From “Empowered Evangelicals” & “Radical Middlers” to … ? The Society of Vineyard Scholars and the Renewal of the Vineyard

By: Amos Yong
Monday, April 22nd, 2013

These past few days I have been privileged to have been a guest at the fourth annual conference of the Society of Vineyard Scholars (SVS). As a renewal movement in its second generation, the Vineyard as a whole is both confronting the various challenges attending to and also embracing the many opportunities opened up by charting a way forward that builds and expands on the legacy of its charismatic founder John Wimber. A number of observations stand out for me as someone who is an outsider to the Vineyard but one sympathetic to its quest, at least as played out in the SVS, for a robustly charismatic and renewalist theological identity and self-understanding. 

First, the conversations I had with Vineyarders (some within the group prefer Vinyardites) indicate that they are embracing the difficult but important task of ongoing self-discovery and self-identification. Under WImber’s leadership, the dominant projection was of the movement as “empowered evangelicals.” This has clearly allowed the Vineyard to influence and contribute to the ongoing charismatization of Evangelicalism in the contemporary North American landscape. However, contemporary Vineyarders looking into the middle of the 21st century are not convinced that such a posture will enable the movement to counteract the equally challenging trends that are evangelicalizing their charismatic sensibilities and commitments, often to the detriment of the vision and mission of church renewal that is at the heart of historic Vineyard distinctives.

A few years ago, an initial history of the early Vineyard was published by Bill Jackson (and Todd Hunter) as The Quest for the Radical Middle: A History of the Vineyard (1999). I confirmed with some at the conference that this still adequately addresses the Vineyard self-understanding. I certainly can see that thoughtful Vineyarders continue to identify with such a “radical middle” path between various binary options as did those in the first generation that preceded them – i.e., between rigidly dispensational and liberal/existential notions of the reign of God (which notion remains central to Vineyard thought and praxis); between merely objective and wildly subjective understandings of the person and work of the Spirit; or between pragmatic or emergent and propositionalist or classical theological and practical orientations. Such trajectories embody not an anti-evangelical attitude but one that seeks a renewed Evangelicalism. Yet the label “radical middlers,” while catchy and accurate within the preceding scheme, does not in and of itself indicate the parameters within which Vineyarders are journeying and so is clumsy as an adequate theological description.

What I did observe was that the SVS is bringing together both established leaders and younger scholars and scholar-pastors in common quest. This group is looking for a way forward for Vineyard theology and practice that does not bifurcate the life of the mind from either the work of the Spirit or the heralding of the reign of God. Many also seem to have worked through to a post-Western, post-modern, and post-Enlightenment set of sensibilities that allows them to embrace their task as an ongoing journey. I applaud this dynamic self-understanding. It not only allows for the ongoing renewal of the Vineyard within and amidst ever-prevalent but necessary institutionalizing impulses, but is also consistent with the legacy of their founder, especially his emphasis (derived from George Eldon Ladd) of the now-and-not-yet character of the coming reign of God. I would encourage SVS members to be in conversation with those in other (pentecostal/charismatic) renewal movements also seeking to retain a healthy, vital, and invigorated missional presence in the globalizing world of the 21st century, not only to learn from them but also to contribute to this important conversation that ought not be shut down (this would signal the end of renewal) which must always continue.

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Amos Yong
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