Unused Paper: An Unintended Tradition

I originally wrote this for a conference, as a submission. It was not wanted/included, but a number of people who have read/commented on it, thought it was worth sharing. So, for the sake of a bit of Vineyard internal theology, I reproduce below my paper ‘Celebrating An Unintended Tradition: Innovation and Legacy in John Wimber and the Vineyard Movement’. Comments are most welcome!

‘Traditions and Traditions’

Celebrating an Unintended Tradition: Innovation and Legacy in John Wimber and the Vineyard Movement

Thomas Creedy, St. Johns College, Nottingham

Charismatic forms of Christianity often eschew pre-existing traditions, with adherents instead seeking to ground their experience, and any formal theology, in a broad appeal to the Holy Spirit and the present work amongst their congregations. Prior to the early 1960’s, which Roger Olson identifies as being “the crucial years of the birth of the charismatic movement”, many Charismatic Christians left the denominations they had started in, desiring further experience and expression. Since that time a multitude of new denominations, from classic Pentecostalism to Charismatic expressions of all kinds, have sprung up. One of the most enduring movements is the Vineyard, a self-identified “network of over 1,500 churches worldwide”, which seeks to hold in tension the essential elements of Evangelicalism – simplistically a focus on the authority of the Bible –  and Pentecostalism – essentially a focus on the power and ministry of the Holy Spirit. This movement, fed by two traditions, is arguably the inheritor of a new tradition thanks to the ministry and legacy of its founder, one time rock musician John Wimber.

Drawing on resources from the Vineyard itself, and seeking to discuss tradition and church by bringing essays by theologian Graham Ward and theologian/church-planter Jason Clark into the conversation, this paper will attempt to show that there is a specifically Vineyard theological tradition, identifiable both in form and expression, and that this was in part the unintended legacy of John Wimber. Informing the Evangelical element of the Vineyard equation, in simplistic terms, is an approach to scripture, whilst the Pentecostal element of the puzzle is more easily approached in terms of experience, particularly relating to the work of the Holy Spirit. In the introduction to his volume on Christian Theologies of Scripture, evangelical Episcopalian Justin Holcomb notes that “all religious traditions that ground themselves in texts must grapple with certain questions”. This concept of grappling is inherent to Wimber’s self-understanding as, in the words of John Mumford, “a conservative evangelical who believed in and tried to operate in the gifts of the Spirit”, and also echoes the scriptural ground from which Wimber’s ministry began.

The history and story of the Vineyard finds helpful expression in the lively prose of “The Quest for the Radical Middle” by Bill Jackson. Affectionately respected within Vineyard circles, it is seen as a powerful narration of God’s activity in the roots of the movement, and essential reading for newcomers with theological and/or historical interest. Reflecting Wimber’s own desire that future Vineyard leaders “take the best and go”, Jackson’s work is not uncritical, and deals carefully with some of the more controversial elements of Vineyard history, including where Wimber himself made errors of judgement. The occasionally dissonant streams that flow into what I hope to identify as Vineyard tradition can be briefly summed up thus; “we needed to fulfill the Great Commission (the evangelical tradition) in the spirit of the Great Commandments (the pietist tradition) in the power of the Holy Spirit (the Pentecostal tradition)”. This integration of longer-standing traditions provides roots for the identification of any Vineyard tradition within the wider tradition of Christian orthodoxy, and perhaps also provides a basis for the continual interest, within the Vineyard, in perspectives from other streams of Christianity.

Echoing the fragmented roots of modern Charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity, Olson is of the opinion that “there is no single, unified, “charismatic theology””, and this statement could easily be reworked and understood or applied in terms of tradition. The Pentecostal and Charismatic renewals of recent history can be approached in a number of ways, but the Vineyard Movement can be seen as one particular interpretation, and thus tradition, from the initial miasma of movements and events. Whilst the Vineyard movement today is not theologically monolithic, it must be seen as unified, theological and charismatic based on its own self understanding, a great deal of which is formed as a result of the warmth towards, and respect for, John Wimber. Wimber is the driving character of what has been identified as the story and history of the Vineyard, whilst at the same time should not be seen as synonymous with the movement.

When considering the role of Wimber in the formation of Vineyard tradition, it is worth considering what Olson notes of figures in the Charismatic renewal and associated movements; that “few, however, have produced formal theological writings. Most of the books… have been testimonies of their own spiritual experiences and explorations of biblical materials related to the distinctive charismatic experiences”. The titles and topics of Wimber’s written output, not to mention his running of a class at Fuller Seminary, seem to demonstrate a concern with essentially normal Christian concerns, and whilst not always being formal theology in the sense of systematics or doctrinal formulation, do provide us with a focusing point for any tradition that might be identified as having originated with him.

One concern regarding the role of tradition in contemporary expression of Christianity is, as Graham Ward notes, the fact that “tradition needs to be distinguished from custom and convention”. The external trappings of Wimber’s ministry – contemporary music, coffee, conferences, and so on – must be distinguished, as custom and convention, from the primary thrust of that ministry; simply recognized as the pursuit of the Kingdom of God. Thus tradition, for the Vineyard, is the worthwhile core of what remains when custom and convention are removed. The fact that this tradition was perhaps unintended by Wimber is secondary to understanding what that tradition is, and continues to be.

