Distinctives – Defining who we really are

In the early days of the Vineyard we were truly a movement of churches with clear distinction

A quest to recapture characteristics of Kingdom uniqueness which will once again set us apart as a Christian movement that stands out in the present cultural and historical hour because of the clear and distinct functioning practices we exude.

Not long ago our senior leadership team attended a series of meetings along with about two dozen other Vineyard leaders in Nashville, Tennessee. The meetings, held at the Lifeway Center, were conducted by Ed Stetzer who is Vice President of Research and Ministry Development for LifeWay Christian Resources. Ed is a renowned statistician and missiologist known worldwide as a contemporary analyst possessing an uncanny pulse on the health and vibrancy of church movements. I, like many others in attendance, was struck by his understanding and insight concerning the state of the Vineyard, especially here in the United States. With all that was said over the course of the two days, one main observation that Ed communicated really stood out. Toward the end of our time together he made a statement which was simple yet very profound; and even as he spoke I felt certain it was a truth that very possibly held the key to the future of our movement. He stated that from his perspective the Vineyard had lost its distinctive.
In the early days of the Vineyard we were truly a movement of churches with clear distinction. There was nothing quite like us back then. Our style of worship and ministry were unique for our time. Everyone knew in those days that if a person desired anointed Vineyard worship they needed to attend a Vineyard church. If they wanted to experience a church that struck a balance between sound evangelical biblical teaching and Spirit-filled naturally supernatural ministry without hype, they pretty much had to attend a Vineyard. Even our casual dress style was characteristic of only a few contemporary movements during the era of the 70’s and early 80’s. Because many during that time rejected the stuffiness of the traditional church they flocked to the Vineyard. If a young leader desired the opportunity to plant a church and didn’t want to go through years of seminary or denominational requirements, the Vineyard was the place to do it. We were clearly unique for our time – possessing a very appealing and definable distinctiveness.
So what happened? Well, as Ed so simply put it – we won! Because we believed that what we were doing was right, we held a conviction that everyone in the Body of Christ should do things our way. Amazingly, over the course of time thousands of churches around the world did follow our lead. By the mid-90’s Vineyard songs were being sung everywhere both inside and outside of the Vineyard. Even our once unique style of healing ministry was adopted throughout much of the church at large. C. Peter Wagner referred to us as leaders of the Third Wave movement and defined us by our distinctiveness; not merely our style of worship and ministry, but such things such as our morphed Episcopal form of church government as well. By the new millennium we were perceived no longer as cutting edge, but one of many contemporary movements; a movement that had begun to move a little more slowly.
I remember when the Lord called Nancy and I to Boise, Idaho in 1988. Like any new church planter I was diligent to do a demographic study of the city. Part of that study was focused on the existing churches in the area. I clearly remember thinking that Boise really did need a Vineyard. At that time there was nothing like it in the city or the entire state for that matter. Knowing that fact alone empowered us with a deep sense of passion, giving us the conviction to sacrifice everything to see it done. We honestly believed that if we didn’t provide a place to carry out Vineyard ministry, Boise would be missing a great blessing. With this in our hearts our young church grew rapidly due to both our efforts and the reality that it stood out as a powerful cutting edge ministry in the city. Another advantage we had in those earlier days was the reality that the Vineyard name alone would draw people simply because it was a brand that spoke of a unique type of church.
Many of those benefits began to diminish by the year 2000. Our founder, John Wimber, was no longer with us and the swirl of life that his conferences, reputation for effective ministry and common sense teaching cultivated had begun to wane. Because of his influence and success in blessing the entire Body of Christ, churches all over our city were now singing Vineyard songs, worshiping in a more informal way, and even praying for the sick during services. The reality is that Vineyard churches all across the nation no longer stood out as being unique in the things that once gave us a distinctive edge.
By the mid 2000’s new young non-Vineyard church plants started springing up throughout our city. They were alive, fresh thinking groups connected to new growing church movements. What I didn’t realize at the time was that they possessed a uniqueness that was as engaging and magnetic as our distinctive had been ten years before, especially to the emerging generation. It was difficult not to feel a little defeated, much like a “has been” even though we knew God had called us to bless and help these new works succeed.
