After visiting John and Abigails’ Joy church, where my critical questions are cut off – “John speaks for God, you shouldn’t question him” – I’m certain that we’re on different paths.
Even though I don’t see John for several years after that, I continue to follow him through the internet, acquaintances, and Christian magazines. 1995 is a great year for John. The Toronto Blessing sweeps through the States. John rents a large hall in Brooklyn and starts with inter-denominational revival meetings on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. He’s one of the first to do this, and Christians from all around flock to it. Every evening, the hall is packed, and a lot happens.
After several months, John moves the Joy congregation to that same large hall. At some point during the year, the line between the inter-denominational revival meetings and the Joy congregation blurs. People are encouraged to join the church. Membership skyrockets, growing from 250 to 1800. Elders, worship leaders, and youth workers from various churches in and around New York City become part of Joy.
This causes significant tension and sorrow in other local churches. Some churches lose half of their leaders and active members within a month. Challenging times ensue for them. The unity among the evangelical and charismatic pastors is heavily strained. Pastors accuse John of deceitfully poaching their members. John remains unfazed. In his eyes, his church is the only one in New York City where God truly works. So, to him, it’s only logical that God blesses his congregation with all these eager Christians. John knows he’s the one called for this.
“As the congregation grows rapidly, so do the tithes. John and Annelies move to a luxury apartment in Manhattan. I find myself envious of their spiritual and financial success.”
Around this time, John also discovers the practice of tithing. But tithing is just the beginning because insiders are urged to contribute even more. Within a year, they move to a luxury apartment in Manhattan. John trades in his old car for a fancy Spacewagon. Abigail now has her own Mercedes. Their driveway is full. Their faith has materialized. I watch this from a distance and can’t help but feel envious of their spiritual and financial prosperity. I’m still an unsuccessful street evangelist with an used car, unknown to many, with no conversions to my name. At eighteen, John and I were equals, but now I’m lagging far behind.
Pastor John and Pastor Abigail, as they’re now known in the charismatic evangelical circles of the States, affiliate the Joy church with SpiritSpan Ministries, a new charismatic denomination. SpiritSpan is led by Pastor Andrew from Washington DC. The Toronto Blessing fades after a while, but SpiritSpan adopts the G12 system. There’s some internal contention, but Pastor Andrew is eventually proclaimed the Apostle of the States. John becomes the second-in-command, assuming the title Apostle of the East Coast. Since I live in this region, I briefly wonder if I’m now automatically under his apostolic authority or if it only applies to members of his denomination.
This entire apostle narrative raises many questions and tensions in the charismatical evangelical community. But it doesn’t halt the church’s growth. Joy swells in just a few years to almost four thousand members. From what I hear, none of the original group from his father’s era remains. Along with the success stories, I also hear more and more concerning tales.
“For months, prayers go up for a critically ill man. Both Pastor John and Pastor Abigail prophesy God will heal him.”
One story involves a man with a severe kidney disease. The church prays for his healing for months. Both Pastor John and Pastor Abigail prophesy that God will cure him. However, the man passes away soon after. It’s a massive shock to the congregation, but as every Sunday is a celebration, the Sunday following his funeral is no different. The celebration always goes on. At the same time, I also hear amazing stories about conversions, healings, and deliverances. What’s the truth? Sometimes, I question how God can bless such individuals. But then, how can He bless me with all my flaws?
When I look at John and Abigail and their success, I realize I badly want to be like them. I crave that fame, adoration, elevated status, and financial prosperity. I believe I have what it takes to be just like them. In that sense, I’m not much different from John. We’re quite alike. What I might see as manipulation in them is also deeply rooted in me. Thankfully, I’m married to a wise woman who ensures I never nurture this side of me too much.
“Congregation members are encouraged to invest in a financial plan promising up to fifty percent annual returns.”
In 1999, Pastor Andrew launches a financial investment scheme that soon looks a lot like a pyramid scheme. Naturally, John and Abigail get on board. Members of all SpiritSpan churches are prompted, sometimes prophetically, to invest in a plan promising up to fifty percent annual returns. In ten years, your money could quintuple. Now, that’s an investment! Hundreds join, investing small and large sums. Like Pastor Andrew, John and Abigail are high up on this pyramid and profit immensely from it that year. Rumors even suggest they purchased a house in Martha’s Vineyard with the earnings, but who knows?
Sadly — or perhaps fortunately — like all pyramid schemes, this one collapses quickly. A few at the top reap the rewards, but many lose their life savings. Pastor Andrew faces fraud charges. The Joy congregation is in turmoil. But through leveraging their positions and a few well-timed prophetic words, dissenters are ousted, and peace returns. The SpiritSpan denomination, however, doesn’t survive this fiasco. John and Abigail distance themselves from Pastor Andrew, and the whole ‘Apostle over the East Coast’ narrative is never mentioned again. A new chapter begins…
Read some background articles on why Evangelical leaders fall:
- The Anatomy Of A Christian Leader’s Downfall
- The Hidden Perils Of Spiritual Hero Worship In The Church
- The Prelude To The Downfall Of The Christian Leader
- Unmasking The Soul: The Authenticity Struggle In Leadership
Have you read some my other articles:
- Part 1: Evangelicalism’s High School Traits: Can Trauma Be the Key?
- Part 3: Please God Strike Evangelicalism On It’s Hip
- Part 4: Only By Facing Our Trauma Can The Evangelical Movement Reach Real Fatherhood
- Part 5: Why Evangelicalism Needs ‘Limping Courage’ On The Road To Maturity
Matt Vlaardingerbroek, a former seasoned church planter and pastor in Holland’s inner cities, brings Bible stories to life through ventriloquism and magic. He’s authored three books, and founded www.creativekidswork.com, providing over 1,500 innovative Sunday school activities worldwide.