Is the Vineyard ‘Evangelical’?

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This is the edited ‘presentation’ text of a paper I gave at the 2018 Society of Vineyard Scholars Conference. It is shorter, and less referenced/polished, than the full version. I share it to give a sense of that, and to be able to easily point people to it. I should note that a) this is quite long (about 3500 words!) and b) also represents solely my own opinion. I’d love dialogue around it, if people are interested.

Vineyard Evangelicalism

 

 

Introduction – Defining Terms

Before I get to what I want to say, I think it is worth defining our terms carefully so that we are clear what I at least am talking about today.

Firstly, Vineyard. What I mean when I talk about ‘The Vineyard’ is the relationally connected network of networks of churches that trace their DNA and foundation to the Vineyard Movement founded in the USA. I do not mean to speak for or on behalf of the Vineyard, but as a part of it, I hope I can be heard. I am also not speaking to churches that have similar theology or DNA to the Vineyard, or churches who have been influenced in any way by any part of our history. With history in mind, I am speaking to and about the Vineyard as it exists today, a growing movement of 2,500+ churches across six continents and 15 Associations of Vineyard Churches with a shared heritage, kingdom theology, and deep personal relationships. The Society of Vineyard Scholars represents a small part of that diversity.

Secondly, evangelical. What I mean when I talk about evangelicalism is a classical sense, rooted in the Bebbington Quadrilateral, and identifying it as a sort of radical middle between fundamentalism on the one hand (perhaps over-cautious about contemporary culture) and liberalism on the other hand (perhaps over-embracing of contemporary culture). Noting that evangelicalism is, in the words of Mark Noll, “frequently misunderstood”, I hope to bring one approach to understanding it. And this hopeful approach comes from my final key term.

I am, for my sins, English. And what I mean by that is someone born and raised in the country currently known as the United Kingdom, aware of a colonial past, but hopeful about a global future. In terms of evangelicalism, the breeds and tribes in England are quite distinct from those in the United States. This, confused further by our common language, means that what I say comes from a particular cultural experience which is distinct from, friendly towards, and hopefully appropriately critical of and encouraging into/for the American context. Given that the Vineyard International Executive is currently coordinated by an English couple, I wonder whether this perspective is being heard around the world almost by accident. But I digress.

What we mean when we talk about evangelicalism

I have been wrestling with the question of Vineyard and evangelicalism ever since I accidentally wandered into Trent Vineyard in Nottingham, having read and been roundly persuaded by the apologetic Empowered Evangelicals, authored by Rich Nathan and Ken Wilson. They cast vision for a journey that bridged gaps, learned from different traditions, and was careful and missional in its approach to the world. Since 2010, Nathan and Wilson have taken different paths in theology and ecclesiology – and so what we mean when we talk about evangelicalism is clearly important.

Let me begin with a quotation from a book with the title All One in Christ Jesus;

the current disunity among some of the tribes of evangelicalism is of critical importance. The divides and disagreements are serious in nature and need to be addressed. There are those who belong to the evangelical family by heritage who are ashamed of the name evangelical. There are those who claim to speak for all of us but whose graceless spirit and hectoring tone are a stain on the family name.

David Coffey, one of the elder statesmen of English evangelicalism, wrote these words back in 2008/2009. I think that his second two sentences are of particular poignance to an Evangelicalism who, according to the statistics, have voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in the United States, bringing into sharp focus the discussion about what evangelicalism is. For some, particularly the young, in the UK, the word ‘evangelical’ is now inexorably tainted by the association with Trump. It is all well and good for us to say, or for me to echo my American brothers and sisters in saying, ‘not in my name’, but the question nags me: thus, what in my name? For the rest of this paper I would like to offer a ‘what’. A positive, historically and theologically rooted vision for evangelicalism that is distinctively Vineyard.

