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Opinion

The Vineyard: A critical assessment

Chris Simmons, a pastor in the Vineyard movement of churches, reflects on his own denomination's progress over the past 30 years

As we enter a new year, and take stock of the past eight months, which have forced all of our churches to change, I want to reflect on the progress of the Vineyard, and the legacy of our founder John Wimber (pictured, above). 

I was just teenager when I first heard John Wimber speak on “signs and wonders and church growth”. I was instantly sold. As a Catholic recently filled with the Holy Spirit, I instinctively knew this was the dimension of Christianity I had craved all my life. 

John Wimber (1934-1997) wanted to introduce the Church to a form of Christianity that was both orthodox (evangelical) and full of the power of the Spirit. He wanted to begin a church planting movement comparable to the global South where thousands of contemporary churches big and small were (and still are) being planted. John wanted to teach the Church to understand and move in the power of the Spirit; to prophesy, heal the sick and work miracles.

In the first ten years of Wimber's ministry, many significant parts of the UK Church were invigorated and changed. A new type of church was born, with a different style of worship, and the introduction of the gift of prophecy and prophets not seen before. But we're at least 30 years on from those days. So what's the state of the Vineyard now?

Holy Spirit conferences

There were, and are, so many positives about the Holy Spirit conferences. They changed my life. I remember hearing the screaming of demons leaving people and witnessing the miracles of healing, all with a laid back man on the stage enamoured only with Jesus and what he was doing.

In retrospect, however, one of the problems with introducing the Holy Spirit and his power through conferences, is that it brought a level of comfortability to the ministry of the Spirit that was never John’s intention. He was an evangelist, knocking on doors and witnessing on the streets. I remember him saying his hope was to train people who could move into the inner cities, heal the sick, cast out demons and plant churches there. This hasn’t yet been realised.

We've had countless 'equipping conferences', but as John realised when he was alive, he just couldn’t get people to "do the stuff". The “meat is on the streets” as he used to say, but how hard it is to find any Christians willing to take him up on this. The conferences are in complete contrast to how Jesus trained his disciples. The former involve Christians sitting inside a plush hotel and consuming content. The latter is out on the streets, and based on a 'show and tell' style of training.

Evangelistic effectiveness 

John dressed down, taught messages from the Bible without hype, introduced a worship that was both Spirit-filled and technically competent (he was a professional musician by training) and moved the Church to being more up to date in its presentation.

All of this was done to help the Church reach the lost. The problem was that these changes seemed to only attract Christians - not the world. Then as now, churches grew by attracting other Christians. The desired effect of reaching the lost has been swallowed up with making Christians comfortable.

John knew all this of course, and admitted to us all during the last conference in the UK before he died, that the great failure of the Vineyard denomination, was the failure to lead people to Christ. 

Church planting

Church plants have not been realised on anything like the epic scope that John had hoped for. The Vineyard has begun to adopt churches because it simply can’t reach the 200 churches it has been aiming at for decades.

The denominational problem

John made the Vineyard into a denomination. And denominations bring many problems, especially in contrast to movements, which although short-lived, produce much more fruit. 

The Vineyard denomination still calls itself a “movement” and a “family”, having done everything structurally to make it anything but. 

Denominations seem to better at quenching the Spirit than allowing him freedom to minister. They are much more structural than relational. 

Denominations are renowned for taming Aslan and returning the church to a bureaucratic status quo. The incredible ministry that John was entrusted with simply wasn’t something he could give away to anyone, try as he might. The Vineyard I loved was short lived, and the inevitable “routinisation of charisma” has occurred. I had lunch recently with a local Catholic priest who has just been filled with the Holy Spirit, receiving words of knowledge and filled with the love of God. In attending another local church and speaking to the curate, he was shown the church manual. It was a rather large document by all accounts, containing a list of what to do and not to do, rules for everything. He instinctively knew this can't be right (it isn't).

Denominations also do not protect the church from abuse or heresy. The Vineyard today has many leaders who have left orthodoxy behind on marriage and sexuality, something you might say would “make John Wimber turn in his grave”.  

Faith for the future

One of the reasons we can look forward with real hope, is because we are seeing external and internal signs of another move of the Holy Spirit. If God does what only he can do, it will be something akin to what the global South is currently experiencing. Existing ecclesiastical structures are not usually conducive to these moves. I think we need to lower the denominational walls at the very least and start thousands more relational movements. These need to be seasoned leaders, who can build friendships that mutually encourage and serve one another. Structure is necessary, but friendships akin to a “band of brothers/sisters” are vital. They can be flatter in structure, and you can of course be part of several movements at the same time. 

We can’t start or initiate a fresh move of God, but we can get our hearts right for one, we can draw near to God, we can humble ourselves and we can fast and repent. No we can’t initiate a move of God, but we need to do everything possible to make sure we don’t quench one.  

Let’s choose anointing over status and respectability. Jesus and his followers had no status, they were the foolish things shaming the wise. We must be willing to throw off everything that seeks to get in the way of that. In so far as we are expectant, then God will be God again, as he takes the reigns of his Church back. The Vineyard is choosing and has chosen respectability over anointing in my opinion, something its founder would never have done, and never did. 

We need to get back to teaching the Bible, book by book. I am sure some of the inherent problems over sexuality and marriage wouldn’t have the traction in evangelical/charismatic churches, if the charismatic parts of the church got back to teaching it. We are playing fast and loose with the Bible to our detriment and the future of the Church. We are teaching by topic, with a smattering of the Bible to justify the topic. This is majorly unhelpful in discipling and training people. We also seem unwilling to talk about the “hot potatoes” (Does Alpha mention hell and the judgement to come, for example?). Pastors and leaders need courage and wisdom today in rightly disseminating truth, but the Holy Spirit is there to help lead us into this truth.

I am a believer in preparing ourselves now for what I am sure is going to be a great day of victory for the Church in the UK. I think we are going to see ever increasingly the fulfillment of God’s promises to us and his specific favour on us his Church.  

John Wimber put a hook in me that has never gone away, with a desire to see John 14:12 fulfilled in our churches. Jesus said: "Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father." The challenge to us, is to quickly get to the end of ourselves and our plans, to “die to self” and start once more believing for the greater miracles promised by Jesus. 

Chris Simmons is the senior pastor of Brighton Vineyard

Premier Christianity is committed to publishing a variety of opinion pieces from across the UK Church. The views expressed on our blog do not necessarily represent those of the publisher.

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