Victor Paul Weirwille, the "father in the Lord" to the followers of The Way religious sect, strolled onto the stage at Chrysler hall here, grabbed a microphone, snapped his fingers and pranced around to electronic rock, gospel music.
A middled-aged woman among the 800 jubilant believers stood in the aisle and wiggled her hips to the upbeat rythmn. "He's a real ham, but we love him," she said.
"Wonderful," shouted Wierwille when the opening number was over," "Give yourself a hand. I think we ought to open this great big 'heart-beat' with a prayer."
Wierwille and the vocal and instrumental musicians kept the audience in rapt attention through the fast-paced one-hour show of music, prayer, preaching and a demonstration of "speaking in tongues," an unintelligible language which Pentecostal Christians believe is a spontaneous spiritual gift and followers of The Way, which teaches its own version of Christian truth, learn in a class.
The religion show Friday was one of two in Chrysler Hall at the opening of the mid-Atlantic "heartbeat beat festival" of The Way, and two hours later another slicker version was televised over NBC's local affiliate, WAVY.
"We're bumping the 'Rockford Files,'" the Rev. Randy Anderson told his audiences. They cheered to the news that the regularly scheduled program has an estimated 178,000 viewers. The Way bought the 9 to 10 p.m. air slot hired a production crew to supervise the entertainment on the stage in front of three huge hearts and flashing lights on a bandstand.
"It's been great being with you," Wierwille shouted as the TV show ended. "I love you.God bless you. You are the best!'" Again the crowd was on their feet in jubilation.
This happy religion that is among the unconventional sects subject to "deprogrammers" who charge members are under "mind control" is a type of Jesus movement for adults.
Wierwille, a 60-year-old ex-minister in what is now the United Church of Christ, founded The Way in 1942 as the "accurate" Christianity, despite centuries of scholarship in long-established denominations. The movement's international headquarters is Wierwille's 147-acre farm in New Knoxville, in Western Ohio.
"We don't push anything on anyone," declared the tall man dressed in a navy blazer, plaid pants, and two-toned patent leather loafers, "unless you call getting a renewed mind and getting rid of a whole lot of negative things 'brainwashing'."
Wierwille's $85-, 45-hour "power for abundant living" video-taped course is a prerequisite for Way followers. The theme of abundance comes from John 10:10 in the Bible where Jesus says he came to give life "abundantly," and all evidence is that income to The Way is abundant. Although financial records are not made public, followers do give 10 per cent or more of their earnings and are encouraged to buy numerous and frequent courses, which cost up to $300 each, books and tapes for the Bible study.
One of the five "spiritual lives" taught by Wierwille is "practice believing to bring material abundance to you and the [Way] ministry."
"We had financial abundance long before we were in The Way," said P. Frank Smith of Summerville. S. C., who sold his real estate business two years ago and retired at 55. "But in The Way we've found even more abundance and peace, good friends and joy," said the amiable Smith.
"The Bible is so full of blessings to those who believe in the Word," said his wife, Annabel, who joined The Way after their three college-age children. Her husband followed suit.
The Smiths were active Episcopalians but they believe Episcopalians have turned away from the Bible. "The Episcopal Church has just ordained a lesbian which we find pretty offensive. In fact, we're embarrassed," said Smith.
The movement keeps no account of its membership, but last year at the annual "Rock of Ages" festival in Ohio they drew 12,000 people.They opt for Wierwille's version of the Bible which comes from his 35 years of "Bible research."
In his research, Wierwille has come up with challenges to accepted Christian teachings. For example, he claims that by his reckoning, Christ could have not been crucified on Friday nor resurrected on Sunday but actually died on Wednesday and rose on Saturday.Further, he says that Jesus Christ is not God and that the only way to truly worship is to "speak in tongues," a nonsensical series of syllables which orthodox Christians believe is a divine gift and The Way followers learn how to do in class.
As for social habits, "We tell our people that we are the representatives of Christianity to the world," said Pat Lynn, 30, of Westchester, N.Y.
For years the organized Christianity has come up with rules of do's and don'ts. But God cares about people's hearts, not to outward appearance of things. So we don't tell our people don't do this or that."
It is into this group that some parents charge that their children have been "captured." One young woman who was "deprogrammed" from her Way affiliation described the indoctrination procedure as intense peer pressure "not to let God down," or in other words to follow The Way teachings strictly. "Parents who would deprogram their children are criminals," contended P. Frank Smith. The American Civil Libeties Union agrees, and is helping groups like The Way prosecute "deprogramming" and conservatorships against adults as violations of religious liberties.
Partly for his Way beliefs, former Maine State Sen. Hayes Gahagan contends that he lost last June's Republican primary for reelection because of an organized "hate campaign" against him.
"We have religious liberty in this country," he told 1,000 co-believers in Chrysler Hall Saturday. "We want to tell those deprogrammes to get off our backs because we might get tough. I've got a right to be a Christian. I want to tell the deprogrammers if you come too far I'm going to punch you out."