Historically rooted, not least because the Vineyard movement is younger than evangelicalism, and significantly younger than the catholic (in the historic and universal sense) church. Theologically rooted, because challenging the status quo requires deep resources. And finally distinctively Vineyard because that is the context in which we find ourselves, the inheritance that we have been given, and the community with whom we worship. Join me in a thought exercise – if we had not heard the e-word before, and someone gave us Bebbington’s quadrilateral, might we not be attracted to it as a suggestion for priorities? I quote, in modified form, the words which have driven a myriad of references:

There are the four qualities that have been the special marks of [Evangelical] religion’ … the belief that lives need to be changed; … the expression of the gospel in effort; … a particular regard for the Bible; and … a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

Eagle-eyed readers or keen-eared hearers will note that I have left out that words ‘conversionism’, ‘activism’, ‘biblicism’ and ‘crucicentrism’. This is deliberate. My own experience of the Vineyard, and my reading of it’s theology, is that this vision of changing lives, expressing the Gospel practically, regarding the Bible highly, and taking the Gospel of the Cross (perhaps as opposed to a Gospel of glory) seriously, meshes well with the Vineyard’s practice and priorities. With this in mind, I would like to propose an eschatological evangelical quadrilateral, modifying Bebbington ever so slightly.

To add an eschatological thrust to Bebbington’s quadrilateral allows us to focus more on the biblical language of discipleship than the cultural baggage of conversions. It gives shape and purpose to the pursuit of justice and other effort-based expressions of the Gospel. In Kingdom Theology, we find a way to read the Bible seriously in light of all times and places and people, rather than in the controversies of our particular century or intellectual climate. Finally, we can begin to see the Cross of Christ and the Resurrection of Christ not as God’s final act of love but the weekend in which the Trinity demonstrated the Kingdom of God and the shape of God’s family in such a way that the whole of the cosmos was shaken. An eschatological evangelical quadrilateral is key to a positive vision for evangelicalism – not tied to the battles of the recent past or the loud outliers of the present.

Casting a positive vision (alternately titled ‘why this millennial still identifies as an evangelical and encourages others to do the same)

Firstly, then, understanding evangelicalism as a vital part of the Jesus tradition. Coffey argues that “modern society is xenophobic towards the past. It adores today, it worships tomorrow, and it loathes antiquity. All Christians are prone to this attitude and we need to guard against this blinkered approach to church history and present day fellowship. We often make very narrow choices when it comes to friendship and partnership in the family of God, and we impoverish our own mission by such decisions.” A large body of writing now exists documenting the departure of evangelicals, young and old from a predominantly American vision of church to older, more liturgical traditions. Powerful examples like The Order of Sustainable Faith notwithstanding, the Vineyard is equally prone to forgetting church history, with some notable exceptions. The work of Bebbington that I have leant on in this paper is historical – and this is important. Evangelicalism is not the worst excesses of certain personalities, which sometimes seem to behave more like an industrial complex than the body of Christ. Evangelicalism is a vibrant, historically rooted and diverse movement within the Church. It can be that, and more. But this cannot be disconnected from Church history and a humble and careful approach to the saints who have gone before us.

In his recent book In Search of Ancient Roots Kenneth Stewart engages with history in two key ways. Readers are reminded that “Evangelical Protestantism is not the problem; evangelical Protestantism that has severed its roots in early Christianity is a problem”, challenging a lazy approach to history that sees contemporary evangelicalism as a product of its time, rather than something with deeper roots. Self-critically, the Vineyard did not pop up out of nowhere, but rather has roots in and responsibility to the evangelical tradition, and the wider and deeper story of Church history more generally. As a movement with a love for the whole Body of Christ, Stewart’s careful scholarship should be received by the Vineyard as a roadmap for the past, and some helpful proposals and tools for the future. As I prepare to offer a Vineyard perspective at an International Orthodox Theological conference in Iasi, Hungary, I found Stewart’s reflections particularly helpful.

