedings between Youngren and RoxAnne. RoxAnne did not return calls from ChristianWeek.
But sources who know the Youngren family tell ChristianWeek their relationship remains rocky and they are living in separate residences. RoxAnne is senior associate pastor of the Niagara Celebration Churchpart of a network of three Celebration churches founded by Youngrenand her husband is listed as senior pastor of the Celebration church in Toronto.
An acquaintance who knows the mother of Youngren's young child says she and her husband are quietly raising the child in a healthy home. ChristianWeek contacted the couple, who said they have restored their marriage and are doing well but have been advised by their lawyer not to speak to the press.
Another mystery in the Youngren file has to do with an apparent conflict between Youngren and his son, Peter Karl Youngren. Father and son planted the Toronto International Celebration Church together in 2000 and co-pastored it until Peter Karl resigned in December.
"What happened between us is between us," says Peter Karl, who resigned voluntarily. Youngren wouldn't comment on what led to his son's departure.
Youngren says rumours circulating about him in the blogosphere are part of a campaign to tarnish his reputation, but he doesn't have time to find out who is behind it.
"I get under duress all the time about these things, and I've got to keep my eye on the ball. I'm trying to build a television channel across Canada. I'm trying to do something for the gospel in areas that are tough like Orissa," Youngren says.