An era is ending at the Vineyard—the Anaheim, California, church and the worldwide movement. John Wimber, charismatic founder and leader of the movement, is retiring from pastoring the church (though he will continue as international director).
Wimber's influence spreads far beyond the Vineyard's 500 churches. His ministry has combined lively charismatic practice with Reformed-flavored theology, making a bridge between traditional evangelical Christianity and the independent charismatic and Pentecostal movements. That bridging of unfamiliar elements continues to create controversy on both sides of the bridge.
Christianity Today sent senior writer Tim Stafford and Ontario Theological Seminary professor Jim Beverley to talk with Wimber about his perspective after 30 years of ministry.
You've had your share of critics over the years. What have you learned about the way a minister of the gospel should respond?
I try to take personal criticism without response. I never write back. But I try to take criticism of doctrine seriously. I've spent days answering questions that I thought were fair-minded.
At the same time, I've known from the outset that what I was going to do would not be popular. It's never wise to wake up sleeping people. However tenacious I've tried to be in showing my appreciation, at the end of the day Christian leaders come back with, "Well, do you think my Christian experience is inadequate, incomplete, not right?"
Walt Kaiser asked me that. He said, "Do you think that because I don't heal the sick and speak in tongues that I'm somehow inadequate?" I said, "Walter, under your leadership we have one of the finest educational institutions in America [then at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School]. You've contributed enormously to the culture of evangelical thought. I believe that at the end of the day you'll stand before the Lord and you'll get a 'Well done, thou faithful servant.'
"Having said that, I want you to know I don't think that's all of it. I believe everything you believe. I just believe a little bit more in terms of pneumatology [the doctrine of the Holy Spirit]. I've got some ideas that, yes, are foreign; but they're not unprecedented in church history; nor are they nonbiblical."
You're not a pastor who quotes a lot of learned sources when you preach. Yet it's obvious books have been tremendously important to you. Which ones have shaped your thinking?
My first theology was Hodge. I read it for years. I still have it. It's all worn out, falling apart; but I loved it.
When Carl Henry did the series of four [CHRISTIANITY TODAY] articles back in the fifties addressing the fundamentalist controversy in evangelicalism, I just loved that. I didn't run into the series until the seventies when I was at the Fuller Seminary library one day. I've gone back to him again and again because it just earmarks my understanding of what we're after—the best of evangelical thought and the power that's involved in Pentecostal expression.
I'm so sad that F. F. Bruce is gone to be with the Lord. I'm happy for him, but I loved what he did. J. I. Packer was one of my biggest helps. I carried his books around for years. I love Puritan thought, and I'm grateful for Martin Lloyd-Jones and for J. I. Packer for championing that cause. I've read them over and over again.
But I can cry over Booth or Wesley. We were on a tour, and I walked into Wesley's little chapel in London and saw a statue of Wesley. At the bottom was a plaque that referred to 60 years of preaching. I went back and sat in the bus and just cried and cried. "O God, give me a chance to preach the gospel. Give me a chance to work the work of God in this world." And that was a fire born in my heart that's never left.
Has the Vineyard become what you hoped it would be?
We never became the evangelistically effective church I wanted to be. That's a failure. It's becoming that now under younger men's leadership, but it wasn't while I was doing it. The groundwork was laid. It just didn't happen.
I would probably give us a high grade for worship. We've reintroduced intimacy, which is probably our primary contribution to the church worship scene.
As far as church planting is concerned, we've started about 380 churches, and we grew more than 1,000 percent in our first decade. Do you know any other denominations that have increased by that percentage in the United States recently? On a scale of one to ten, I'd give us a nine on that.
We're trying hard to do well by unity—by and large, the toughest teaching in the Bible, as far as I'm concerned. How do you effectively love brothers who don't like you? We've worked on that; we haven't achieved it, but we've learned that one thing to do is to be silent. Don't attack. And sometimes people will come around a few years later and say, "You know, I was mean to you. I'm sorry." Okay, let's get on with building the kingdom.
We've learned a little bit about small groups and the importance of fellowship. We think that Christian formation is absolutely central. I don't care how gifted you are, if you've got a cruddy character, it's a gold ring in the snout of a pig.
What made you split with the "Toronto Blessing" (a movement started in a Vineyard church—near the Toronto airport—known for uncontrolled laughter and shaking)?
Our decision was to withdraw endorsement; their decision was to resign. Toronto was changing our definition of renewal in Vineyard. At the Vineyard, we see renewal not only of individuals but of the forms and practices of the church. For instance, when an individual is stirred by God, it will be reflected in a new attitude toward witnessing and cooperating with the work the Lord is doing in his or her life. I don't have any objection to phenomena, per se. I think Jonathan Edwards has adequately addressed the issues of phenomena in revival, and I would generally take his position.
However, I think if it's fleshly and brought out by some sort of display, or promoted by somebody on stage, that's abysmal. But if God does something to somebody, that's between that person and God.
When the Toronto thing first occurred, people were reciting 1 Corinthians 14 regarding orderliness in the service. I thought about it and wrote back, saying, "Whose orderliness? Our current culturally adapted understanding of order, or the Holy Spirit's order?"
When babies are born, is that orderly? It's as messy as anything. Blood is all over the place. The child comes out all right, but it's not developed. It's not cultured. It's not brought into maturity. The norm for God moving among people is a pretty messy thing. If you go back to revival literature, you can say, Wow, that's messy.
The "Kansas City Prophets" recently separated from the Vineyard. You grew concerned and then disillusioned by the direction their "prophetic" ministry was going. Why did it take you so long to become concerned?
We had been advising the Kansas City leaders for six years to withdraw from the Vineyard, but they refused on the grounds that they felt called to be part of us. However, their entrance into the Vineyard was entirely my fault, and I take full responsibility for that. I turned my brain off for a couple of years. My son Sean went through years of alcohol and drug addiction. Some prophetic people came and said, "God is offering you a grace package. If you'll do thus and so, God will retrieve your son." This man prophesied when and how. And it came to pass exactly as he had said.
Since then Sean has been free of any kind of addictive behavior. I was so grateful. He got married. He had his first baby during that era. I just was preoccupied. And my leadership model failed me. I was too directive. I didn't listen to my lieutenants.
I loved the gifts the prophets exercised; I didn't like the package. The package involved the presupposition that a gift in itself authenticates you. I don't care if you're the finest communicator around, the finest expositor, the most brilliant theologue—if you can't come under the church, if you can't commit yourself to a board, if you can't commit yourself to the leadership of others, if you can't commit yourself to collegiality and relationship, if you can't be inspected as well as teach, I don't want to play.
Are you ready to retire?
I'm in the ministry whether I have a job or not. That's why I hesitate over the word retirement. I'm not going to quit what we're doing right now. I got saved, man. I was going to hell in a handbasket. I was a mean, terrible person; and Jesus took that person and saved him. I love Jesus. I'm going to serve him all my life.
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