Secondly, as evangelicals who are empowered or eschatologically focused, we can see purpose in what is happening. Rather than letting evangelicalism be defined and controlled by those with louder voices, we can be a Jesus people undergoing a quiet but determined revolution. The Vineyard has long had a high priority for ministries of mercy and justice; echoing the Biblical commands and encouragements to the transformation of lives in and through Jesus, the overflow of the Love of God on the Cross and in the Resurrection. In this we see what Mark Noll calls the seeing the best in evangelicalism: “At its best, the evangelical desire to rescue the perishing has meant putting the perishing on their feet in the here and now as well as preparing them for eternity”. In an echo of Hebrews 12, Noll goes on to celebrate Wilberforce, Feller, the Salvation Army, the Mennonite Central Committee; to whom we could add the ministries of the Pilgrims Friends Society and Stop the Traffic, evangelically rooted organisations contending for the elderly and slaves respectively.

An eschatological evangelical identity, such as I am suggesting inhabits the Vineyard whether we notice it or not, sees both present and eternal need, and has the theological resources within the message of the King and his Kingdom to respond holistically. An eschatological evangelical identity challenges cultural baggage around hot button issues like gun control, immigration and the refugee crisis, and national identity. I started this point with a nod to Noll’s ‘at it’s best’, and in this line of argument we find a possible challenge that the Vineyard is well placed to rise to:

Concern for the terrestrial outworking of the Kingdom of God is not as fully developed in the classic evangelical hymns as it should be. But it is indubitably there, reflecting a vision of human need inspired by the love of Jesus and devoted not to extrinsic social or political causes, but to the good of the ones being served

Thirdly, then, the power of worship. The distinctive spirituality of evangelicalism has been identified in a number of studies, and recognised by observes from within and without the church. Bebbington and others have observed the way that evangelicalism thrives in contexts such as small groups, house parties, camp/tent meetings, crusades/renewals, and so on. Ian Randall, in a study of evangelical spirituality, writes that “even if it has owed much to large meetings and famous speakers, has always been nurtured in local church life”. As a movement of relationally connected local churches, one of the key distinctives of the Vineyard has long been it’s worship music, and it is here that Noll’s challenge that “The canon of evangelical hymnody is open…” offers a particular call to the Vineyard. For Noll, the worship of evangelicals – and I would observe that the Vineyard’s style of worship displays all these hallmarks – has a Christ-centered picture of redemption, “embodies a kind of gospel ecumenicity” and has “a consistent concern for the relief of suffering”. With the words of some of the best of Vineyard contributions to that canon of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs echoing these three, and a serious effort to put Scriptures’ words and concerns centre stage, perhaps worship has been, is and can be again a way in which the Vineyard can offer an alternative evangelicalism: eschatologically shaped.

Rich Nathan and Ken Wilson’s vision in Empowered Evangelicals invites us to think that we can have the best of both worlds:

We can… experience worship that includes ‘spirit and truth,’ heartfelt intimacy, and thoughtful biblical exposition. We can pray for healing, believing God will heal, and still leave room for God to be God. And we can hear God’s voice and feel God’s leading, yet still respect God’s Word as the ultimate source of revelation. Yes, we can have the best of both worlds. In fact, we believe God wants us to.

Evangelical views of the Bible are often caricatured and misunderstood – and so from an oft-unheard English perspective I would like to engage very briefly with some of the issues around what ‘biblicism’ is and could be in an eschatological evangelical quadrilateral. David Coffey offers us a helpful modifier in the words we use to describe our view of the Bible:

‘God-breathed’ is a stronger word than ‘inspiration’ as it underlines the nature of the process by which the words of Scripture were produced. The word ‘inspire’ could mean a Bible writer was ‘inspired’ in the same way poets, musicians and artists are ‘inspired’ to write, compose and paint. Instead, Scripture affirms that God actually breathed his words into the personality, experiences and gifts of various writers to produce his word. This does not imply that the authors of Scripture were mechanics, nothing more than human typewriters who were in a trancelike state when writing: rather the totality of their humanity was operating during the writing process. God uses many different approaches

From a Vineyard perspective we might offer pneumatological language, but Coffey has offered an alternative model to the stereotype of the human component of Scripture being either automatons or uninspired savages. Coffey goes on to connect the Doctrine of Scripture with the person of the Good News, Jesus:

