Wimber was raised in Kirksville, Missouri, in a non-religious family, but converted to evangelical Christianity in May 1963. He had previously been the keyboard player in the band The Paramours.
Some have attributed the formation of the band The Righteous Brothers to Wimber (then as Johnny Wimber) since he was the one who brought Bobby Hatfield and Bill Medley together for the band the Paramours in 1962. In the following years he attended a Quaker church in Yorba Linda, California. During this time, he led hundreds of others to convert to Christianity. By 1970, he was leading 11 different Bible study groups that involved more than 500 people.
In 1974 he became the Founding Director of the Department of Church Growth at the Charles E. Fuller Institute of Evangelism and Church Growth, which was founded by the Fuller Theological Seminary and the Fuller Evangelistic Association. He directed the department until 1978. In this time a House Church began to form in his home. This group began to embrace some of the beliefs of the Charismatic movement. This resulted in a split with the Quaker church that this group belonged to.
Wimber pastored this new church, which would later become known as the Anaheim Vineyard Christian Fellowship, from 1977 to 1994. Eventually, it outgrew his home and began to meet elsewhere. After initially joining Calvary Chapel, the church had some differences with the Calvary Chapel leadership, relating mainly to the practice of spiritual gifts. As a result, they left Calvary Chapel to join a small group of churches started by Kenn Gulliksen, known as Vineyard Christian Fellowships, which became an international Vineyard Movement.
The Vineyard Movement is rooted in the charismatic renewal and historic evangelicalism. Instead of the mainstream charismatic label, however, the movement has preferred the term Empowered Evangelicals (a term coined by Rich Nathan and Ken Wilson in their book of the same name) to reflect their roots in traditional evangelicalism as opposed to classical Pentecostalism. Members also sometimes describe themselves as the "radical middle" between evangelicals and Pentecostals, which is a reference to the book The Quest for the Radical Middle, a historical survey of the Vineyard by Bill Jackson.
A particular emphasis of the Vineyard Movement was church planting. One of Wimber's many catchphrases - intended to capture theological and practical ideas in easy to remember sound bites - was that "church planting is the best form of evangelism". Both during his lifetime and since his death the Vineyard Movement has established thousands of churches across the USA and internationally.
Wimber became a well-known speaker at international charismatic conferences with a focus on what he called "Power Evangelism" and healing through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is important to note that, while considered by many to be a charismatic teacher, Wimber himself (along with the leaders of the Vineyard Movement) repeatedly rejected the charismatic label as applying to their teachings.
Wimber took an approach to the charismatic which was somewhat different from that of peers and predecessors. This new approach led a friend, C. Peter Wagner, to coin the phrase, "The Third Wave of the Holy Spirit" to describe the concept he taught (and to avoid some current labels with their negative connotations). The Third Wave differed from classic Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement, foremost, in their approach to speaking in tongues. Whereas the previous groups had emphasized the gift of tongues as the only evidence for the baptism of the Holy Spirit, Wimber and those he influenced emphasized that this was just one of the many spiritual gifts taught in the Bible. This teaching revolutionized what was a major theological stumbling block to some mainstream Evangelicals, the demonstration of "signs and wonders" expressed in the present-day world in a form alleged to be alike to those of the days of the First Century Apostles. Wimber held influence with a number of them, most famously Jack Deere, C. Peter Wagner, and Wayne Grudem. Gordon-Conwell missiologist J. Christy Wilson also mentions Wimber in his book More to be Desired than Gold.
Wimber also differed from contemporaries in his rejection of the Word of Faith movement, and the associated doctrines and showiness. The pursuit of authenticity was core to Wimber's idea of church, and this was reflected in the worship as well.
He died of a brain hemorrhage on November 17, 1997, aged 63, following a fall and recent coronary bypass surgery. This reference is offline
John Wimber tentatively held to a modified evangelical view on baptism of the Holy Spirit that says it happens at conversion but that there is an experiential aspect (e.g. speaking in tongues) that may not be manifested or released until a later date. Wimber says:
'...I want you to keep in mind that I'm still in the process of changing, I'm going to share with you my viewpoint today, I may change it in 2 weeks or in 2 years, I don't know... I'm just not sure I've yet fully worked out a scenario that I can live with long term. But here are my best thoughts on the subject... From time to time we will have a valid experience with an invalid label. At this time my perception is that that is what has occurred with the issue of the baptism of the Holy Spirit... At this point in time I have come full circle from an evangelical theology of filling of the Spirit, through an experience and a theology that embraced what we would call classic Pentecostal... now I've come back to a place where I think I started theologically, but I've added a dimension of experience.'
'My perception is that every born-again Christian can manifest any gift that he wants to, because with the coming of the Holy Spirit you have the Source of all gifts.'
John Wimber held a complementarian view of gender roles. This view believes the bible to teach that a husband is called to lovingly lead, protect and provide for his wife and family, and that the wife should joyfully and intelligently affirm and submit to her husbands leadership. Complementarians also believe the bible to teach that men are to bear primary responsibility to lead the church and that therefore only men should be elders.
