|smallvoicesjournal||vol. 1 issue 1|
Dr. John White's Voyage
of Life and Faith
By Julia Loren
In this last decade, some believe that Dr. John White, British psychiatrist and InterVarsity leader, set sail from proper evangelical and cessationist shores and listened to the siren’s song of signs and wonders drifting on the wind. They thought him destined for destruction against the rocks of "Wimberland". Others believe White’s voyage charts the course of sanity - that of receiving the power and grace of God into the depths of one’s spirit until a wholehearted passion for Christ surfaces and overflows. Mad or sane, his voyage logged in his books like "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" reveals a man in the making, one whose passion for God has stirred many to greater devotion and commitment to Christ.
According to Andy Le Peau, Senior Editor at InterVarsity Press, it is this passion for God that characterizes everything John White does and writes. "He is like the apostle Paul who writes that he is unimpressive when in public, a man of small stature, but a man who roars his message through his letters, his writings." To date, White has 25 books published by InterVarsity Press, one published by Shaw and another by Servant. Three books in his children’s series The Archives of Anthropos have won awards including the Gold Medallion Book Award from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association and the C.S. Lewis Foundation. Where his fiction seems loaded with grace and adventure, his nonfiction stretches many an evangelical reader to the point of criticism and controversy. White roars his message without compromise and liberally illustrates his point with subjective interpretations of scripture gained through personal visions and mystical encounters with God.
"John is a spiritual pioneer out there exploring uncharted territory of the Christian life. To some it looks like he’s out there in wild and woolly territory. But he has always had visions. That flavor of spirituality is part of who he is," states Le Peau. This mystical bent eventually drew White towards an association with John Wimber in 1985 when White ventured to Fuller Seminary as a visiting scholar and attended Wimber’s famed MC 510 course on Signs and Wonders. The association marked a distinct shift from cessationist beliefs as White joined the third wave of charismatic renewal and allowed his testimony to be logged in Wimber’s book Power Encounters.
White recorded his own observations and concerns about renewal manifestations in When the Spirit Comes with Power, a book which helped many evangelical pastors place signs and wonders in a distinctively evangelical theology. Bruce Ewing, a former Plymouth Brethren pastor, found himself reevaluating his application of text to his pastoral duties and read When the Spirit Comes with Power. Five months later, he met White at a conference in Kansas City and spent some time with him. It was a meeting that helped Ewing sort through his fears and questions about White’s voyage into charismatic waters and launch out on a voyage of his own. "I said to him that I wanted deeper fellowship and intimacy with God and saw tears well up in his eyes as he replied, ‘Not nearly as much as he wants to have with you.’ . . . and I was struck with the truth that he spoke, his power, compassion and love," Ewing said. "John was the bridge from where I was into the unknown. He hasn’t thrown his brains out the window with his cessationist beliefs. He has a balance between intellect and subjective experience - sword and spirit. I wouldn’t go back to burnout in ministry, trying to minister intellectually." Apparently, neither would White.
The Voyage of Faith and Ministry
White’s own voyage of life began in March 1924 when he was born into a working class family in Liverpool, England. Raised in Manchester, the family attended the Plymouth Brethren church. Eventually, White grew dissatisfied with his Brethren experience. "It seemed to rob me of Jesus," explains White. "I felt that the core of Christianity was the man Christ Jesus and we were given a theology of the cross without the person of the cross. I remember we had an Anglican preacher come to preach at us and he somehow brought Jesus. My heart was warmed and I wanted this Jesus." It was a hunger that was to fuel his voyage into the deeper life of the spirit.
"I not only prayed but I prayed in a way that I had never prayed before,
sort of demanding God to heal her."
He developed a friendship with an Anglican priest who envisioned for young John something more than a pre-W.W.II working class life and arranged for him to attend medical school. His plans interrupted by the war, White went into the Fleet Air Arm as an observer with the air crew watching the battles between navel fleets and sounding warnings - a task that he continues to this day through his writings and warnings for the church. Even in war, his zeal was for the preaching of the gospel and he led Bible studies showing many the way to salvation.
Medical School, Missions and Marriage
After the war, White attended medical school where he met a Pentecostal medical student who talked of miracles and healings. White could see the man’s sincerity and for a while, puzzled over how some Christians seemed to experience God’s power and others, like himself, did not. It was a question he would one day write answers to in his book When the Spirit Comes with Power. For the moment, White turned his spiritual focus to the salvation of others and became chairman of the student led InterVarsity group at Manchester University, eventually settling into the chairmanship of the national organization. Nearing the end of his medical training, he opted out of a residency in surgery and sailed off to a stint with the New Tribes Mission when he was asked to start a boot camp for training missionaries in England. Believing that real missionaries should train missionaries and he lacked experience in the field, White attended a New Tribes boot camp in Pennsylvania in 1954. It was here that he met his wife Loretta O’Hara.