In reply to Satan’s tempting suggestions, three times Jesus uses words from Deuteronomy to underline he is committed to living by God’s word. For instance: When Satan tempts him with food – Jesus says God’s provision is sufficient for him (Deut 8:3); When Satan tempts him with the spectacular – Jesus says God’s way is best for him (Deut 6:16); When Satan tempts him with power – Jesus says God alone has his loyalty (Deut 6:13)… It is irrefutable that Jesus Christ himself saw Scripture as God-given. Because Scripture testifies to the God-breathed words of the Bible and Jesus affirmed the authority of God’s word in his life and ministry, then we are to acknowledge the authority of the Bible over our lives as followers of Jesus

The Vineyard movement has long understood that, whatever else we may be, we want to follow Jesus. Coffey’s grounding of the authority of Scripture in the words of Jesus is a helpful corrective for us, echoing that the Bible is not God, but is used by God to transform and disciple Jesus’ church. This is a helpful perspective – moving beyond debates over the meanings of words that found their expression in particular debates – and instead reminding us of the words of Jesus.

My argument in this paper is that there is such a thing as evangelicalism, and that in its positive form, the Vineyard sits within that stream. To clarify and distinguish what I am arguing, I propose an eschatological evangelical quadrilateral – taking seriously both our roots and our future within both evangelicalism and the wider church. As this paper draws to a close, I hope it is clear what I mean by those things. I now move to some concluding thoughts – a story, a challenge, and an invitation.

Conclusion – One Perspective

A brief story. My roots are Reformed Baptist. I’ve been educated at Anglican schools, a secular University, an Anglican theological college, and in various parts of my life have related to a wide variety of evangelicals, and Christians who are definitely not evangelicals. My story is one of gradually seeking to test and measure the ‘evangelical’ identity label I received from the churches and groups in which my faith was formed. The Vineyard, for me, is a place where one can be a thoughtful evangelical. Key in my own journey from a thoughtful but bluntly quite fundamentalist approach to things was Empowered Evangelicals. Towards the end Nathan and Wilson write “Every Christian leader ought to have a hunger for learning and a humility inside that says,’you know, here is where I am currently at regarding this or that issue, but I’m passionate about continuing to read and to study and to grow in my understanding’.” This posture is one that I have seen in leaders of all the Vineyard Churches I’ve been blessed to be a part of. It is also, a posture that has been visible in many leaders of the evangelical churches (Baptist, Anglican and Independent) with which I have spent time in membership or relationship.

Evangelicalism, at its best, is firmly rooted and humbly inquisitive. Noll, in the book I have alluded to throughout this paper, writes that his central concern is “to portray American evangelical Christianity as a form of ‘culturally adaptive biblical experimentalism’.” I think this is a helpful identification of what has gone before – particularly in the American context. From an English perspective, these roots are easier to see, and harder to ignore. Divorced from eschatology, however, ‘culturally adaptive biblical experimentalism’ is too easily polarised, politicised and tribalised.

Here, then, is my challenge. I have argued that the Vineyard has much resonance with evangelicalism at its best. I challenge those of us in the Vineyard to recognise our heritage as evangelicals and, taking seriously our particular passion for an eschatological approach to things, thus do what we can to reclaim the evangelical label for the sake of the Gospel. Noll reminds us at the outset of his book that the word ‘evangelical’ has a range of legitimate uses and “is a more complicated phenomenon than either its adherents or its foes usually admit”. From this one English perspective, to be ‘evangelical’ is to take seriously the meaning, methods, motive and mission of the Gospel. I have suggested an eschatological evangelical quadrilateral might be one way to articulate this.

Here, then, is my invitation. Historically speaking, evangelicals have disagreed violently and hilariously on issues of eschatology. In writing this paper, much of my limited research has echoed historical articulations and reflections on and of evangelicalism. To be evangelical, in the eschatological sense I am proposing, is to be mindful of the times. we are to stand firm and be agile.  In public life we have seen increasing cultural polarisation. Popularism often does triumph over breakthrough. With various ‘options’ presented as ways forward for the church, perhaps the Vineyard can offer a way of being church that takes eschatology seriously enough to know that this present time is nothing new, nothing unexpected, and, ultimately, nothing that the ‘evangel’ does not have something to do with.

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