By Rev. Dr. Ed & Janice Hird
John Wimber came to Christ in 1963 at age 29 as a self-proclaimed chain-smoking, beer-guzzling, drug abuser. Because his father abandoned him the day he was born, Wimber didn’t know how to be a good father. His marriage was nearly over. He described himself as a fourth-generation pagan/unbeliever who had never heard the gospel. As a gifted entrepreneur, he owned and operated sixty-one businesses during his sixty-three years on earth. As manager and pianist for the Righteous Brothers, who toured with the Beatles, he was at the top of his musical career, playing twenty different instruments. He heard the Lord tell him to give up his musical career. So, he went from $100,000 per year to $7,000 per year as a carpenter’s helper, cleaning out oil tanks. Wimber humourously called this time his purgatory: “I was humbled. I used to be pretty mouthy and sure of myself…I was used to pretty much calling my own shots…God was teaching me obedience.” As rebellion was very deep in Wimber’s baby-boomer heart, God never stopped working on that lesson in his life: “Again and again and again, He taught us obedience, obedience, obedience, obedience, that he valued obedience above all things, and he wanted relationship with us, and he wanted our dependence upon Him.”
With his gift of the gab, Wimber became a salesman for a collection agency in Los Angeles, California. Everywhere he went, he shared the gospel. People affectionately described him as a cross between Kenny Rogers and Santa Claus. Others saw him as a warm teddy bear. He was relaxed and playful with a winning smile. Wimber, who personally led thousands to Jesus, said that during the Jesus movement, you could sneeze and lead someone to Christ.
While trying to fix a leaking water faucet, Wimber had a life-changing vision: “I looked up at the sky and it was like fire falling, so real to me that I rolled thinking that I don’t want it to hit my face. Then suddenly I was in some sort of state where I could see it exploding in the air all across Southern California, and then a fireball going across the ocean, hitting London and exploding over Europe, and then gathering again and going into Asia and Africa…I went to London four times in the 1970s and didn’t see any revival.”
Becoming an evangelical Quaker pastor at Yorba Linda Friends Church, he soon had the largest Quaker congregation in North America. By 1974, he was approaching burnout, and resigned from pastoral ministry. After enrolling in the Doctoral program at Fuller Theological Seminary, Dr. Peter Wagner recruited him to be the Founding Director of the Fuller Department of Church Growth. While visiting 2,000 different churches of various denominations, he heard returning missionaries’ amazing stories of church growth, miracles and casting out demons. He taught classes for many years at Fuller Seminary, most notably a course in the early 80s called Signs, Wonders, and Church Growth which had over 800 registrants, the largest in Fuller’s history.
After Wimber had a Holy Spirit encounter, he was graciously released from the Quakers, and planted Yorba Linda Calvary Chapel in 1977. He had a passion to not just read in the bible about the healing ministry but also to participate in it. For almost a year, Wimber and his congregation prayed for the sick with no one being healed. Many left his congregation. Finally, healings began to take place. Wimber taught that everyone gets to play, that the work of the Kingdom breaking in is for all Christians, not just for the ordained. He loved 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.’ Wimber gave people permission to fail. He never hyped people up, but rather just obeyed the Lord. He spelled Faith as R.I.S.K.: “Becoming a disciple is committing yourself to risk-taking the rest of your life, just always having to take chances.”
On Mother’s Day 1980, he invited Lonnie Frisbee to preach at his church. Frisbee was a key Jesus movement founder with Calvary Chapel. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit that day brought tremendous church growth, resulting in Wimber becoming the leader of the Vineyard movement in 1982. The Vineyards were originally started in the homes of Christian musicians Larry Norman and Chuck Girard, which attracted fellow musicians Bob Dylan, Debbie Boon, Priscilla Presley, and Keith Green. It was no wonder that Vineyard music, focusing on intimacy with God, swept around the world.
Because Wimber believed that church planting is the best form of evangelism, he pioneered the planting of twenty-five hundred Vineyards in North America and in more than ninety nations. In the first ten years, the Vineyard grew at a rate of about 1100%. Wimber’s stated desire as a gifted organizer was to leave a movement behind him like John Wesley did, not just leave converts like George Whitefield. He began leading healing and renewal conferences throughout the world to hundreds of thousands of delegates. Just like with DL Moody and Billy Graham, his greatest breakthrough happened in England: “When I was invited by (the Rev Canon) David Watson to go to London in 1981, I said okay but didn’t expect much of it. I had completely forgotten about the (earlier) vision. …When I arrived in London at Gatwick Airport, it was like I had a hand hit my head and knock me flat on my face. As I went down, I heard in my mind ‘this is that which I have spoken to you about.’ The next two weeks were incredible.
Bishop David Pytches and Rev Sandy Millar of Holy Trinity Brompton, both commented that John Wimber had a greater impact on the Church of England (Anglican) than anyone since John Wesley. While Wimber led the Vineyard, he loved the entire Body of Christ.
(I [Ed] was privileged to attend, with 2,500 other people, a life-changing, five-day conference with Wimber, co-sponsored by Regent College, that was held at Burnaby Christian Fellowship.) Sadly, his health began to suffer. “All my life,” Wimber admitted, “I have been a compulsive person, always working and eating more than I should.” His travel schedule of more than forty weeks a year gave him a heart attack in 1986. This was followed by sinus cancer in 1993, and a stroke in 1995. Wimber died from a brain hemorrhage in 1997.
Though Wimber is gone, the power of the Holy Spirit to heal and renew is still available for all today who are willing to obediently risk. Wimber taught that a power encounter is only as far away as this prayer: “Holy Spirit, I open my heart, my innermost-being to you. I turn from my sin and self-sufficiency and ask that you fill me with your love, power, and gifts. Come, Holy Spirit”.
Rev. Dr. Ed and Janice Hird, Co-authors of the new Blue Sky novel