After John Wimber stopped working as a music arranger for the Righteous Brothers to become a pastor, he began leading a small prayer group in Yorba Linda 13 years ago, preaching from the Gospel of Luke about healing the sick and casting out demons.
For 10 months the fledgling church repeatedly prayed over the sick without seeing one person healed or a single demon expelled. Many people left in disgust.
Wimber was about to give up when he was asked to pray for a woman with a high fever. She eventually jumped up, apparently cured. When the realization of what had happened hit Wimber later, he yelled, "We got one!"
That experience galvanized Wimber's convictions that the spiritual gifts of healing, speaking in tongues, and "words of knowledge and prophecy" referred to in the Bible were still relevant and that he could bash Satan, sin and sickness with the ultimate power of God.
A trickle of reported healings became a flood. And in Southern California's fertile religious soil, John Wimber's Vineyard Christian Fellowship took root as the latest "boom church."
The Anaheim congregation has grown to 5,000. A network of nearly 300 Vineyard churches with about 100,000 followers--most of them "baby boomers"--stretches across the nation and into four countries overseas.
The Vineyard's origins hark back to the hippie-era "Jesus People" movement that neighboring Costa Mesa pastor Chuck Smith helped launch in the late 1960s and 1970s through his chain of Calvary Chapels. But Wimber's emphasis seems to reach a different stratum: Younger believers who want to wed an orthodox, Bible-believing faith with immediate and palpable spiritual power and emotional experience.
The Vineyard story underscores recent findings of experts on church growth: More and more Americans are reaching outside the traditional, established denominations to find spiritual identification. Indeed, a high percentage of the nation's fastest-growing congregations are either independent or affiliated with new and loosely formed movements like Vineyard and the Calvary Chapels.
"I was into organized religion most of my life--Presbyterian and Evangelical Free churches," said Sandy Younger, who has been attending the Anaheim Vineyard for four years. "But something was always lacking until I heard John (Wimber) preach. It was so different, so down to earth."
Wimber, 56, is the undisputed mogul of what has come to be known as the "signs and wonders" ministry.
To Wimber, it's all very simple: A new wave of supernatural power is rolling in, based on the Bible message that Jesus' followers would see "signs and wonders" from the Holy Spirit certifying his ministry and resurrection.
The cutting edge of the Vineyard, says Todd Hunter, executive pastor of the Anaheim congregation, is that "ordinary Christians can be used (by) God to do extraordinary things."
So extraordinary, it seems, that Wimber has been accused of fostering excessive emotionalism and anti-intellectualism and misinterpreting Scripture.
"I don't have time to refute all that," he said.
Wimber's friend, C. Peter Wagner, professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, says the controversial signs-and-wonders phenomenon is the "third wave" of evangelical Christian renewal to occur this century. The first wave was the rise of Pentecostalism, the movement that sprung up in the early 1900s among poorer and less-educated churchgoers. It emphasized the "baptism of the Holy Spirit" and speaking in tongues, or what is said to be "praise language" not understood by the person who utters it.
The second wave was the growth of the charismatic renewal movement, which burgeoned among Protestant mainliners and Catholics in the 1960s and 1970s as they adopted spiritual healing and other Pentecostal practices into their churches.
The third wave, Wagner and others say, is characterized by an emphasis on supernatural manifestations that now appeal to fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals. Until recently, these Christians tended to deny modern-day faith healings and regarded prophetic "gifts" as theologically suspect.
According to a 1989 study by sociologists Robin D. Perrin of Seattle Pacific University and Armand L. Mauss of Washington State University, the great majority of Vineyard recruits who listed a denominational background had been reared in mainline Protestant or Catholic homes. More recent Vineyard recruits, however, had left their liberal religious upbringing and had been "circulating" among the conservative denominations.
"John began to draw into the Vineyard the boomers of the late '70s," Wagner said. "Many were in their teens. When they were meeting (10 years ago) in Canyon High School (in Anaheim Hills) the median age was 19."
Ten years later, the average age is 29 at Vineyard congregations, which are composed mainly of middle- and working-class people.
Wimber and his Vineyards hardly reflect traditional church patterns.