During an early morning prayer meeting White heard of a woman who needed healing for TB of the spine and was suddenly overwhelmed with a desire to pray. As White tells it, "I not only prayed but I prayed in a way that I had never prayed before, sort of demanding God to heal her." A week later, Lorrie O’Hara arrived from her mission post in the Philippines to speak at the camp on her way to a sanitarium and felt the power of God healing her. She forfeited her place at the sanitarium and was ready to return to the Philippines until White realized that this was the woman he had prayed for in more ways than one. They were married within a month so that he could take her along to Bolivia.
During their mission work with New Tribes in Bolivia, White was asked to become head of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) in Latin America, a position that released him from medical missions with New Tribes and onto university campuses. He and Lorrie moved from Bolivia where they had their first child, Scott, to Argentina where two more children were born, Kevin and Leanna. Eventually their IFES work took them to Lima, Peru where their identical twins, Miles and Leith were born.
Pastoring in Canada
After ten years on the mission field with a young family traveling to university campuses, the winds of God blew him to Winnipeg where White accepted the call to pastor The Church of the Way in 1967.
Initially, the church of 50 or 60 members was small enough for White to pastor while he undertook a residency in psychiatry at the University of Manitoba. However, the church grew rapidly and the residency led into a position as Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Manitoba Medical School from 1964-1974. This mix of pastoral duties, lecturing, and seeing patients through the 1970’s led him to write his best selling books on discipleship, commitment, prayer and sexual sin. Yet the demands of pastoring, work and family would eventually take its toll.
Hauling Ashore on Wimberland
The early 1980’s again marked a significant shifting of the winds of White’s voyage when White started writing books on depression, flirting with the world, maintaining one’s faith in the long haul, and parents in pain - all indicators of pastoral burnout written by a man who invites the public along on his spiritual voyage in search of Biblical answers to life’s perplexing problems. He resigned the pastorate in order to focus on their family, write full time, continue lecturing in various universities and minister in various churches. Eventually, the siren’s song of signs and wonders reached his ears and he sailed off to Fuller Seminary to attend John Wimber’s MC 510.
White hauled his boat ashore for a year at the Anaheim Vineyard studying signs and wonders, healings and deliverances, ever the keen observer but a participant as well. He began incorporating prayer for healing with his lectures and either delighted or offended evangelical leaders who asked him to speak in North America and such far away places as Australia, Asia and Latin America. He dispensed with dispensationalism, ceased his cessationist beliefs, and took on the prophecy of Joel - dreaming dreams and seeing visions when the spirit comes with power. Whatever burnout may have evidenced in his books now shifted into the excitement of beginning a new era of ministry.
His association with John Wimber led him to pastor a Vineyard church near Vancouver, British Columbia in 1986 with Ken Blue. He continues on the pastoral staff of what is now the Surrey Vineyard Christian Fellowship and writes from his home office. In recent years, his declining health and heart problems have curtailed much of his lecturing and teaching in other churches yet he manages a few trips a year to Asia and areas of North America. During these trips he tends towards speaking correction and encouragement as an elder statesman to many charismatic churches.
Pioneering the Gathering
Ever one to recognize and encourage a pioneering ministry, White is also one of overseers of a grassroots ministry called "The Gathering". Begun by David Mosen-Demian, M.D. it is an annual meeting of leaders and members of the body of Christ from many cultures, tribes and nations gathered together for the sole purpose of worshipping God and waiting on Him with no agenda and no plans for organizing the speaker of the hour. "I asked the fathers in my life to mentor, protect and oversee the Gathering and said I would coordinate it," explains Dr. Demian. "The leaders of the Gathering meet about once every three weeks and speak into one another’s lives. John’s openness brought a lot of life to these meetings - especially in talking about his weaknesses and mistakes. It led them to be able to talk about theirs."
Gatherings have been held in the ski resort area of Whistler, B.C. (1995) and on Vancouver Island (1996). They attracted an international crowd of thousands and resulted in spontaneous repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation between First Nations peoples in Canada and church leaders - the spirit of reconciliation White promotes throughout all of his books.
In the wake of his theological shift towards signs and wonders, a fury of criticism followed creating a rift which White would like to see reconciled. Many evangelical doors have slammed shut against White’s ministry and while charismatic doors swung open, White views the rift with regret. "I wish the two sides would get together," he explained. "That’s the only thing that I regret. One door closes and another door opens wide. I long for the day when people realize that the "Charismatic curtain," as I call it, is not necessary. Real Christians are real Christians."
Advancing in age and exhibiting health problems in recent years, White seems to be retired from public ministry. However, his visionary books will minister to "real Christians" for years to come. He lives with his wife Lorri near Vancouver, B.C.