This is a guest post by Michelle. Michelle was raised Lutheran, attended a Christian college, and graduated as an agnostic. She now lives in Oswego, IL.
Andrew Wommack is a Southern pastor with a worldwide ministry based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Like other televangelists, he preaches the “health and wealth” prosperity gospel. He doesn’t label himself with any denomination, but you might think of him as Pentecostal due to his emphases on healing and speaking in tongues. Also, like other televangelists, some Christians denounce him as a false teacher and heretic, while others welcome his plain-spoken style and focus on the Bible.
My family loves Wommack. They watch his show almost daily.
One family member has multiple myeloma (a form of cancer) and is especially interested in faith healing. (Never a good mix.) Out of curiosity, I went with a small group of relatives to Wommack’s Chicago Gospel Truth Seminar this past weekend. The conference lasted for three days but we only went to one evening service. It took place at the classy Weston Hotel in Lombard, a western suburb of Chicago. At least 1,000 people came to the free seminar the night we attended, filling the hotel ballroom near its full capacity.
The foyer was lined with display booths selling books, CDs, and DVDs. Stacks of books showed titles like God Wants You Well; The Believer’s Authority and Spirit, Soul and Body. The booths continued inside the meeting room. In the back, you could buy Wommack’s message that same day on CD or DVD. Next to that, people were asked to sign up and become “Grace Partners,” a fancy way of saying “financial supporters.” They had the option of making either small daily donations or annual lump sums.
The conference began with music. As the seats filled up, a middle-aged man sang and played the guitar. “God is my refuge and strength / a present help in time of need…” With lyrics flashing on two screens up front, we sang along to a few songs. The attendees were mostly white, but there was diversity in age. Given the hype about miraculous healing, I was surprised at how few of them showed obvious signs of infirmity. There were no oxygen tanks or even canes. I saw one woman with an arm brace and another with a walker, but that was it.
When Wommack came to the podium, he started by hawking his books. After that, a missionary couple talked about their experiences. Wommack took back the stage to promote some Bible colleges in the Chicago area. We were encouraged to donate to the schools as they needed new buildings that cost millions of dollars. Here, the screens showed architectural plans and a photo of a forklift breaking ground. All the money we gave tonight, we were told, went straight to these building projects. Ushers passed what looked like white popcorn buckets along each row to collect donations.
After almost an hour and a half, Wommack finally began preaching. His style was conversational and funny, delivered with a slight Southern accent. He carried a Bible and referred to it often. He contrasted our old, sinful human nature with the new one God gave us. The “new nature” included not only spiritual but physical health. He sprinkled his long sermon with quirky lines like, “If that didn’t light your fire, your wood’s wet” and “If you give Satan the opportunity, he’ll eat your lunch and pop the bag!” On the subject of depression, he said, instead of taking pills, “you oughta take the Gos-pill!” (Groan.)
But what really frustrated me were his thoughts on — what else? — healing. According to Wommack, having a disease like cancer was voluntary: “Satan can’t make you sick without your consent and cooperation,” he said at one point. “You can refuse to have cancer.” Sitting right next to my cancer-stricken relative, I gritted my teeth.
Following the message and a prayer, there was an altar call for people to become born again or baptized in the Holy Spirit. About 20 people met with volunteers in front to pray, and Andrew urged more to join them. He said baptism involved speaking in tongues, an experience that would “change your life!” Wommack himself spoke in tongues while praying aloud. It was complete gibberish. “Don’t worry about what it sounds like. You’re bypassing your brain,” he explained.
When the healing part of the service came around, I was underwhelmed. I’d expected the drama of a Benny Hinn crusade — people babbling in tongues, collapsing at the preacher’s touch, and getting up from wheelchairs believing themselves healed. Nothing like that happened. Most people just prayed, bought merchandise, or left after the sermon.
But as those remaining milled around, Wommack did share so-called “words of knowledge.” These were just vague declarations about miracles occurring. He told the smaller crowd that if there were tumors anywhere in their bodies, God was dissolving the tumors then and there. He went on to pronounce healing of sinus problems, polyps, headaches, depression, sleeping trouble… Needless to say, there was no evidence of a single miracle. I could have stood up there myself, saying the same things. Why did everything sound so generic? Couldn’t God at least tell Wommack the names of healed individuals? The “words of knowledge” hardly required any knowledge, much less any supernatural signs from God.
That brings up another problem. In books and seminars, Wommack relies heavily on testimonials. But his anecdotes are clearly cherry-picked. People pray and recover from sickness; they land well-paying jobs; they apply his teachings and turn their lives around.
Nobody shares their story unless it’s positive and inspiring. You never hear about people who prayed hard but died of their illnesses, anyway. Are we supposed to believe all sick Christians are healed? Or what about people who give their money generously but can’t pay their bills later? Is it their fault for having weak faith? What should we make of the even more bizarre claims about people coming back from the dead? Wommack says his own son Peter was resurrected, among others. These stories are flat-out absurd. Maybe he’s completely sincere when he says it, but Wommack is wrong on serious matters of life and death.
My biggest issue with what he’s doing can be summed up in two words: false hope.
When he talks about having a positive attitude, I’m completely behind him. But when he pushes a religious form of magical thinking, I get angry. Sick people are already scared and vulnerable — they need real help. How many of those people listen to Andrew and toss out their medication? How many of them stop chemo? Or worse, how many of them refuse to provide medical care for their sick kids because they think God will just take care of everything?
I’m all for giving people hope. But the false hope offered by Andrew and his ilk is dangerous and even deadly. The truth is, modern medicine is the only “miracle” we’ll ever see.