By Tom Holmes
Living Word Christian Center turns 25 this year. During that time, Pastor Bill Winston's congregation has grown from a storefront church at 7306 Madison into a 20,000 member mega church which, through a legal entity called Forest Park Plaza LLC, owns the Forest Park Mall.
The Living Word operation is huge. While stores like Ultra Foods, Planet Fitness, Ashley Stewart and the Royal Christian Book Store occupy the north side of the mall, the church uses the entire south side for its various ministries. Pastor Winston uses a golf cart to get from one end of the facility to the other. There is a large room called the annex which handles the overflow from the 2,500 seat sanctuary at the west end of the building. The Youth and Young Adult worship area is bigger than the sanctuaries of most churches in Forest Park.
There are separate areas for media production and Kids for Christ, a room just for mom's nursing babies, a missions gallery, conference meeting rooms, a corporate travel agency, a property management office, a staff training center, and the Joseph Business School. Living Word employs over 150 people. The Believers Walk of Faith is the international television and radio broadcast of Bill Winston Ministries.
Winston does not take any credit for Living Word's success. He frequently repeats that it is all God's doing. That said, he acknowledges that up until his call to ministry in 1985, all of his life experiences prepared him to pastor a large congregation.
Winston grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama, the home of Tuskegee Institute where the influence of its first president, Booker T. Washington, is felt to this day. When he made a speech in 1895, commonly known as the Atlanta Compromise, Jim Crow laws were maintaining a separate and unequal society in the South, and lynchings were common. In the speech, Booker T. said that Negroes should concentrate on learning trades and engaging in agriculture as a way of adding value to their communities, which in the long run would integrate his people into society better than agitating for civil rights. He declared that it is more important for the Negro to be able to earn a dollar than to have the right to spend it in an opera house.
You can see Booker T.'s influence on Living Word in the Joseph Business School which Winston added to his package of ministries. According the Living Word website, the Joseph School is a "state-or-the-art business school that uses practical and biblical principles to empower adults to develop indispensable skills as successful entrepreneurs and business leaders."
El Kornegay, Jr. Ph.D., the Dean of Living Word's Continuing Education and Professional Development Department which includes the Joseph Business School, said, "We are implementing what we call the Tuskegee Model. What we are doing here is poverty eradication which requires that we be able to offer opportunities for educational growth and vocational skills that can take the resources that are available to us now which are primarily technology. It's like a seven-trillion dollar industry. If we can eradicate poverty, we can eradicate violence."
When asked if he believes that jobs will be available for graduates of the Joseph School, Dr. K, as members like to call him, replied, "I do believe that we are equipping people not necessarily for jobs but equipping people for innovation to create jobs. That's the big difference."
Melissa Duff Brown, who is responsible for small business development and the small business incubator, said, "What we're doing is actualizing people's dreams."
Winston followed Booker T.'s vision, graduating from Tuskegee Institute in 1967. Having been a part of the ROTC program in college, he moved right into Air Force flight school after graduation, went on to fly fighter jets in the Vietnam War 1968-73 and was named Top Gun in his squadron.
"Flying fighters is an interesting job," said Winston, "because one of the things you really have to get together is your absorption rate, learning new things. I developed that. Another one is just pure discipline, the ability to get up work hard and another is respect for authority. On the flight line it was zero defects. Everything was excellent."
After being discharged from the Air Force, he eventually got a job at IBM where he was put on a fast track to become one of the first black vice presidents of the corporate giant. "Everything I learned in the military," he said, "fit right into the IBM culture."
Reflecting back on what led him to become the pastor of a corporate congregation, if you will, Winston echoed Booker T. when he said, "If you've got the goods they [i.e. corporations] will look past your appearance."
But more importantly, he added, "I think it was all predestined. Viewing my life from hindsight, I think it's the grace that God puts on you for the call that he has for your life. I just happen to have a call for a large multinational mega church with a number of entities that are going on."
Winston described the call to ministry he received in 1985 while working for IBM in Minneapolis. "Understand," he said, "I was a pretty sharp shooter at IBM. I was earmarked to become a vice president. In spite of that success, there was a void in my life. One night I was feeling just alone, and I'm telling you nothing would satisfy. I got home, and I laid on the floor of my apartment, and I began to cry. And all of a sudden I felt like I should say 'I'll go.' And when I did, the burden of the world lifted off my shoulder, and I knew that I had been called by God to do something for God. At the time I couldn't understand it all, but that night I slept like a baby."
He worked at different ministries in the Twin Cities until he felt called to move to Chicago, where his wife Veronica had grown up. There at the corner of Lake and Pulaski, he started a ministry called Living Word Center. In 1990, he moved his small congregation to 7306 Madison St. here in Forest Park. Quickly outgrowing that facility, Winston moved to a building on the north side of Roosevelt Rd. which had housed the Chez Roue Banquet Hall in 1994 "until December 1997," states the Living Word website, "when a rapidly growing membership, faith, and obedience to God's Word enabled the church to purchase a 33 acre retail mall that currently houses our Worship Center as well as other LWCC business units.
Forest Park Plaza LLC has revitalized the mall to the point where sales tax revenues from the businesses located have added millions of dollars annually to our village revenue stream. In that same year, the congregation held services for the first time what had been the Courtesy Store, and in April of 2000 they held worship in their new state-of-the-art sanctuary.
Winston echoed Booker T. when he said, "When I came to Forest Park I said the one thing I want to do is to bring value to this community. The mall was for sale and God spoke to my heart and my mind. OK, what we're going to do is we're going to put stores in that mall that are going to help the community. Our tax dollars in sales tax to the community here one year was over $4 million. I mean it's significant. My point is that I want to be a contributor."
"My vision for the next 10 years," said Winston, "is that I really would like to grow the congregation but I'd like to grow it a different way. I'd like to grow strategically with other locations. I'd like to have a service out south that I could stream to. It could have its own pastor there but also how about a Joseph Business School in the facility. Why? I not only want salvations but I want transformations and unless that neighborhood is being transformed you really haven't brought the culture of the kingdom of God in there yet."
Winston is married and has three children. His wife Veronica has leadership roles in the congregation and is an author.