I started writing this post in early March, and finished it when a decision that *could* have been changed was confirmed by the Anaheim Vineyard in mid-March.
Back in 2013 I had the totally unexpected privilege of being in California for a Society of Vineyard Scholars Conference. It was hosted at the Anaheim Vineyard, often seen as the ‘mother church’ of the Vineyard movement. It was a powerful place to be. Recently, the church has decided to ‘disaffiliate’ from the Association of Vineyard Churches USA (henceforth VUSA), saying that it’s leadership are following divine leading in a different direction.
There have been a range of responses.
- Profound sadness. Because this is a key church to the history of a movement which most Vineyard folk have chosen to join as adults – very few have grown up in it or been born into it (unlike, for example, the Church of England). Because this is a part of our family, with people who some of us have known for years, involved in various ways. Because this is historic – churches have left or been asked to leave the Vineyard before, but this wasn’t just any church.
- Bewildered confusion. Because the story broke with a leak, which heavily implies that the church’s current leadership felt a need to control the story. Because the decision, and just as importantly the way it has been communicated, seems completely unaware of the affection that Anaheim is held in by many within and beyond the global Vineyard movement.
- Resigned expectation mixed with anger. Because some might say that the present leadership of this local church have been on a different theological trajectory. Because some unsubstantiated theological ideas have more currency than they do biblical or moral pedigree. Because language matters, and there had been clues.
My personal emotional response is one thing (which I’m in the process of processing!) – in this post, I want to offer something of a theological response (not that the two are separate, but that some ‘issues’ are helpful to dissect, and I hope the theological thoughts I offer may help others process and move forward). There are a range of things that could (and, in time, probably should) be reflected on theologically, but I want to pick up on just two. Firstly, what this episode can help us with when thinking about the ‘Unintended Tradition‘ John Wimber (one of the founding figures of the Vineyard worldwide, and founding pastor of the Anaheim Vineyard) has left behind, and secondly the surprising importance of a theology of place to the Vineyard movement.
John Wimber – an Unintended Tradition
The linked paper of the same name that I wrote back in the earlier 2010s (I cannot confirm without my old computer whether it was 2013 or 14 – the latter seems more likely) began like this:
It is clear that Wimber did not set out intending to start a tradition, or even perhaps a denomination. The Innovation and Legacy of John Wimber has been discussed, and is demonstrably the primary element in forming a Vineyard theological tradition. It is possible that the inherent renewal dynamics of this Charismatic movement lend themselves to moving forward, even as they echo the essence of tradition, what it means to be Vineyard. Clark’s aspiration of “an understanding of church embedded in the past whilst also fully engaged in the present” can be seen as being realized in a general way as the Vineyard moves onward. Justin Holcomb’s observation that “the great thinkers of the Christian theological tradition forwent their quest for security and embraced the questions, the stumbling, and thus they teach us”, and within the identified Vineyard tradition this can undoubtedly be applied to Wimber. Risky, practical and simple he may have been, but Wimber and the Vineyard offer a fascinating example of tradition and how it develops.
In a congregational email (I believe dated 26th Feb 2022), Alan and Kathryn Scott made use of the following quote by John Wimber:
“The economy of God’s kingdom is quite simple: each new step will cost us everything we have gained to date. A disciple must always be willing to take that step.”
We might quibble with the way that the Scott’s chose to interpret that saying, but what is undeniable is that in deploying that saying, they continue to perpetuate some level of authority to the words of Wimber. This is theologically significant – even if it is also the opposite of what Wimber intended. As John Mumford notes, “John entitled his own story ‘I’m a Fool for Christ’, and often he would risk looking foolish”. With that in mind, those of us in the Vineyard – attracted to the theology, practice and culture of the Kingdom of God – are not bound to slavish repetition of fallible formula. Indeed, we are arguably very free to ‘do what we like’, as we feel led.
Yet core to the unintended tradition that Wimber passed on is an emphasis on ‘the main and the plain’, on ‘doing the stuff’, and ‘everyone gets to play’. These snappy aphorisms capture deeper theological and ecclesiological commitments (as I’ve explored for example on ‘everyone gets to play’ and church leadership) but – and this is really important – are not intended in and of themselves as being carte blanche for any level of meaning that anyone projects on to them. ‘Everyone gets to play’, for example, is a pushback against ‘ministry’ being restricted to only clergy (hence ‘everyone’), being boring (hence ‘play’) and a duty (hence the more privilege/positive/gift language of ‘play’).