Still believing God loved us and had a divine purpose for our Vineyard in the new millennium, we began to seek him for fresh direction. The first thought and reaction was to return to the things we did at first; to the original distinctives that once drew my generation to the Vineyard. In examining it all I realized we had never abandoned those things. That was not our problem. Our problem was that we were overlooking the power of the new distinctives and passions God had been birthing anew in us. It hadn’t dawned on us until Ed Stetzer’s comment in Nashville that we already had a new set of distinctives – distinctives that had not yet been clearly articulated. In other words, there were certain kinds of unique ministry we had become known for and even had a reputation for, not just in our city but across the nation. Yet, we had never considered them as things giving us a definable distinction. To us these ministries were simply rooted out of a desire to turn biblical truth into functional reality. In retrospect not only were there very few other churches investing in these types of ministries, but many even criticized us for our actions. Issues like human injustice, environmental stewardship and advanced education for third-world ministries (which equipped people to work in areas of human trafficking, medicine and agriculture) were not yet the norm. We were especially condemned for our stand on the environment. Many believed we had become politically liberal and unfortunately didn’t understand the link between an unsustainable global environment and the oppression of the extreme poor in the world.
We also became known for our extensive work among the poor in our community. Today, if you ask anyone in our city if they have heard of Vineyard Boise they would most likely respond by identifying us by our outward commitment to the poor, the downtrodden, the captives and the brokenhearted. They would refer to our benevolence programs, especially our long standing dedication to feeding the homeless each Sunday, or our efforts in the areas of crisis response, free medical aid,  and provision of food. They might also acknowledge our work in prisons and among the addicted. We would no longer be identified by our worship style, our Spirit-filled ministry or our sound bible teaching as distinctives – even though they have never stopped being practiced as our highest values.
Two weeks after our meetings in Nashville with Ed we took our church eldership team away for a few days to discuss this new matter of identifying distinctives. Knowing that our old distinctives, always referred to as values, were no longer giving us a sense of uniqueness, we felt this exercise would be critical in order to rebuild the momentum we had previously experienced so powerfully. The first rule in the exercise was to be honest. The list to be compiled would not be built on hopeful thinking, but rather on actual reality. In order to do this we had to look at our ministry with the eyes of an outsider. The list would not be made up of the things we hoped for or dreamed of, but instead the things that those outside our church would define us by. These would even possibly be unique to Vineyard Boise alone; things that might set us apart from other local churches in the city. After long discussion our list consisted of five categories which we then arranged in an order, not of importance but of progression.  You might say we were trying to answer two questions simultaneously. 1) What do we want to be culturally and visibly known for as a church body? (This consisted of the list of five categories.) 2) How would we get there? (This constituted the order in which they were listed.) The entire list flowed out of our theological belief and conviction for the Kingdom of God; thus “Kingdom Theology” was not considered a distinctive in itself but rather the root of all the practices which would give us distinctiveness. After two days of heartfelt, honest discussion we constructed the following list:
Distinctives that characterize Vineyard Boise – All based on Kingdom theological beliefs and practices.
  1. 1. Spirit and Truth
  2. 2. Equipping and Training
  3. 3. Participation
  4. 4. Multigenerational
  5. 5. Missionality / i-61 (Our missionial ministries of compassion based on Jesus’ personal proclamation of Isaiah 61. See www.i-61.org )
It’s obviously not enough to develop a list of definable distinctions if there is no intention to do something with them. Again, these distinctions are not simply values, but values played out in such a way that people recognize them as visible practices of our faith. In a way you might say that distinctives are a bridge which connects a church’s values with their ultimate long range vision, defining who they really are. John Wimber often exhorted that orthodoxy means little without orthopraxy and that the two should match. Today, people are more drawn to us by what we do as a result of our said values rather than what we say we should do. Because distinctives are the things that give us personality as a living body of believers (i.e. church) they in reality are our most powerful calling card to those outside of us. Distinctives can be our very best form of evangelism. Often people join us because of their perception of who they think we are based on what they observe as outsiders – whether their observations are accurate perceptions or not. They are drawn to our life as a fellowship and only later discover the source of that life.
As I said before, we didn’t consider our theological view concerning the Kingdom of God as a distinctive in itself, but rather the undergirding of all we teach and attempt to do as a people. Kingdom theology compels us to participate in the ministry of Jesus in the now, even as we look ahead to the not yet. Because of this, the passage Jesus read from Isaiah 61:1-4 as he began his public ministry claiming it as his job description as Messiah, would also become our ultimate distinctive. In the end we want our people to participate in his commission to become and make disciples that would engage in the ministry he so clearly modeled. We desire a functional, missionial church where every person, no matter their age, would be compelled and fully equipped to take part according to their gifts. We want to develop a people who would be first and foremost deeply rooted in a Kingdom of God worldview and fully functioning in both Spirit and Truth.
As a leader who has participated in the Vineyard movement for some thirty years it would be my counsel to every church leader to consider doing what we have done here in Boise concerning this issue of distinctives. It has become my belief that this process may be the very thing that will rebuild our momentum as a movement and carry us ahead to yet another new season of fruitful impact.
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