Church faces future without controversial, charismatic leader

Agree with him or not, Leon Fontaine made an impact on Winnipeg. And there were plenty of people who fell into both camps.

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Opinion

Agree with him or not, Leon Fontaine made an impact on Winnipeg. And there were plenty of people who fell into both camps.

Fontaine, the longtime pastor of Springs Church, died Nov. 19. The cause of death has not yet been released.

After arriving at the church in 1994, Fontaine and his wife, Sally, grew it into the largest congregation in Canada, with about 8,000 people attending three locations in Winnipeg and Calgary.

In 2020, the church had a budget of almost $11.5 million, $9.5 million of it from donations. It had a total of 58 full-and 33 part-time staff.

Fontaine was known across Canada and around the world through an ambitious online presence on YouTube, the web and social media. He was also the CEO of the Miracle TV channel, based in Lethbridge.

Although he was a well-known media personality, Fontaine did not interact with the news media, granting no interviews. In my almost 20 years as a religion columnist and reporter at the Free Press, I was never able to talk with him.

His lack of media availability extended to other staff at the church, who likewise refrained from talking to reporters. And on Sunday, after his death, the church posted a prominent sign that said “No media allowed” outside the building.

Fontaine was known for preaching what is called the prosperity gospel, an approach to the Christian faith that promotes the idea that believers should be healthy, wealthy and successful.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Leon Fontaine, the longtime pastor of Springs Church, died Nov. 19.

As former Winnipegger Kate Bowler noted in her book Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, Fontaine maintained that through his death on the cross, Jesus embodied all diseases, including cancer.

“The comfort lay in the specificity, the knowledge that Jesus’ pain and victory embraced one’s own,” she wrote. “In this way, Jesus became a deeply personal Savior, whose body experienced and conquered each ache and pain.”

Fontaine himself wrote that God wants to bless Christians in “your relationships, blessed in the area of your health, blessed with peace and joy… and blessed financially.”

While many Christians are critical of this view, Springs attracted those who appreciated Fontaine’s upbeat perspective. They came to hear sermons such as one in 2019 titled “Increasing, succeeding and prospering.”

They also came for the music and various programs.

A year ago I spoke to a few congregants for a column. “My family has benefited from going there,” one said, adding “I’m growing in my faith. It’s definitely been a blessing.”

“My family has benefited from going there… I’m growing in my faith. It’s definitely been a blessing.”–Congregant

“Springs is a place where you can come as you are, be accepted and loved,” said another.

“We love this church so much,” said a third, adding “The messages of pastor Leon are very practical and helpful in our daily spiritual life. This is, so far, the best church.”

“I feel loved, accepted and forgiven at Springs,” said another person.

More recently, Fontaine became known for his support for the trucker convoy in Ottawa and opposition to pandemic mandates, including restrictions on gathering and mask-wearing.

He shared his thoughts about the convoy in an online show called Return to Reason. “This trucker convoy has exploded!” he announced exuberantly in one show.

“If you’ve ever felt like the last two years have been an absolute vacuum of common sense and reason, the sheer number of donations and the speed at which this thing has been galvanized just proved that you are not alone!”

He found ways to work around health mandates, holding drive-in services. He went so far as to suggest his church could provide people with “religious exemptions” from vaccine requirements.

DANIEL CRUMP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

In 2020, the Springs church had a budget of almost $11.5 million, $9.5 million of it from donations. It had a total of 58 full-and 33 part-time staff.

When preaching about the pandemic, he often used the catchphrase “faith over fear.” In spring 2021 he did a four-part sermon series titled “No Deadly Thing” that challenged listeners to not give in to being afraid of the virus.

“You need to get back into the word of God and begin to believe that no deadly thing — period — is going to hurt you, is going to shorten your lifespan, is gonna attack one of your organs, is gonna make you sick, is gonna stop you from living the kind of life God that has called you to live, which is abundantly!” Fontaine said.

“Today our world is so filled with fear,” he added. “There are people listening right now that are afraid of viruses…. If we allow fear into our lives we make bad decisions.”

Winnipeg author Josiah Neufeld is writing a book about religious responses to climate change. Titled The Temple at the End of the Universe (House of Anansi Press; due out in June 2023) it includes a chapter on Fontaine and his views on social issues such as climate change and the pandemic.

In that chapter, Neufeld writes about how the pandemic threatened Fontaine’s business model of gathering thousands of people at services and challenged the core of his health-and-wealth gospel.

“Even Christians full of the Holy Spirit, it turned out, could sicken and die of COVID or lose their livelihoods,” Neufeld said.

In the midst of this crisis, Fontaine redirected people’s fear by saying the enemy was public-health measures and a “dictatorial Trudeau government.”

The way he responded when his prosperity gospel came up against suffering caused by the pandemic, Neufeld said, was to turn to “a reactionary politics that fights to bring back the good old days when men were men and Jesus was Lord and the economy boomed. Anything that stands in its way becomes an enemy to be defeated.”

And now Fontaine has died. How will his church, accustomed to claiming victory over all challenges, including health challenges, respond now? What about succession — how does a church built on one person’s charisma keep going forward?

That remains to be seen.

faith@freepress.mb.ca

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John Longhurst

John Longhurst
Faith reporter

John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.

History

Updated on Monday, November 21, 2022 4:59 PM CST: Updates info about Fontaine's media presence

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