John Wimber, born on February 25, 1934, in Kirksville, Missouri, died ten years ago today (November 17, 1997). Some of you may never have heard of him, but I doubt that you have attended a corporate worship service in the past twenty years that doesn’t reflect his influence.
Wimber led a colorful life, to say the least, although it isn’t my purpose here to write a biographical history. Rather, I want to comment briefly, yet very personally, on the great impact he had on my life and a bit on his influence within the broader body of Christ. If you are interested in the details of his life, I recommend three books: John Wimber: The Way it Was (by his wife, Carol Wimber); John Wimber: A Tribute (edited by David Pytches); and The Quest for the Radical Middle (by Bill Jackson; this latter volume is a history of the Vineyard movement, but contains considerable information on John personally).
John came to be known for many things, having been, before his conversion, an early member of the group known as the Righteous Brothers (I think John played both sax and keyboard and did a bit of drumming); as well as briefly serving on the faculty at Fuller Theological Seminary where he taught a famous course on signs, wonders, and church growth. But his fame (or infamy, as some would have it) is from his long tenure as leader of the Association of Vineyard Churches and his role as senior pastor of the Anaheim Vineyard in California.
Most, if not all, of John’s books are still in print, including Power Healing and Power Evangelism, in both of which he argues for the importance of signs and wonders and the operation of miraculous gifts in the life of the church today.
I first met John in 1993 when he visited Metro Vineyard Fellowship in Kansas City where I was serving on pastoral staff. Needless to say, I will never forget it. We were having dinner at a local restaurant when someone mentioned that I was an author. “Yes, I know,” said John, looking at me with a mischievous gleam in his eye. “I read his book.”
About ten minutes of eating and random conversation passed, during which John, I suspect, was on the verge of bursting out in laughter. Suddenly something triggered the light switch in my mind, “Which book?” I asked. He leaned back in his chair and howled: “You know which one!” Indeed I did. It was my book on healing in which I had criticized some of John’s comments on the subject. He would often remind me of it (always with laughter) in the days that followed.
In August of 1994, I was in Anaheim and spent several hours in his office. As we left, my eye noticed the infamous book on one of his shelves. I arranged it so that I was the last to leave, at which time I carefully pulled the volume from the shelf and quietly (or so I thought) tossed it in the nearest trash can. John wasn’t fooled, as he turned and said: “Nice try, Sam, but I’ve already read it!”
I didn’t agree with John on all points of theology, and he wasn’t in the least hesitant to challenge me on a few issues where he thought I had gone astray. We also had some difference of opinion on certain decisions regarding the direction of the Vineyard as a whole. But that’s not what I remember most about him. What stands out in my mind is that, regardless of our disagreements, he always welcomed and affirmed me and, I trust, prayed for me as he promised. His support and encouragement and our friendship were not suspended on whether or not we agreed on what ultimately turn out to be secondary issues in the body of Christ.
To this day I have nothing but the highest regard and deepest affection for John. I am also profoundly grateful for what I learned from him concerning the kingdom of God (John was highly influenced by George Ladd), worship (his role in the global influence of Vineyard music is incalculable), the importance of spiritual gifts in the church today, and especially his insights on the nature of divine healing.
I don’t know if I read it in one of his books or heard him say it in a sermon (probably both), but one of the things that has stuck with me these many years was this comment: “I would rather pray for 1,000 people, even if only one gets healed, than not to pray for any and none gets healed.” In fact, even if not even one gets healed, John would faithfully pray for everyone. His life and ministry were not governed by results but by what he believed he was commanded to do in the Bible.
John may well have been the most overly analyzed and criticized man in America during the 80’s and early 90’s. But he refused to retaliate in kind. He was gentle, but strong, kind, yet forceful when needed, always humble and self-effacing but not afraid to express his opinions or wield his authority when he believed it important to do so.
When John would come to Kansas City to speak at one of our conferences, the highlight for me was after the sessions were over. John would sit down in our hospitality room as we gathered around to ask questions and glean from his wisdom. He was always available and never regarded himself as above other Christians. He was there to serve, and we are the richer for it.
John will be remembered for many things, one of which was his unrelenting commitment to “doin’ the stuff,” as he often put it. As John told the story, he and Carol visited a church early in his spiritual journey, immediately after he had spent considerable time reading the gospel accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus. Following the service, John approached the pastor and asked him:
“So, when do we do the stuff?”
“The ‘stuff’,” said the pastor. “What’s the ‘stuff’?”
“You know,” John replied, “the stuff in the Bible, like healing the sick and casting out demons. The stuff!”
“Oh,” replied the pastor. “We don’t do the stuff. We believe they did it back in biblical days, but we don’t do it today.”
With a rather confused look on his face, John could only say: “And I gave up drugs for this?”
But don’t be misled by John’s humor. One should never mistake his simplicity for simple-mindedness. He often referred to himself as “just a fat man trying to get to heaven,” but he was extremely well-read and theologically discerning. I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone as street wise as John or as perceptive of the dynamics of human nature. He was a remarkably gifted leader and tens of thousands (if not considerably more) will credit him with their awakening to a more robust view of the ministry of the Spirit in today’s church.
I was attending the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society at the time when John’s funeral was scheduled. Fortunately, ETS was being held in California that year so I jumped on a plane and flew to Anaheim on November 21, 1997, to join with several thousand others in the auditorium of the Anaheim Vineyard. I was stunned yet again by the extent of his influence and moved deeply by the impact of his life and leadership on people of all denominations.
John’s theology will continue to be analyzed and criticized, and depending on one’s perspective, either adored or deplored (or perhaps a little of both). But I thank God for him, for his reassuring smile, his encouraging words, his huge heart for the kingdom of God, and his global impact on the body of Christ.
Thanks John, for “doin’ the stuff.”