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Maranatha Chapel founder, prolific Christian author and longtime pastor Rayburn John Bentley Jr., a San Diego native who grew his local evangelical Christian church from a few dozen people to a congregation of more than 7,000, died on Jan. 4 from complications of COVID-19, his family said.

He was 64.

Born June 21, 1957, Bentley, known around town as Pastor Ray, grew up in El Cajon and attended El Cajon Valley High School, where he was quarterback of the football team and began his first ministry, a high school Bible study. The young preacher, who credits a Billy Graham movie for his salvation at the age of 11 and a transistor radio for his early education, had an insatiable appetite for world news and information that continued until the day he died, according to his own testimony and accounts from those who knew him best.

The interest morphed into a passion for prophecy and Israel that was further fueled by his participation in the Jesus Movement revival in the early 70s. Bentley moved to Costa Mesa after high school to study under Pastor Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa.

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After attending Calvary Chapel Bible College in Twin Peaks, Bentley, with his wife Vicki, returned to his high school’s cafeteria in 1977 to start his first church, Calvary Chapel El Cajon.

In 1981, he transitioned to an assistant pastor role with Horizon Christian Fellowship. But by 1984 he was ready to travel down an evangelical path that would turn him into a legendary figure in the Southern California faith community.

That year, Maranatha Chapel was seeded as a small, mid-week Bible study at the Mira Mesa Recreation Center. A year later, the church had taken over the auditorium at Wangenheim Middle School, where crowds eventually spilled outside to hear his Sunday sermons.

“(The church) blew up there. They were doing services and there would literally be people sitting outside the auditorium, listening to little speakers,” said Daniel Bentley, Ray’s 42-year-old son and also a pastor at the church.

The junior high was a short stopover. By 1990, Maranatha Chapel was ready to break ground on a 4.5-acre facility in Rancho Peñasquitos. And six years later, the church was again moving forward with another venue on 15 acres in 4S Ranch, this time building a 3,000-seat sanctuary with Sunday School buildings, a bookstore and cafe that opened in 1997. Bentley also established Maranatha Christian Schools in 1992, which now has its own, expansive campus two miles west of the church and serves 1,050 children in pre-K through 12th grade.

Friends and fellow pastors attribute the rapid growth to Bentley’s approachability and his style of teaching through the books of the Bible, as opposed to bouncing around the text with more topical sermons.

“Ray is one of the best Bible teachers that I have ever heard, and his ability to clearly exposit the word and point to Jesus, I think is an incredible gift that he had and something that was a great example to a lot of us,” said Rob Salvato, who is the pastor at Calvary Vista and has known Bentley for three decades. “Being a guy who pastored such a large megachurch, he still had a way of making you feel like you were the only person in the room.”

In addition to speaking to crowds in church and thousands more on his daily Maranatha Radio program, broadcast nationally and internationally, Bentley was beloved for his counsel and is described as someone who would often call his friends randomly just to check in.

Ray Bentley

Ray Bentley (right) and his longtime friend John Spencer in a picture taken during a recent trip to Santa Barbara.

(Courtesy, John Spencer)

“For me, he was a very calming counterbalance … a very balanced sounding board,” said Miles McPherson, who is the pastor of the Rock Church in San Diego, and who met Bentley in the 1980s. The confidants would share notes about their megachurches and expound on theological topics, but also help through each other family struggles. Bentley eventually became a father figure to McPherson’s daughter, who deals with anxiety, he said. “My daughter, when she met him … over lunch, said he’s like a dad. … That’s who he is. To me, he was more of a big brother. He’s very considerate. He’s a good listener and a good processor of information.”

Frequent conversations with friends often led to prayer, words of encouragement, family get-togethers, dinner engagements and even travel, with several friends sharing fond memories of trips around the world for shared ministry purposes.

“We went to the Sudan together. We both took teams who were working with the women and children in the villages, and Ray and I stayed back … and taught the chaplains,” said John Spencer, a close friend and the founder of Calvary Chapel Gulf Breeze in Florida. “I remember I was doing one study … and I was teaching on how David was out in the shepherd’s field and he killed the bear and killed the lion with his bare hands. Not thinking, I said, ‘How many of us have killed a lion?’ About four of these guys raised their hands. … Ray never let me forget that story.”

Bentley frequently traveled to Israel, where he met and shared prophecies with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His love and appreciation for the nation started at an early age, and later took shape as the Nehemiah Fund, which gives money to nonprofits that help Jewish people return to Israel.

“Ray was aware of the plight, the hardship that the nation of Israel and the people of Israel have gone through for almost their whole existence,” Salvato said. “He wanted to be one to bring help and encouragement to people in that country, and it all stemmed from his love for Jesus, who was Jewish.”

Bentley is also described as a man who loved to laugh, and whose quirky sense of humor was equal parts intentional and accidental. He even asked his wife to marry him on April 1, 1977.

“The truth of the matter was, the guy that everybody saw in snippets, that was the guy we lived with behind closed doors. He was authentic, he was genuine and he had a heart of gold,” Bentley’s son Daniel said. “He just loved people.”

Bentley is the author of 10 books including, “The Holy Land Key: Unlocking End-Times Prophecy Through the Lives of God’s People in Israel” and “The Elijah Chronicles” series.

He is survived by his wife, father, two children and seven grandchildren.

A memorial is being held Jan. 21 at 1 p.m. at Maranatha Chapel, 10752 Coastwood Road.

Source: This post first appeared on sandiegouniontribune.com

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