Tuesday, November 18, 1997
Renowned Pastor Wimber Dies at 63
he Rev. John Wimber, who helped propel seven loosely knit Orange
County congregations into a 150,000-member international movement, died
Monday in Santa Ana at age 63.
The Yorba Linda resident is credited with bringing dynamic leadership to the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in 1982, when he left Calvary Chapels to form an independent congregation. He joined Kenn Gulliksen, a Los Angeles pastor who named their movement after the Bible's reference to vineyards as a sign of divine blessing.
Today, there are 450 Vineyard congregations in the U.S., including 70 in Southern California, and more than 200 in 47 foreign countries, making the movement one of the fastest-growing Christian denominations.
"John Wimber delivered new respectability to a congregation that had long been viewed as a bunch of holy rollers, babbling in tongues, rolling on the ground," said Ben Hubbard, chairman of the comparative religion department at Cal State Fullerton. "He brought emotion and feeling and charisma to the Christian community while breathing new life into it. He was a phenomenal leader."
After suffering a mild stroke three years ago, Wimber handed the reins of the 5,000-member Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Anaheim to a partner, although Wimber continued to preach regularly at the church and lead the larger association of churches when able.
He was recovering from the open heart surgery he underwent seven weeks ago when he fell in his bathroom Sunday, hit his head and suffered a brain hemorrhage, said Todd Hunter, acting national director of the Assn. of Vineyard Churches. He was taken off life support at Western Medical Center-Santa Ana about 8 a.m. Monday.
"He used to always challenge the church to be more active in serving Christ," Hunter recalled Monday. "He used to say, 'If I can do it, you can do it. Look at me, I'm just a fat man trying to get to heaven.' "
In a book this year titled "Reinventing American Protestantism," USC religion professor Donald Miller characterized the Vineyard Christian Fellowship that Wimber guided as a new, informal, innovative style of charismatic church, along with the Calvary Chapels. The two spreading church associations responded well "to fundamental cultural changes that began in the mid-1960s," he wrote.
Wimber was no stranger to controversy. He once co-taught a course at Pasadena's Fuller Theological Seminary at which students prayed for healing. The resulting criticism on campus and beyond led to the course being dropped.
The Vineyard movement at times has dropped large affiliate churches from its ranks because of questionable practices in worship or prophetic claims.
"John's enduring legacy will be the courage of his convictions to try to change the church of America for the better," Hunter said. "He'd be the first to say that occasionally he went too far. But he was genuine and gregarious, dynamic and disarming, and that is a rare blend for sure."
Wimber, who was said to resemble a cross between Kenny Rogers and Santa Claus, believed that the spiritual gifts of healing and speaking in tongues referred to in the Bible are still relevant. With them, Wimber believed, he could banish Satan, sin and sickness.
The Rev. Robert H. Schuller of Crystal Cathedral Ministries said he felt that power when Wimber visited him after an accident in 1991 that left him in a coma.
"I'm convinced that God's healing power entered my body through the personal touch of John Wimber," Schuller said Monday.
The Rev. Jack Hayford, senior pastor of the 9,000-member Church on the Way in Van Nuys and emcee of the recent Promise Keeper's rally in Washington, said he was "moved to tears" when told of Wimber's death.
"The global church has suffered a significant loss," he said.
Wimber is survived by his wife, Carol; children Chris, Tim, Sean and Stephanie; and 11 grandchildren.
Memorial services will be Friday at 6 p.m. at the Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Anaheim.