'I believe God has established a gender-based eldership of the church... I endorse the traditional (and what I consider the scriptural) view of a unique leadership role for men in marriage, family, and in the church... this [view] ultimately reflects the hierarchy of the Trinity.'
'I personally do not favor ordaining women as elders in the local church...I encourage our women to participate in any ministry, except church governance.'
Sam Storms comments: 'Others would point out that in spite of his complementarian convictions, Wimber permitted at least two notable exceptions: both Jackie Pullinger (Hong Kong) and Ann Watson (England) served as the senior leaders of their respective congregations (although I should mention that Watson viewed her role as exceptional, given the premature death of her husband, and not a position to which women in ordinary circumstances should aspire).'
He is well known for a strong emphasis on "authenticity," and doing nothing for "religious effect." Here are some of his comments in this regard:
"I also visited several healing meetings... and became angry with what appeared to be the manipulation of people for the material gains of the faith healer... Dressing like sideshow barkers. Pushing people over and calling it the power of God. And money - they were always asking for more, leading people to believe that if they gave they would be healed..."
"I have also seen groups where the expected behaviour of the ones being prayed for was that they fall over. This was nothing more than learnt behaviour, religion at its worst."
"During the time of prayer for healing I encourage people to 'dial down', that is, to relax and resist becoming emotionally worked up. Stirred up emotions rarely aid the healing process, and usually impede learning about how to pray for the sick. So I try to create an atmosphere that is clinical and rational... while at the same time it is powerful and spiritually sensitive. Of course, emotional expression is a natural by-product of divine healing and not a bad response. My point is that artificially creating an emotionally charged atmosphere militates against divine healing and especially undermines training others to pray for the sick."
"I have made it a matter of policy never to accept gifts for healing. Greed and materialism are perhaps the most common cause of the undoing of many men and women with a healing ministry... When I pray over people for God to release the healing ministry, I always instruct them never to accept money for healing."
"I don't have any objection to phenomena, per se. I think Jonathan Edwards has adequately addressed the issues of phenomena in revival... However, I think if it's fleshly and brought out by some sort of display, or promoted by somebody on stage, that's abysmal. But if God does something to somebody, that's between that person and God."
A sociologist who conducted an analysis at one of Wimber's conferences observed that hype was also opposed by Wimber's team, commenting, "A few seemed to attempt to mimic phenomena like hand shaking but their attempts were obviously artificial and they were told to stop it by the more experienced team members."
John Wimber was known for his transparency. In a 1996 Christianity Today article he told of an amazing healing success story but also of some sad examples of people not being healed in his ministry. He also had cancer at the time and said:
Some Christians believe we should never struggle with doubt, fear, anxiety, disillusionment, depression, sorrow, or agony. And when Christians do, it is because they're not exercising the quality of faith they ought to; periods of disillusionment and despair are sin.
If those ideas are true, then I'm not a good Christian. Not only have I suffered physically with health problems, but I also spent a great deal of time struggling with depression during my battle with cancer.
Wider impact and other teachings
Wimber's teaching influenced many Christians, both inside and out of the Vineyard movement. One of the key foundations of his teaching was intimacy with God, rather than religious habit and discipline. Another characteristic is in the area of teaching, which emphasized preaching extensively from the gospels and using Jesus as the model for Christian believers. Wimber also had a deep desire to be active in helping the poor.
He strongly emphasized signs & wonders (aka "Doin' the Stuff"), the priesthood of every believer and that every Christian has the ability to prophesy and heal the sick. While this is not a new concept, Wimber was a key figure in the introduction of the concept that praying for the sick (or anything else) shouldn't be saved for special healing services, but should take place at every Church service, and out on the streets (by every believer). As a result, many Churches have prayer time after the sermon. The Vineyard worship style has also had a wide influence on the church.
Wimber's teaching has had a significant influence on other Charismatic leaders, such as Mike Bickle, Terry Virgo, Randy Clark, John Arnott, Bill Johnson and Sam Storms. In 2007 Sam Storms wrote an insightful article commemorating John Wimber 10 years after his death.
Wimber's theology and methods have been challenged by cessationist Christians, who claim he was in error in some of his practices. Their criticism focuses mainly on the basis of his theology and his emphasis on rapid church growth which, they allege, emphasized dramatic proofs of spiritual power and practices as being derived from New Age philosophy and humanistic psychology, rather than a reliance on the Bible as God's inerrant word. Supporters of Wimber's theology deny that it is even remotely rooted in the New Age and humanistic psychology, pointing out rapid church growth and dramatic demonstration of God's power are clearly rooted in the teachings of Scripture. Many such critics are cessationists and are generally critical of Pentecostalism, the Charismatic movement, and its leaders. The majority of these criticisms are not limited to Wimber. Critical considerations of Wimber's work and approaches to evangelism can be found online;,