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A Social Anthropologist’s Analysis of Contemporary Healing, Part 1

The Power of the Cross: The Biblical Place of Healing and Gift-Based Ministry in Proclaiming the Gospel


How do doctors respond to claims of healing? Are there any lasting social effects when people experience divine healing?


What kinds of healings are associated with contemporary Christian healing ministries, conferences for training Christians in praying for healing, and such ministry in many evangelical churches? How do medical doctors perceive the healings? How do healings relate to the revelations known as “words of knowledge” (I Cor. 12:8; 14:24-25)1? Can associated physical phenomena be explained by psychological mechanisms? Why does God appear to heal some kinds of people more often than others?

These are important questions which for the most part have been ignored by critics of healing ministries, who have tended to concentrate on theological and historical questions rather than medical, sociological or psychological aspects.2 These are the dimensions to healing which I wish to examine in this chapter, since the theological issues have been addressed by other contributors to this book. In particular I shall present some of the detailed findings from my comprehensive follow-up study of one of John Wimber’s conferences as an example of contemporary cases of healing.

How do medical doctors perceive healings?

In 1986 a detailed questionnaire was given to all those who attended John Wimber’s Signs and Wonders (Part II) conference in Harrogate, England. The questionnaires were collected just before the final session of the conference. Out of the 2,470 people registered for the conference, 1,890 returned usable forms, producing a response rate of 76.5% (which is very high in comparison with most sociological surveys). These were processed through a computer at Nottingham University.

Using a random number table, I then selected from these 1,890 respondents a random sample of 100 people whom I followed up between six and ten months after the conference. With ninety-three of them I was able to conduct in-depth personal interviews, involving my traveling almost literally throughout the length and breadth of Britain. Another seven people had to be interviewed over the telephone or by mail because they lived outside Britain or were unavailable for other reasons. My research combined the breadth of the questionnaire with the depth of the interviews. Some other potentially interesting cases outside the random sample were also followed up by telephone, mail or personal interview. Where appropriate, specialist medical opinions were sought regarding various cases of healing. Although each patient signed a form consenting to the release of confidential medical information, the doctors varied considerably in the extent to which they were willing to co-operate.

Why does God appear to heal some kinds of people more often than others?

Much criticism of evangelical healing ministries and, in particular, of John Wimber and the Vineyard Christian Fellowship has been expressed in print recently. The research described above followed on from the preliminary study which I had undertaken in 1985 of John Wimber’s Signs and Wonders (Part I) conference in Sheffield. My report on that conference was published as an appendix to Wimber’s book Power Healing.3 The report was apparently available to Donald Lewis, who later wrote that his intention was, “to reflect upon my own experience of John Wimber’s conferences, rather than to critique what he has written (although I have read his books). My aim is to evaluate one such gathering from the vantage point of an observer-participant.”4

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Category: Fall 2008, In Depth

About the Author: David C. Lewis [as of 1993] is a cultural anthropologist and is currently a Research Associate of the Mongolia and Inner Asian Studies Unit at the University of Cambridge, Cambridge, England, where he received his Ph.D. (Anthropology). He also serves as a Consultant Anthropologist for several Christian mission organizations. He has conducted research projects at Nottingham University and the Oxford Hardy Research Centre (Religious Experience Research Project, 1984-1985). He has written numerous scholarly articles and books, including Healing: Fiction, Fantasy or Fact? (Hodder & Stoughton).

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