The respected Evangelical theologian J.I.Packer identifies Wimber as leaving a “legacy of contemplative worship, openness to God, ‘naturally supernatural’ ministry, high expectations and practical neighbor-love”. This summary is apt, and can be seen expressed in more concrete form in the distillation of the essence of what the Vineyard is, in the so-called ‘Core Values’. The five themes that Packer identifies broadly map across to three of these Values, whilst the remaining two – ‘Reconciling Community’ and ‘Culturally Relevant Mission’ – echo particular themes from Wimber’s ministry and legacy that have resonated particularly deeply. Given that Packer sought to understand Wimber as having formed “a coherent body of though… a logically and theologically connected series of affirmations”, it seems reasonable to conclude that Wimber had made a deposit that could become a tradition.

A brief exploration of the value and use of tradition within church contexts will prove a valuable exercise in this present discussion. One such exploration, from a current Vineyard pastor and academic, Jason Clark, exists as one of a collection of essays on the Emerging Church. Clark, in talking about “Deep church”, is essentially articulating one particular understanding of the value of tradition. His intent, which both echoes and expands the already-recognised tradition within the Vineyard, is to “aspire to an understanding of church embedded in the past while also fully engaged in the presence”. Such an intent will naturally find much to draw on from further back in Church history, but the core of Vineyard tradition is now well behind us, and indeed there are emerging leaders in that movement who neither met nor heard Wimber, yet appreciate and utilise the good deposit from his ministry. To be embedded, then, is to be firmly anchored, but not ultimately constrained by where that anchor holds. Such language is helpful, and Clark self-defines this as “a project of recovery”. The utility of tradition is arguably amplified when couched in such terms.

Ward has noted that “traditions are never exempt from cultural politics”, and given the present situation in the West that is often denoted as ‘culture wars’ we would do well to remember this. This exemption, however, must not be seen as crippling. In the present example of the Vineyard, tradition has not resulted in immovable dogma, but has been open – perhaps naturally reflecting the Pentecostal inheritance – to change, most notably perhaps the move in support of Women in Leadership in the Vineyard, despite this not being the position of Wimber himself. It is conceivable that this could be understood in terms of tradition being a mere fragment of reality, echoing Clark’s observation that “the metaphors and story of Christianity must not only give shape to our reality but become our ultimate reality”. The Vineyard’s decision on female leadership, then, can be seen to make sense when the life-giving core of Vineyard tradition is detached from the time-bound cultural politics of Wimber’s own time, and views on such issues. The tradition is not exempt from being questioned and utilized on charged and important issues, but instead points beyond itself to what it attempts to explain.

The overarching language of liturgy and institution that characterizes Clarks discussion is particularly helpful for our present engagement with tradition. Clark writes, and it seems that we can apply the concept to our discussion of Vineyard tradition and its origin in the innovating legacy of Wimber, that “the relevant issue is not whether we can avoid being an institution but that of imagining forms of institution that can support and not hinder the purposes for which they were created”. In seeking to echo and respect Wimber’s fear of “the routinization of charisma”, as Max Weber termed it, we can learn an important lesson about the mission of a movement in applying Clark’s ‘institutional imagination’ to the history of the Vineyard. Be recognizing that there is a valid core tradition in Vineyard praxis and theology, we can continue to imagine and experience forms of church that further their intended purpose, rather than being slaves to tradition. The challenge, as Jackson poses it, is for the Vineyard to be “perpetually self-renewed”. This, perhaps, is the core of Vineyard tradition, and the legacy of Wimber.

Given the correlation between the current self-chosen core values of the Vineyard movement, and the notion of legacy as recognized by Packer, it is appropriate to refer to this core as a tradition. The nature of the modification or refinement of the identified legacy can be seen as the genesis of a tradition, distinctive to the Vineyard, and essentially initiated or formulated by Wimber. This notion particularly resonates with Ward’s observation that “traditions… hand over what they have received to the future,  to new situations. They are transformed by this handing over”. The received wisdom of Wimber’s philosophy of ministry and approach to that ministry, has clearly been received by the Vineyard movement, and yet transformed into something that allows missional and ecclesiological engagement with contemporary culture. In the true sense of a tradition being something valuable that can be expressed, it appears that the legacy of John Wimber is a tradition alive and well in the Vineyard movement today.

The discussed tradition that underpins the thought and practice of the Vineyard movement should be seen primarily as the unintended legacy of John Wimber, and this set of theological methodologies and theories arose out of Wimber’s ministry in the local church. Anglican Bishop Graham Cray notes, whilst reflecting especially on Wimber as a communicator, that “the shape and style of Vineyard churches grew out of this mixture of experience and reflection with the Yorba Linda (now Anaheim) Vineyard as the trial model”, evidencing an understanding of Wimber as primarily a local church leader, rather than a figure intending to start a new church tradition.

