Thoughts on Bert Waggoner’s Letter to the Vineyard USA

It is interesting that right after I wrote yesterday post about celebrating the plethora of movements within Christianity, I received a letter from Bert Waggoner (Vineyard USA National Director) highlighting the diversity within the Vineyard.

Within our movement there are “former Anglicans, Methodists, Nazarenes, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and all varieties in between…Reformed, Calvinist, Wesleyan, Armenian, Catholic, Evangelical, Post-modern, Post-Pentecostal/Charismatic – you name it.”

We have folks on both (or more) sides of almost every theological issue facing church today – not to mention the vast differences of practice within the Movement. There are those who think that the “church should be involved in social justice, protecting the environment (tending the garden), pushing for immigration reform, fighting sex slavery, addressing racism, and resisting war. Still others think the church should confine its efforts to saving souls, healing the body, and perhaps feeding the poor.”

Don’t forget that we have both “left-leaning political liberals and right wing ultra-conservatives” – people from various ethnic group, different geographical area -“north and the south, urban and suburban, urban and rural residents, university city dwellers and small town residents.”

The only folks we don’t have are the true theological liberals or the hard core fundamentalists – neither group could tolerate the kinds of diversity embraced by the Vineyard.

“The fact is, we have few ideologues or theological purists. Most Vineyard leaders do not live in the world of black and white in terms of theology or practice, but rather in the gray that is the reality of church life.”

As Bert pointed out all diversity within the Movement, I began to wonder what held us together… Luckily foresaw that question and answered it with words that echoed those in my heart:

“First of all, we became a diverse movement by a work of the Spirit. It was the Holy Spirit who drew us in from all kinds of theological, ecclesiastical, cultural, and political backgrounds. We came together “warts and all.” It was the Holy Spirit who molded us into a people. We were hungry for God. We didn’t want to put on religious fronts or give ourselves to hype. We wanted to walk in integrity without pretense. We wanted to experience the Kingdom of God. We wanted to do the works of Jesus. We wanted to prophesy and heal the sick. We wanted to walk in freedom. We loved the King and we loved His Kingdom. That’s what brought us together and has kept us together.

God’s Spirit has brought us into this family. We are not Vineyard by choice, but were conscripted by God. God placed us together. He did this by placing desires in us regarding the church. We wanted to be a part of a group that preached the gospel – who believed the words of Jesus and did the works of Jesus. We wanted to plant and grow Kingdom churches that were reconciled and reconciling communities. We wanted to be a people where everyone gets to play. We wanted to be essentially missional through being culturally relevant. We wanted to experience God and not just think great thoughts about God. Those are the things that brought us together and continue to keep us together nearly thirty years later….

Secondly, we came into this diversity because we are first and foremost a Kingdom of God movement. We are a people committed to the message and experience of Jesus. His message was the message of the Kingdom of God and His experience was the reality of the Kingdom. From beginning to end Jesus was all about the Kingdom of God. As it was with Jesus, so it is with us. The message and reality of the Kingdom is our highest value and is what holds us together. Thus, the Kingdom of God is our central theological motif. This theological motif informs and shapes our practices. The King and the Kingdom are at the center of our centered-set. We will go anywhere in theology or practice that the Kingdom leads us….

There is a third thing that has made us into a mosaic of diversity. We are diverse because we have always been committed to being a centered-set movement….The question is not whether a pastor or a church is in or out. The question is, “What way is a church or pastor going?” Are they going toward the Kingdom? Is their center Christ and His church? Are they going toward the work of the Spirit? Are they going toward the Vineyard core values? If so, then they can be in if they want to be….

Finally, we got here by the fact that individual pastors and churches are free to do pretty much what they want and remain in fellowship as long as they are headed in the same direction and have the same center. Each church is free to become all that they desire to be and to work through the issues of theology and practice within the limits of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Each church is free to host the speakers that they desire. Those freedoms have only limited exceptions.

It is expected that if a church wants to be a part of the Vineyard family, they will indicate that desire by minimal commitments. It is expected that Vineyard churches will be committed to Vineyard core values and in general to the Vineyard Statement of Faith. It is expected that they will help support the Vineyard USA family financially by giving three percent of their gross income to the movement. It is expected that every pastor will attend Vineyard events and participate in trans-local Vineyard life. These are family obligations that go along with being mature, responsible members of the family. These are the minimal requirements.”

As I finished reading the above selection, I had the funny feeling that that was the main point of the letter. If you are going to be in the Vineyard, then embrace the diversity within the Movement…however, if you don’t like the diversity…well, then why are you in the Vineyard? To say it differently, if you are always hanging out at your neighbors place and never going home, then maybe you need to change families… :/

However, I don’t think Bert is as harsh as I am…instead, he warns again “breaking fellowship” by suggesting five guidelines that will help us maintain “unity in diversity and diversity in unity:”

1)    Recognize that unity is not something we create. We are already, with all of our differences, one in Christ. Our unity is not found in uniformity of doctrine or practice. It is found in the fact that we have been cleansed by the blood of Jesus, we have been made new by the Spirit, we have been brought into fellowship with God the Father and we have been made members of the body of Christ.

2)    Respect those with whom you disagree. Don‟t put them in a theological box and use emotive negative labels to demonize a sister‟s or brother‟s position. Remember, this is your brother or sister with whom you are disagreeing. It is not wrong to disagree; it is wrong to be disagreeable.