Thus the aphorism being quoted by the Scotts becomes something that actually has quite a clear impact, in my view. In becoming the Senior Pastors of the Anaheim Vineyard, as far as I understand it, they were given a huge amount of power and resource (a church of x100 people, a building, debts, facilities, etc). That was a ‘gain’. I can’t help but think that Wimber, in this situation, might instead have invited those who wanted to follow a vision of departure from the Vineyard, to leave amicably and go on their way. This is a complex and emotive situation – but theologically, we need to be able to tell and speak the truth of what has actually happened. It is not clear to me whether or not the Scotts are ‘spending’ what they have ‘gained’ in making this move. If that were to be the case, to read Wimber’s words in the more likely spirit he intended, one might expect them to be heading elsewhere.
There is another fragment of unintended tradition that I think is relevant, Bill Jackson’s notion that “before John died he challenged Vineyard leaders… to ‘take the best and go'”. On the one hand there is the calling of the Vineyard to be a renewal movement – as Kingdom people we should be as content providing training and encouragement to other churches as we are in resourcing and growing our own – on the other there is a very clear sense that ‘take the best and go’ does not mean ‘take the assets and disrespect those who gave sacrificially to an explicitly Vineyard vision’, but rather a flexibility around the theology and practice and culture of the Kingdom of God as being core to our being as Vineyard, in a way that, like a plant, has both roots and shoots.
This pivot from the sayings of Wimber to the imagery of plants and nature is not unintentional. The Vineyard has long been a church planting movement, and this sort of imagery should (As John Stott reminds us) draw us back to the reality of creation and place. It is to this that I turn for the second part of my reflection.
The Vineyard – more than, but not less than, a church in California
In 2018, I was privileged to give two paper presentations at the Society of Vineyard Scholars Conference, held at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky. In ‘Where are you Church? An Invitation to a Vineyard Theology of Place’ I wrote the following:
- The Vineyard has the opportunity to faithfully and creatively re-state what it is and what it is for now, rather than (and I’m not saying we do this!) gesticulating vaguely at the past.
- The Vineyard has the opportunity to live out the strange words of Jesus in Matthew 10:14 – in obedience.
- The Vineyard can show that our theology, culture and practice of the Kingdom of God are more important and more powerful than any leader, institution, or local church (Even as we celebrate and champion leaders, institutional health, and the vital importance of the local church.
- Everyone interested can choose to go to God first – in prayer – regardless of our feelings.
Prayer changes things. We should be praying for both the Scotts and VUSA, for those who are part of Anaheim Vineyard, and those who have been shaped by it in any way. We should pray for truth to out, reconciliation to happen, and people who don’t know Jesus to come into his Kingdom.
The prayer that I want to close with is one that Jay Pathak, the National Director of VUSA, wrote. It is simple, but powerful:
“I pray that each of your churches will experience the power and presence of the living God this weekend. And I’m praying for each of you that you will experience that Presence every day in your own lives. Come, Holy Spirit.”
For further reading
On issues of leadership, power and influence
- Marcus Honeysett, Powerful Leaders
- My blog post, Leaders who Limp
- Marty Boller, The Wisdom of Wimber on Wimber’s leadership and other things.
On some of the theological issues
- The two linked papers, ‘An Unintended Tradition‘ and ‘Where are you Church? An Invitation to a Vineyard Theology of Place‘.
- On the charismatic theological spectrum and where Vineyard is, theologically and historically speaking, a blog post ‘We Believe in the Holy Spirit‘.
- My review of Alan Scott’s book Scattered Servants. I liked it!
- Three posts on ‘Unburying the Lede’, which deal with some of the background theological issues live in the Vineyard, on ‘Identity‘, on ‘Jesus‘ and on ‘Dominion‘.
- My friend and American Vineyard Pastor Luke Geraty has written something really helpful on the denomination/movement/network (ecclesiology) question.