S.O.W.E.R.S. and THE WAY CORPS
S.O.W.E.R.S. promotes itself as a Christian leadership training program. S.O.W.E.R.S., which stands for Students of the Word Equipped and Running to Serve, recruits young people to live and work on a farm in Smith county, Mississippi while attending classes on leadership. It also runs a companion program in which it recruits people to do outreach as W.O.W. Ambassadors.
While S.O.W.E.R.S. appears to be a Christian ministry, it in fact attempts to reproduce the work of The Way International (TWI), a group that opposes evangelical Christian teaching and ministry and is widely regarded to have essential cultic characteristics. S.O.W.E.R.S. attempts to reproduce many of TWI’s teachings, programs, classes, principles, terminology and methods. It also uses many of TWI’s classes, manuals and former leaders.
The President of S.O.W.E.R.S. is Victor Wierwille, who is named after his grandfather Victor Paul Wierwille, who founded The Way International in 1955. TWI did not grow significantly until it leached naïve young people from the Jesus movement beginning about 1969. TWI’s heyday lasted until Wierwille’s early death due to cancer in 1984. Soon after this the group imploded and splintered into a plethora of splinter groups led by former TWI leaders, each claiming to teach the Word accurately and carry on the legacy of V. P. Wierwille and TWI. S.O.W.E.R.S. is one of these splinter groups, and it tries to emulate TWI more consciously than most of the splinters.
The name Wierwille is still an honored name among tens of thousands of former followers of TWI. (About 95% of everyone who was ever in TWI has left it, the vast majority because they saw deep errors in it.) This is peculiar, given the amount of misconduct and error that has been proven to be central to V. P. Wierwille’s life and work. Wierwille was lifelong plagiarist, copying portions of many books by other authors and presenting them as his own work over a period of 30 years. It is widely accepted that Wierwille seduced scores of young women in his motor coach. Many of these women and many former male leaders of TWI have given extensive testimony about this (see www.aboutheway.org). Wierwille was also authoritarian and used the resources of TWI for his convenience, beginning with using a leadership training program like S.O.W.E.R.S. as a way to rebuild his family farm which had fallen into disuse. Wierwille’s legacy is ignored by thousands of former Wayers who try, like S.O.W.E.R.S., to recreate the glory years of TWI.
Victor Wierwille, president of S.O.W.E.R.S., began it when he was only about 25 years old, hardly with the age, maturity and ability to establish a Christian leadership training program, especially since Christian leadership is based on maturity and experience more than skill. His father, J. P. Wierwille, was V.P.’s youngest son, who had grown up in the unique TWI atmosphere and method. They have loose ties to Christian Family Fellowship, whose staff includes J.P.’s sister Sarah Gigou. S.O.W.E.R.S. also uses L.E.A.D., an outdoor leadership training experience which is run by two former TWI leaders who also ran TWI’s L.E.A.D. program.
Unlike most splinters, S.O.W.E.R.S. sometimes mentions its intent to carry on the TWI legacy. Its newsletters mention that the combination of work and study is “as it was with the early Way Corps” and that when their W.O.W. Ambassadors returned in June 2012 it mirrored TWI’s W.O.W.s: “It has been forty years since the first wave of W.O.W.’s were commissioned back in 1971. Forty years. Think about it…. See you at the Rock!” (Newsletter, Michael Behm).
S.O.W.E.R.S. EQUALS THE WAY CORPS
S.O.W.E.R.S. is precisely modeled on TWI’s leadership training program called The Way Corps. S.O.W.E.R.S. ‘s five principles are word-for-word the same as Way Corps’ principles:
“1. Acquire an in-depth spiritual perception and awareness. 2. Receive training in the whole Word so as to be able to teach others. 3. Physical training making your physical body, the vehicle of communication of the Word, as vital as possible. 4. Practice believing to bring material abundance to you and the Ministry. 5. Go forth as leaders and work in areas of concern, interest and need.”
Old Way Corps probably know these by heart. The most disturbing of the principles is number 4. Believing was and is a key part of TWI teaching, and has brought untold guilt, sadness and separation from God to those who attempted to practice it as V. P. Wierwille taught it. It is an a-theistic system (in the sense that God has no part in it) which teaches that all bad things in life come as a direct result of someone’s “negative believing,” and healing and prosperity come to those who have enough “positive believing.” Number 4 is also very self-serving, because students are programmed to think that they should bring abundance to the Corps- or to S.O.W.E.R.S.
Like the Corps, S.O.W.E.R.S. students are expected to work four hours a day on Wierwille property and S.O.W.E.R.S. work. Free labor has done much to build up family property. Like the Corps, S.O.W.E.R.S. teachers are uneducated in theology and ministry, the school unaccredited, and the library laughable compared to that of a Bible college or seminary. TWI protects its trademarks and would likely sue S.O.W.E.R.S. if it used the Way Corps name, as it has sued Christian groups for using any variation on the name “The Way.” Otherwise, S.O.W.E.R.S. may be called The Corps.
It may well be that the main market for S.O.W.E.R.S. students are the now-adult children of ex-Way Corps who look back fondly on TWI’s glory years.
