Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Vineyard: It’s ... Complicated

“What can you tell me about your involvement with the Vineyard?”

The question hung in the air, the chasm between us suddenly gaping like a bottomless pit.

Ah, and there it is, I thought to myself. The “Vineyard” question.

I was enrolled in seminary, upgrading my Master's degree to what’s known as “M.Div. equivalency” (prerequisite to pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree) at my alma mater. I'd approached one of my professors with the idea of developing a course there. He suggested that I submit a written proposal and my ministry resumé, which led to an interview with one of the vice-presidents of something-or-other.

Then it got weird.

The interview was clearly going nowhere from the get-go, and I couldn’t put my finger on why. Several reasons for the VP’s reluctance were voiced:
  1. Only people with doctoral degrees could design or teach courses.
    I mentioned the name of a part-time teacher who didn’t hold a doctorate.
  2. Students currently enrolled in master’s level courses didn’t have the time to develop or teach a course.
    I replied by giving her the name of a first year master’s level student who was currently teaching. And that, on top of my studies, I was writing the first draft of Post-Charismatic.

The VP shuffled through some papers on her desk, looking irritated. She came to a decision, locked a fixed stare on me, and asked “the V-question.” And that was that. The interview had been over before it even began. The “Vineyard resumé stain”—as one of my friends in a different denomination calls it—was in full effect.

And I realized my proposal was dead in the water, no matter what. Did the VP expect I'd denounce the Vineyard in hopes of currying favor? After a moment of stunned silence, I simply re-iterated what was clearly stated on my resumé: I had previously been a pastor in two Vineyard churches, one in British Columbia and the other in California. End of story.

The irony is that even within the Vineyard, it was and is difficult to define what is “Vineyard” and what isn’t. The Vineyard was pulled in a variety of directions, in its early years in particular, and struggled to maintain the its core vision and mission.

The Quest for the Radical Middle is an excellent history of the Vineyard. Published in 1999, author Bill Jackson writes that by the early 1990s—barely ten years into the movement’s story—the movement's leaders were already wrestling over what constitutes the real Vineyard. Echoing other voices within the movement, Jackson observes that answering the question often depends on when you first joined.

As the above image illustrates, the early chapters of the Vineyards story were profoundly impacted by outside influences. These influences—depending on your point of view—either aided or detracted from the Vineyard's self-identity as a “radical middle” movement: evangelical in theology and charismatic in practice.

The “Vineyard resumé stain” that influenced the seminary VP’s reaction ... I wonder which iteration of the Vineyard was the problem. Power evangelism, the Kansas City Prophets era, or perhaps the Toronto Blessing? The whole kit ’n’ kaboodle? Some weird caricature based on the “research” of heresy-hunters?

It depends on your working definition of the real Vineyard. I may or may not fit your definition; for that matter, I might be unwelcome in some Vineyard churches. After all, I wrote Post-Charismatic, which got me into hot water in certain circles for critiquing some charismania excesses and sketchy teachings. And I wrote The Genesis Café, which tempts those in  postmodern “you can’t know anything with certainty” circles to eye me with wary suspicion.

Bill Jackson, author of Quest for the Radical Middle, passed away a couple of weeks ago. News of his death prompted me (and probably many others) to re-read his book. And when I read again the core of Vineyard beliefs (a sample copy can be viewed here), I think to myself, “yeah, I’m Vineyard.”

I believe that all the gifts of the Holy Spirit are available today; I believe in the inaugurated eschatology of the “already-and-not-yet Kingdom of God”; I reject hype and hyperbole in ministry; I believe were called to care for the poor and challenge injustice ... the list could go on.
The Vineyard is far from perfect. The extreme charismania camp continues to be well-represented in some circles, and  postmodern semi-liberalism has its adherents as well. But John Wimber’s classic radical middle theology, as articulated in Power Evangelism, also continues. Thats where I still find my connection to the movement.

I only wish, in hindsight, that I'd thought to answer the mind-already-made-up VP’s question by saying:
“Vineyard? It’s ... complicated.