Two internally important works, one of a broadly systematic nature and the other ecclesiological, recognize the impact of Wimber for Vineyard tradition. Derek Morphew, Academic Dean of the recently formed Vineyard Institute, is an important theological voice in the Vineyard, not least due to his study of the Kingdom of God, published as “Breakthrough”. Morphew notes in his introduction that his discovery of this theological method lead to “an immediate affinity with John Wimber in the early 1980’s”. Similarly, in his book “Doing Church”, Vineyard pastor and author Alexander Ventner writes in his introduction that “Obviously John is intrinsically involved as the founder-leader of the Vineyard”, going further still and stating that one of the main sources for his book – which is arguably in itself a key fragment of Vineyard tradition – was “John’s philosophy of ministry”.

Much of Wimber’s philosophy of ministry, and a key part of his legacy, can be found in various so-called ‘Wimberisms’. These pithy phrases are linked to key concepts in Wimber’s thought, be they about his essentially traditional evangelical approach to Scripture – “The main and the plain”, or his unique turn of phrase relating to evangelism, “the meat is on the street”, echoing his interpretation of Jesus usage of food as an image for ministry in John’s Gospel. The impact of the ‘Wimberisms’ can be seen in their usage and adoption across the movement, and their transmission is assured by the dissemination and continued printing of much of Wimber’s writing. The often informal nature of these writings and aphorisms finds its roots in Wimber’s somewhat mythical humility, which John Mumford offers an explanation for; “John entitled his own story ‘I’m A Fool For Christ’, and often he would risk looking foolish”. Such humility, tied in with the memorable nature of much of his teaching, is arguably key to understanding the enduring nature of Wimber’s legacy.

Returning to Jackson’s account of the genesis of the post-Wimber Vineyard Tradition, it is interesting to note that there is throughout a theme of building on an innovative legacy, a rootedness that seems to resonate with the idea of tradition. Jackson notes that “before John died he had challenged Vineyard leaders… to “take the best and go””. We have already examined what it was that Wimber intended his successors to take from him, and it is helpful to return to Graham Cray, a friend of the Vineyard from another distinct theological tradition, who observed that “if we are to respect the inheritance he left us it will not be by slavishly copying or sticking to particular patterns of church or ministry”. Deliberately or not it appears that Cray is echoing Wimber’s wish for the spirit and truth of what his ministry represented to be what endured.

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.


Books (I’d particularly recommend the Ventner, Jackson, Pytches and Wimber books for further reading)

Alexander Ventner, “Doing Church”, (Vineyard International Publishing, Cape Town, 2010)
Bill Jackson, “The Quest for the Radical Middle”, (Vineyard International Publishing, Cape Town, 2006)
ed. David Pytches, “John Wimber: His Influence and Legacy”, (Eagle, Guildford, 1998)
– Graham Cray, “The Communicator”
– John Mumford, “Vineyard Movement Founder”
– J. I. Packer, “The Intellectual”
Derek Morphew, “Breakthrough”, (Vineyard International Publishing, Cape Town, 2006)
John Wimber, “The Way in is the Way On”, (Kingsway, Eastbourne, 2007)
ed. Justin Holcomb, “Christian Theologies of Scripture: A Comparative Introduction”, (New York University Press, New York, 2006)
– Justin Holcomb, “Introduction”
– Graham Ward, “Tradition and Traditions, Scripture, Christian Praxes, and Politics”
ed. Kevin Corcoran, “Church in the Present Tense: A Candid Look at What’s Emerging”, (Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, 2011)
– Jason Clark, “Consumer Liturgies and Their Corrosive Effects on Christian Identity”
Roger E. Olson, “The Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology”, (Westminster John Knox, Kentucky, 2004)

Online Resources

Vineyard USA, “About Vineyard”, http://www.vineyardusa.org/site/about-vineyard (Accessed 30/7/2013)
‘Report from the Street’, http://continuationism.com/tag/john-wimber/ (Accessed 30/7/2013)
Vineyard Churches UK and Ireland, “John Wimber: Understanding John’s ministry and his legacy to us”  http://www.vineyardchurches.org.uk/about/john-wimber/?page=all (Accessed 30/7/2013)

3 Responses

  1. Book Review: Words, Wonders and Power – Thomas Creedy's Blog

    […] The focus of this book on the person and ministry of John Wimber, then, makes it useful in two ways. Firstly, this is a dispassionate, non-cheerleading engagement with a key figure in charismatic evangelicalism. Secondly, it allows the skill of the author and his engagement with questions of power to be put on full display. The problem with the second part of this is that sometimes Percy is very clear that Wimber is ‘wrong’, without necessarily making it clear what ‘right’ might look like. For instance, I was struck by his discussion of ‘Power and Purity’, particularly with reference to how Wimber saw himself in relation to the Vineyard Movement. As a 3rd generation member of the Vineyard (I’ve been discipled by people who were discipled by/peers of those who were discipled by, Wimber’s generation) I can confidently say two things. a) God has no Grandchildren. b) Wimber is not above reproach or re-interpretation, and is seen less as a father and more as a reasonably savvy uncle. I’ve explored the unintended but not uncritically-swallowed legacy of Wimber as a new traditio…. […]

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