3)    Be quick to listen and slow to speak. Take on the attitude of a learner. It could be that you are wrong. It could be that you need to change your thinking or your practice

4) Engage thoughtfully and carefully in robust dialogue about matters of the faith. Mature movements require engagement on the issues. But taking on the role of engaging others requires that you are willing to read, reflect, listen, be challenged, and at times have the grace to say that you were wrong.

5)    Recognize the role of the teacher/scholar in the church. God has placed in the church those whom He has gifted to teach….One of the resources God has provided in the church to help us work through the difficult challenges of living out our faith is the gift of teachers. We need the prophets, we need people who are apostolic, and we need evangelists. These are all very necessary. But we also need the teachers among us, the Spirit-filled scholars who help us sort through the issues of our faith and thus, equip us to be Christ’s body to a broken and hungry world.

After Thoughts

Even though I included some commentary on Bert’s letter throughout this post, I wanted to make a few statements concerning the letter.

  • First off, I love the overall message and focus of the letter. The Vineyard really is a mosaic of people, beliefs and practices. There are times when I wish we would draw the line in the sand and say, “this way or go home.” But then I realize that if we did that, we would lose the message God gave us to the broader church. We are to be a people in tension. A people who are constantly being pulled one way or the other….the way Believers have lived for two thousand years. If we are truly a Kingdom of God people, then we must learn to embrace the tension and the diversity that comes with it.
  • Secondly, I think this letter does a lot to dispel a lot of the rumors floating around the movement. The choice of some churches to leave the Vineyard has less to do with theological purity and more to do with not playing nice with the family. Yet, no matter the reason, it is always painful to lose a family member…which is why I agree with Bert’s guidelines to maintaining unity within our diversity.
  • Thirdly, I love Bert’s emphasis on the Kingdom of God. This is the reason why we are movement. As I have previously mentioned, there are other worship movements, prophetic movements, healing movement, social action movements… But as far I know, the Vineyard is the only church movement that has placed the Kingdom of God and Kingdom Theology as the central motif of everything we do.

“The Kingdom is not an appendage to other theologies. It is the central motif that shapes all of our theology, understanding, and practice. Just as the idea of the sovereignty of God shaped Calvinism and the love of God shaped Wesleyanism, so the idea of the Kingdom of God shapes all of our theological reflections.”

It is this focus on the Kingdom of God that keeps me in the Vineyard. As the saying goes, “you don’t join the Vineyard, you find out that you are Vineyard.”

  • Fourthly, I believe we need to get used to some messy stalls:

Where there are no oxen in the stalls, the stalls are clean, but there is much power in the oxen.” (Pro. 14:4).

4 Comments

  1. I was super blessed by the letter…

    For much the same reasons as you.

    The centrality of Kingdom thought and practice…

    The embrace of diversity around that central theme…

    The gracious approach to diverse viewpoints…

    The willingness to be okay with messiness…

    Reply
  2. The lack of greater theological underpinnings bothers me because I have been in so many different kinds of churches that I want to feel more settled theologically. However, when I am in a church that is settled theologically, I feel squashed because usually no one is allowed to discuss their differences. Probably the Vineyard is the best place for me, but at times it feels like I am walking on lilypads.

    Reply
  3. I was tossed out of my Vineyard for pressing for answers for tithing (I only got answers to the questions of “leadership” and also (possibly) for resisting the BS that “40,000” ukrainians were being sex trafficked into the US via Baltimore Harbor. I got a BS answer when I challenged that, as well as challenging the idea that “350,000” US children were trafficked within the US. The authors of that study have long years ago recanted their study (Estes and Weinter, U of PA). I have to walk in forgiveness every time I see or think of those pastors. And I do. I just point out today that you still have to earn trust and trust. This kind of article does not help me towards those ideas. I was not sinning by looking for integrity in the leadership. I am still not. It’s not that I don’t “play nice”. It’s that the VY corporatocracy has lost touch. In my opinion. No, the Kingdom of God is not at your center. Not yet. I cannot recommend my local vineyard to single christian men.

    Reply
    • Thank you for sharing your story. I am truly saddened by what happened to you. The two issues you mentioned should not be used to break fellowship with fellow Jesus followers. It is fine to disagree on them but to toss someone out…that’s not good on any level. =(

      The foundational belief behind Kingdom Theology is that we live in the tension of the here and not yet of the kingdom of God. This means that we, the followers of Jesus, daily struggle with trying to live according to the Jesus way while feeling the pressures of the evil one on our lives, souls, and decisions. Practically this means that people will sometimes make poor decisions just as often as they make good ones. The story you told of your experience shows the tension of the here and not yet in that it seems like some poor decisions were made. Similar poor decisions have most likely been made at all levels of the Vineyard – locally, regionally, and nationally. This does not mean that the kingdom of God or Kingdom Theology is not at our core. Rather it means that we are broken people who are trying to walk in the tension of the here and not yet. We will sin and mess up. People will get hurt. It doesn’t excuse our decisions or get us off the hook. Far from it! This is just an admission that it will happen. The hope is that we humble ourselves and seek to right the wrongs we have done.

      I say this as someone who has been hurt by leaders within the Vineyard and has someone whose poor choices has sadly hurt others. When confronted, I have tried to be humble and change my path as best as I can. I have also tried to give grace to others within the Vineyard as I know they are navigating the same tensions as I am. Again, this does not excuse bad behavior. It is just the way in which I see Jesus walking so I try to follow it. I may be wrong… I don’t know. Time will tell.

      Thank you again for sharing your story. May the Spirit continue to walk beside you on your journey.

      Reply

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