Last week I wrote a post asking (somewhat facetiously) if John Wimber would attend a Vineyard church in 2014, more specifically, if he would attend the church I pastor, Vineyard North in the historic downtown district of Wake Forest, NC. I got interesting feedback but the answer I planned to give (this post) was not one I saw from anyone. I asked the question because Wimber made a statement (on an old cassette tape I’ve been listening to) that churches tend to become something very different from what their founders envisioned and, ironically, they become this by trying to pursue too closely the founder’s vision instead of following after God (which was what the founder had likely been doing). It struck me as cool, provocative, and more than a little meta to listen to a founder talk about such things.
The larger point Wimber was making on that tape was about life vs. structure, organism vs. organization. I’m going to return to this in more depth in a later post, but here’s a thumbnail. Every church has a dual nature. On the one hand, it is an organism, a living, breathing creature, an instantiation of the body of Christ on earth. This is the spiritual reality of any church. On the other hand, it is also an organization, a construction of human artifice, a reflection of the heart and values of its leaders, not unlike any other human organization. This is the material reality of any church. There is life (the soul of the church) and there is structure (the body of the church).
Is that opaque enough? Or should I pile on a few more metaphors that may or may not explain each other?
At a conference themed around church growth, Wimber thought it was important not only to point out this dual reality but to make clear what order they should go in, which one should get priority. “Always choose life,” he said. “There is nothing wrong with structure so long as structure serves life. You run into problems when structure begins to serve itself.” This was the problem he saw with getting fixated on what a founder thought and said (no, the irony is not lost on me), that is a common concern when structure is serving itself. The conference Wimber was addressing was not a Vineyard conference. There were Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics, Episcopalians, and Pentecostals in attendance. Right after he made the Luther/gourd statement, Wimber went on to say that there is nothing wrong with any of these denominational structures per se, that each of them can be used to facilitate life, each of them can serve people who are pursuing God and working to actualize God in their lives and communities. There is no magic structure, no one way that is ‘right.’
In fact, one of my favorite moments on the tape comes when Wimber talks about the amount of energy we give to being ‘right’ and how that is idolatrous and destructive. He said, “How about we start by acknowledging that we’re all wrong. Only Jesus is right. The rest of us get it wrong.” Every church has messed up, has hurt people, has gotten it wrong. And most of those same churches have also done amazing work, changed lives, connected people to Jesus, seen the Spirit move, and brought glory to God. His point was we can and should choose life, choose spirit, choose to bend our existing structures into serving life not serving themselves. Most of the time there is no need to set up something new across the street, that structure will be just as flawed as the abandoned one.
So where would Wimber go to church? I think he would go where he was already going unless God specifically moved him somewhere else. He explains in this talk that he did not leave his prior church willingly but only came into the Vineyard (which was founded by Ken Gulliksen) after he was asked to leave. He went on to tell that not long before that conference (sometime in 1986), those who had asked Wimber to leave had reconciled with him, in what he called, “one of the highlights of my life,” but that he had to remain in the Vineyard at that point because he couldn’t take all these people “back to a home they never knew.” The whole talk is about life in relation to structure and about the importance of roots and values, about “blooming where you are planted,” as Wimber put it.
This message really spoke to me. I know how Wimber felt. I came into the Vineyard because the Church of God didn’t want me. The Raleigh Vineyard embraced us and immediately felt like home. We stayed there and bloomed (even through difficult times) until we were asked to pastor the Wake Forest church plant. We’ve been there for two and a half years now. In that time we have pursued the vision God had given to the elders of the church and to us, we have rented and renovated a building in the historic downtown district, and I have finished my Ph.D. in theological ethics at Duke. I have also taught a lot of college classes to support our family until the church is able to do so. But I have also felt the pressure to make good on my academic training. Once you finish a Ph.D. (or even when you’re ABD), you’re “supposed” to land a tenure-track post at a decent university. So even while pastoring and pursuing God for our church, I have also been active in the academic job market, applying for jobs across the country. I taught last year at Wingate University (about a 3 hour commute) and spent 3-4 days a week out of town. This semester I’m teaching part time at 3 universities (6 classes in all). Academic jobs are listed early in the fall for positions the following year, so back in early September I was scrolling the job board looking for openings in my field, when God clearly spoke to my heart and said, “What are you doing?” I offered a puzzled, halting explanation. Then God said, “Have you considered asking me whether you should be doing this at all? What I might want you to do?” I felt ashamed as I admitted that I had not considered that. My idea was to apply for all 7 positions (yes, I finished scrolling) then see what happened. I fully intended to pray about any opportunities before saying yes to them (and I still think this can be a good strategy sometimes), but what God pointed out to me was that submitting applications was a moral act all its own, something I had no business doing without praying about it first.
So I prayed. And Amy prayed. And the answer was clear: stay where you are, bloom where you are planted. This was the answer even before I listened to the Wimber tape but his word was a powerful confirmation. I got confirming words from other wise people too. Amy and I are called to stay here, to pastor Vineyard North in Wake Forest, to pursue God and actualize God in our lives and the lives of those God has called us to serve. So I didn’t apply for any positions (even though this might be career suicide). We’re committed to staying, to do the slow work of being faithful in one direction for a long time.
And this is slow work. It takes time. Many people familiar with the Vineyard know that Wimber preached on healing every week for a year before anyone was healed. What is less well known is that he also spent a whole year preaching on prayer. On the tape he says that it took another year after that to see the fruit of prayer growing in people’s lives. Life takes time to grow. Amy and I feel very peaceful, excited, and encouraged about staying. We have told our board and church leaders and they seem encouraged too. We are also wondering how we are going to support ourselves as we transition to giving more time to pastoring. So far I’ve given a lot of time to outside work but we think God is calling us to devote more time to the church. It not only takes years of commitment, it also takes a commitment of hours each week. Tending, cultivating, caring for the life God has called us to serve. Over the next several weeks, we’re going to be asking folks to give financially to our church, to help free me up to spend my time pastoring.
Please pray for us. Please consider helping us bloom where we are planted. And please do the same – bloom where you are planted.