John Wimber, whose ministry helped spawn new theological lingo and mass Christian movements—including the Vineyard—died on November 17, the result of a fall that caused a fatal brain hemorrhage. He was 63.
Wimber had already recovered from cancer in 1993 and a stroke in 1995 (CT, Oct. 7, 1996, p. 49). Last year he underwent triple-bypass heart surgery.
At a November 21 memorial service, an overflow crowd spilled out of the Anaheim (Calif.) Vineyard Christian Fellowship (VCF)'s 3,200 seats and into the aisles and outer rooms where big-screen monitors were stationed. In a fashion Wimber surely would have appreciated, the church he founded worshiped to the accompaniment of electric guitars, keyboards, and the soft beat of drums. Wimber had recently retired as pastor of the church (CT, July 14, 1997, p. 46).
Wimber graduated from Azusa Pacific University in 1970 and pastored the Yorba Linda Friends Church for five years. In 1974, Wimber began breaking traditional evangelical molds when he became director of church growth at the Fuller Evangelistic Association. He later taught a controversial and well-attended "Signs and Wonders and Church Growth" class at Fuller Theological Seminary. In 1978 he became full-time pastor of what became VCF in Yorba Linda, California.
ENORMOUS IMPACT: From that congregation, the Vineyard movement now has grown to nearly 500 churches nationwide and another 250 internationally.
Today, thousands of traditional evangelical churches each Sunday sing Vineyard-produced songs, and Wimber's effective marketing has offered many Protestant denominations and individuals a nonthreatening way of charismatic expression.
"The Vineyard has exercised influence all out of proportion to its numbers," Regent University divinity school dean Vinson Synan told CT; "I trace that to Wimber himself. The greatest asset Vineyard had was Wimber, just like Wesley was the greatest asset to the Methodists."
Wimber's Vineyard did not escape controversy. "The Vineyard sometimes let outside influences exercise undue influences within it," Synan says.
Eventually, after embracing the controversial Kansas City prophets, Wimber provided correction to their movement, which broke from the Vineyard in 1996 (CT, Oct. 7, 1996, p. 86). In similar fashion, John Arnott's Toronto Vineyard, home of the Toronto Blessing phenomenon, broke away from the Vineyard in 1995. Wimber had cautioned them not to encourage so-called exotic manifestations, including animal noises (CT, Jan. 8, 1996, p. 66).
"John was always on the cutting edge, so naturally he was at a point where there would be differences of opinion as to what he was doing," says Fuller Seminary professor C. Peter Wagner. "But now that he is gone he leaves a legacy not of criticism, but a legacy of positive contribution to the kingdom of God."
Todd Hunter, acting national director of the Association of Vineyard Churches, USA, recalled during the memorial service that Wimber was "always willing to selflessly take whatever heat came his way."
Bob Fulton, international coordinator of the Vineyard International Consortium and Wimber's brother-in-law, remembered his 33 years with Wimber. "When John was wrong, he would repent," Fulton said.
SEARCH FOR IDENTITY: The Vineyard now faces a future without its founding leader. Hunter said Vineyard leaders are more certain how the transition will unfold within the United States than internationally.
"What's next is for the Vineyard in the States to affirm or ratify the national director, to set a course for post-Wimber Vineyard—how we will govern ourselves without his autocratic—and I mean that in the neutral sense of the term—without his autocratic leadership," Hunter told CT. "How can we become more participatory without getting stuck in the mud?"
Before his death, Wimber installed a board of six regional overseers, which included national leaders Hunter and Fulton. There is also a council of district overseers and a leadership team, including area coordinators and task force leaders.
Many observers say the 40-year-old Hunter, who holds a master's degree in biblical studies from Regent University, is Wimber's likely successor as the Vineyard's top leader. Regent University professor of theology J. Rodman Williams says Hunter is highly capable. "He's a well-balanced young man."
Internationally, more questions exist. "We've raised up other countries, and when they got to be a certain size we let them become their own independent Association of Vineyard Churches, which was working as long as John was alive because he was the umbrella man," Hunter says. "How are America and those other countries going to relate? We've said philosophically that we don't want America dominating and leading the whole world."
Synan believes the movement is "struggling to define its future, theologically and every way—whether they would be more of a straightline evangelical church or more of a charismatic and Pentecostal influence."
Wimber's books, including Power Evangelism, Power Healing, Power Points, Power Encounters, and The Way to Maturity, along with the Vineyard's growing contemporary music legacy, will continue to be consulted long after his death.
"John Wimber is one of those rare persons who has been the molder of a generation," Wagner says. "The contribution he has made has actually turned the rudder of Christianity and moved it in the direction the Holy Spirit wants it to go in the twenty-first century."
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