Warnke Update
the Cornerstone staff

Cornerstone Issue 98 featured a twenty-thousand-word cover story on Christian comedian Mike Warnke which questioned his claims as an “ex-Satanist high priest” and his qualifications as a minister. Since publication, Christian and secular press have carried the story, including additional allegations regarding financial practices at Warnke Ministries. Warnke concerts have been cancelled around the country. Christian bookstores—including national chains—have pulled Warnke product and returned it to his record company, Word, Inc., which suspended sales and promotion of Warnke materials on August 5.

The Cornerstone article was released in late June at the Christian Bookseller’s Association convention in Dallas. Two weeks later, Warnke Ministries issued various response statements denying the charges that Mike Warnke had fabricated his testimony and engaged in immoral behavior. The statements dismissed the college friends interviewed by Cornerstone—whose testimony contradicted his story —as “casual acquaintances” who could not possibly have known about his satanic activities. A statement from Word president Roland Lundy backing Mike was included in the materials.

The day after these statements were released, a response to the response came from an unexpected quarter: Tim Landis, a top Christian concert promoter, was not impressed by Warnke’s defense nor by Word Records’ decision to stand by their artist. In a seven-page letter to Word president Roland Lundy, Landis reviewed the Warnke statement line by line, pointing out where each statement failed to answer the charges. (The Warnke Ministries’ statement and Tim Landis’ response are reprinted in their entirety in this issue, beginning on page 27.) Lundy, in a later phone conversation with Landis, promised to get back to him.

Meanwhile, a reporter for the Herald-Leader newspaper in Lexington, Kentucky—in the same county as Warnke Ministries— picked up on the story. Jay Grelen wrote a short piece for his paper recapping the Cornerstone charges, then began digging on his own. Grelen obtained 1991 Warnke Ministry tax returns and interviewed both Mike and Rose, along with some of their former employees, concert promoters, and others.

On July 29, the Herald-Leader published a series of three articles on Mike Warnke and his ministry. Grelen’s lead story focused on the huge salaries drawn by Warnke Ministry employees, expenditures of ministry money on luxury items such as a grand piano, antiques, and cars, and the fact that such excessive compensation led to the revocation of Warnke Ministries’ tax-exempt status by the IRS last fall. (The Warnkes have appealed the ruling.) The article noted that the ministries’ top three officers—Mike, his ex-wife Rose, and her brother Neale—received a total of $809,680 in salary at a time when the ministry newsletter claimed donations were down and more funds were needed.

Grelen quoted former employees who described the three as “rude, vulgar, greedy, and dishonest” and said Warnke’s claims for the scope of ministry done at his headquarters were greatly exaggerated. One went so far as to label Warnke Ministries “a den of Satan.” Former Warnke employee Jan Ross, who was interviewed for the Cornerstone article, told the Kentucky reporter, “It’s ripping off in the name of Jesus.”

The stories on Warnke in the Lexington paper were picked up by the wire services and reprinted in newspapers nationwide.

A week later, Word, Inc., released a second statement: “After reviewing the reported information, Mike Warnke and Word, Inc., have jointly determined to suspend the sale and promotion of Warnke products and allow full return privileges pending the resolution of questions surrounding this matter.” This statement referred specifically to the accusations in the Lexington paper “concerning the business ethics and financial integrity of Warnke Ministries.” The Cornerstone article was not directly mentioned.

Other reaction to the still-unfolding Mike Warnke story has been varied.

Some Christian publications report taking heat from their readers simply for reporting on the controversy. “We’ve had staff people leave just because we ran the EP news piece on Warnke,” says Greg Wallace of the Indianapolis-based Christian Advocate. “One pastor refused to stock that particular issue of our paper in his church. He said he didn’t want his congregation to have to decide who was telling the truth.”

For others, the issue goes beyond one man’s credibility. In an editorial published in the Twin Cities’ Christian and reprinted elsewhere through the Evangelical Press News Service, Doug Trouten compares the Church’s demand for celebrity leaders to the cry of the Israelites for a king. Trouten also notes, “A past marked by flagrant, outrageous sin has become a better qualification for ministry than a seminary degree. Or a call from God.”

Here at Cornerstone, the calls and letters supporting our decision to go public with the story far outnumber the negative reactions. Almost everyone we’ve spoken with who has read the entire Cornerstone article is convinced by the evidence presented there— even after reading the Warnke response.

Meanwhile, while Mike Warnke’s record sales are on hold, his books continue to be available from his publishers, though the newly released Recovering from Divorce, written by Mike with his ex-wife Rose, has stirred controversy apart from the other allegations. (Another bit of news in the Herald-Leader was that Rose, forty-eight, remarried on May 4 of this year to David Leibundguth, twenty-eight.)

And Warnke is still performing concerts—though in most cases to smaller crowds, such as his Columbia, South Carolina, show in August. Local Columbia paper The Blade reported that Warnke spoke briefly at the end of the concert about the controversy. He told the crowd he’s stopped talking to the press because his side, he says, is going unreported. “ ‘I don’t serve the Lord because I’m perfect, by the way; I serve the Lord because I’m not,’ he said to applause. The audience at The Township [concert hall] appeared sympathetic to Warnke. . . . After the show, many people said they will stick by him.”

Said one concert attendee, “I don’t know what to think [about the controversy]. . . . But I still think he’s a really funny person. He cracks me up.”

Various sources say Warnke has promised to produce evidence to back his story. If he does eventually come forward with new information in an attempt to clear his name, Mike Warnke is assured of having the most attentive audience of his career. Certainly the Christian public will be listening more closely now than when The Satan Seller was first published.

First published in Cornerstone (ISSN 0275-2743), Vol. 21, Issue 99. © 1994 by Cornerstone Communications, Inc.

Electronic version may contain minor changes and corrections from printed version.

Copyright © 2000 Cornerstone Communications, Inc.