S.O.W.E.R.S. uses the L.E.A.D. outdoor academy as part of its training. It is run by two former TWI L.E.A.D. staffers, Catina Wilson and Steve Armstrong. It was held in the state of Washington in 2012. It includes hitchhiking across the country as part of the program, an element which led to problems when TWI did this. Many ex-Wayers still talk with sadness and anger about traumas that happened during L.E.A.D. expeditions. Women were especially vulnerable.
S.O.W.E.R.S. is different than Way Corps in that it does not require tuition payments, has a maximum of twelve students and is one year instead of four years. S.O.W.E.R.S. solicits donations. One reason for the shorter length is that it does not have a large network of home fellowships in which to place student interns, as TWI did.
S.O.W.E.R.S. TEACHING EQUALS TWI TEACHING
S.O.W.E.R.S. uses TWI books, classes, tapes and former leaders as its core teaching. It uses things from the Power for Abundant Living series- Foundational, Intermediate, Advanced- which was the central recruitment and indoctrination tool of TWI until it was replaced in the 1990s.
Michael Behn, coordinator of S.O.W.E.R.S., stated in a newsletter that it used TWI books including Jesus Christ Our Promised Seed and Jesus Christ our Passover, which were produced by writing teams, even though V.P. Wierwille’s name is listed as author. S.O.W.E.R.S. also used ex-TWI leaders including Walter Cummins, John Crouch and Steve Armstrong as speakers. It teaches typical TWI topics such as etiquette, leading home fellowships, family and how to study the Bible accurately.
W.O.W. AMBASSADORS REDUX
TWI had a program called W.O.W. Ambassadors, which was run just like the S.O.W.E.R.S.’ W.O.W. Ambassadors program (in both cases, W.O.W. stands for Word Over the World). Both programs were nine to ten month long outreach programs in which young people worked as witnesses over 20 hours per week in locations assigned by the organization. S.O.W.E.R.S. has a ten point W.O.W. commitment which is almost identical with TWI’s W.O.W. commitment. S.O.W.E.R.S. has ten points instead of nine just because it splits one rule into two (wake up by 7:00 AM and be in bed by midnight). It changes one of the points from presenting yourself acceptably to taking responsibility for your bills, which should please any sloppy dressers.
W.O.W. mission is “To go to your area of assignment and faithfully hold forth the Word in alignment with your W.O.W. commitment” and to learn the W.O.W. objectives. The three day W.O.W. training is held at the Sylvarena Farm in Mississippi in October. Graduation is held there in June, at which they are pinned as TWI’s W.O.W.s were. (Sylvarena is a village of 120 people in Smith County, in south-central Mississippi.)
Some W.O.W.s served in Memphis, Tennessee in 2011-2012, where there is a weekly fellowship run by Matt Tompary which is approved by S.O.W.E.R.S. S.O.W.E.R.S.’ W.O.W.s tend to join S.O.W.E.R.S. leader training, just as TWI W.O.W.s often became Corps.
UNIVERSITY OF LIFE LIVES ON… CASSETTE
S.O.W.E.R.S. uses the University of Life class on Thessalonians recorded on cassette by founder V. P. Wierwille over 30 years ago. The University of Life Outreach Courses (UL) were intended to be a series of 27 classes produced by TWI which would give listeners “the excellence of Way Corps teachings” in their own homes (Letter to UL candidates by V.P. Wierwille). Buyers had to “qualify” for UL by filing an application with recommendations from Way Corps members or graduates. Candidates must also “1. Be an Advanced Class grad not able to enter the Way Corps” (Qualification and Application Summary). TWI added that “The objectives for the University of Life are the same as for The Way Corps.”
Wierwille’s course on Thessalonians was the first course, intended to be the prerequisite for all the others, produced in 1979. The big idea of UL soon crashed, partly because Wierwille got cancer about three years later and a power struggle ensued after his death which resulted in the virtual collapse of TWI.
THE LEGACY OF TWI IN S.O.W.E.R.S.
S.O.W.E.R.S. strongly carries the legacy of TWI. This is disguised from anyone who knows nothing of TWI, but either happily- or painfully- apparent to anyone who knows something of TWI and its legacy.
S.O.W.E.R.S. is certainly trying to duplicate TWI’s teaching, outreach, leadership training, publications, heritage, speakers and honor of its founder. It’s been much less successful, since it does not have the Jesus movement to draw followers from as TWI did, and because it is saddled with negative aspects of TWI and its founder.
S.O.W.E.R.S. unknowingly duplicates many of the weaknesses and problems built into TWI by V.P. Wierwille. It holds many of TWI’s erroneous teachings which necessarily isolate them from evangelical Christianity. S.O.W.E.R.S. continues the weaknesses of the Way Corps format – unaccredited education by uneducated teachers with little grasp of serious Biblical research and library sources. It uses plagiarized materials written by a serial plagiarist. Like TWI, S.O.W.E.R.S. has an inflated self-esteem with a lack of genuine oversight. These problems were less apparent when TWI was a small, backwater religious ministry in rural Ohio (similar to S.O.W.E.R.S. in rural Mississippi) but yielded much damage when the group became larger. People considering leadership training will do well to find reputable evangelical Christian training rather than expose themselves to the dark legacy of TWI embodied in S.O.W.E.R.S.
Dr. John Juedes, 2012, www.abouttheway.org /SOWERScorps