The attendance at Living Word Christian Center's six day long Chicago Faith Conference three weeks ago was over 9000. Pastor Bill Winston, who brought his ministry to Forest Park fifteen years ago, has seen his congregation grow to over 15,000 members.
Located in what used to be known as the Forest Park Mall on Roosevelt Roadâ€"which the church purchased for four million dollarsâ€"Pastor Winston has created a ministry that reaches hundreds of thousands of people.
The Living Word sanctuary/auditorium, which seats over 1,500, is filled three times every Sunday. Pastor Winston draws people from all over the Chicago Metro area and beyond. Only about three per cent of those attending the Faith Conference live in Forest Park. Half came from Chicago with around ten per cent coming from Oak Park. Attendees traveled from as far away as Portage, Indiana and Joliet.
What accounts for this tremendous sucess?
Bill Winston is media savvy. At the Faith Conference, five TV camerasâ€"two fixed on raised platforms, one shoulder held, one mobile on wheels and one on a moveable thirty foot boomâ€"captured images which were projected on 225 square foot screens on either side of the stage. Pastor Winston is as comfortable in front of TV cameras and an audience of thousands as is David Letterman. The sound system is first rate, and the fast paced format made the two and a half hour program last week Monday seem like it lasted only an hour.
Winston's message is broadcast weekly on the GOD Channel, Miracle Net, BET, DAYSTAR, the WORD Network, WCIU Channel 26, WJYS Channel 62, WFLD Fox Channel 32, WGN Channel 9, WMLW Channel 41 in Milwaukee and WTVM Channel 9 in Columbus, GA.
Bill Winston Ministries project an image of success. Pastor Winston's office contains memorabilia from his days as a fighter pilot in Vietnam and a leading sales rep in a nationally known computer company. The seven lead singers at the conference all looked like corporate executivesâ€"attractive, groomed immaculately and dressed in tailored suits. At the end of the voice mail messages of some of his staff members, you will hear, "Have a blessed and prosperous day."
The music, which is at the core of every service and produced by five to ten talented musicians, is upbeat but not over the top. Band members call themselves a "praise band." They say that Pastor Winston restrains them from being too exuberant. What they provide is a joyful energy which begins and sets the tone for every worship experience.
Living Word is a class operation. The ushers, all dressed alike in brown three piece suits, are professional and courteous. Even the traffic control people get cars out of the parking lot efficiently after the service.
Like fusion cuisine which is hard to categorize, the style of worship at Living Word borrows from more than one church tradition. The energy of Pentecostal churches is present, but speaking in tongues, though present at times, is not emphasized. The music is appealing to the mainly black audience, but band members report that some folks have accused them of being "too white." Living Word states that it is a full gospel church, but its emphasis on prosperity is not necessarily characteristic of that tradition.
The authority of the pastor as a chosen and inspired agent of God is an important key to understanding the ministry at Living Word. Bill Winston will frequently use the words, "the Lord told me," and scrupulously attributes every statement to a religious or authority or backs it up with a Bible verse. Jerry Savelle, the featured speaker at the Faith Conference on September 12, told about the three times he had personal visitations by the Lord. He made statements like "I got it by direct revelation" and "I came tonight with a prophetic word." In Bill Winston's leadership, "the Word" can refer to either the Bible or what he is preaching.
Prosperity is a central if not the central message at Living Word Christian Center. In the Bible study he led before introducing Jerry Savelle, Bill Winston declared, "I'm not going to let anyone talk me out of the prosperity God has planned for me. There's no sense in the church being as broke as it is. You got to start thinking big."
He preached that God wants believers to be prosperous, not by the world's way but by God's way. And God's way of becoming prosperous is to first give to God, and then God will return what you give a hundred fold. "God ordained a way to make money," Winston said, "and believers begin by planting seed, by giving to God. To get to the harvest you have to listen to God and that involves obedience and discernment. This is not giving to get but giving to receive."
He did acknowledge that sometimes the harvest comes in ways we don't expect, but he insisted that "when people sow the Word of God first, it changes the way they look at everything."
Jerry Savelle continued this theme by stating that everyone understands that God gives faith to be saved and to be healed but not everyone knows that God also gives faith for breakthroughs. He told a story about how he began his ministry with only one second hand, out of style suit, and when he gave that suit away to a poor young man, God responded by giving him two brand new suits and a top coat.
He told about starting out traveling in an old station wagon, giving that away and getting a used airplane. When he sowed that airplane, or gave it away to another ministry, God gave him a twin engine plane, and when he gave that one away, he received a jet.
He taught the audience that there are divine laws that govern this process. He said that first, you begin with a prophetic Word from God. Second, you receive that Word and obey it. And third, you need to sow "a significant seed," that is a "seed" that is valuable to you, something that is an expression of greatest faith. He set out a spiritual law: "The depth of your prayers will determine the magnitude of your breakthroughs."
Savelle then challenged the two thousand people listening to him to trust the authority of his word right then. He said that they were going to have a second offering none of which would go to him but to the Ministry of Living Word. He exhorted the audience to sow a significant seed and to believe that within 24 hours many of them would already be reaping a harvest. "You sow a significant seed," he proclaimed, "and the God of the break through will visit your house in the name of Jesus. You sow into another man's break through, and God will sow into yours."
The envelopes handed out for the offering had the following "Giver's Confession" printed on the front:
Father, in Jesus' Name I confess that I obey and serve You. I will spend my days in prosperity, and my years in pleasures. Lord be magnified, for you take pleasure in prospering me your servant. I am a giver, I walk by faith and the blessings of God are overtaking me. Father, you giveth me power to get wealth, therefore, I decree that I have abundance and no lack. My lifestyle is that of supernatural increase because of the Anointed One, Jesus Christ. My vine will bear much good fruit in the field and the same measure that I mete shall be measured back to me again, in Jesus' Name.
He then repeated the spiritual principle, "the depth of your prayers will determine the magnitude of your break throughs," and the crowd went nutsâ€" shouting and applauding, some weeping or speaking in tongues, for two or three minutes.
When Jerry Savelle finished speaking, Pastor Winston ended the evening with an altar call and a prayer of blessing.
Whether you agree with Bill Winston's theology or not, something significant is happening at the corner of Desplaines and Roosevelt Road. Sunday services are at 7:00, 9:00 and 11:00 every Sunday morning. To reach Living Word call 771-8188.