Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World


Written by: on March 9, 2017

Tanya Marie Luhrmann—When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God


In his book, A Secular Age, the philosopher Charles Taylor’s investigation seeks to answer the question, How did we become a society “in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others?” [1] Tanya Luhrmann believes our secular society does not take God seriously. As a psychological anthropologist, she frames her exploration of Christian faith and belief from her professional context and asks, “How does God become and remain real for modern evangelicals? How are rational, sensible people of faith able to experience the presence of a powerful yet invisible being and sustain that belief in an environment of overwhelming skepticism? How do some believers hear His voice amid the clutter of everyday thoughts?” [2]


According to Luhrmann, “The major shift in American spirituality over the past half century has been toward a God who is present, kind, personal, and intimate. This God loves unconditionally, forgives freely, and brings joy.” [3]   In her efforts to understand how God becomes real for modern individuals, she sought a nondenominational church for study that taught people to hear God speak back. She selected the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in California and Illinois as representative of this “shift in the American imagination of God—the evangelical Christianity in which God is thought to be present as a person in someone’s everyday life and in which God’s supernatural power is thought to be immediately accessible by that person.” [4].  This evangelical Christianity emerged as a force in American culture in the conservative Christian tradition, but with an emphasis of God as more personally and intimately experienced; these Christians sought to hear the voice of God and experience the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Luhrmann’s methodology at the Vineyard included ethnography work, attendance at church services and Bible discussion groups, conducting various interviews and experiments with church members.  She noted congregants learned intimacy with God through prayer and pastoral teachings from the biblical texts.  Pastors were also teaching congregants to utilize the Bible to understand God as both a source of power and a personal and intimate friend whom they can dialogue with.

The author closely observed the freedom and intimacy exhibited in Sunday worship services.  The congregation had the liberty to sit, stand, sing, pray, dance, lift hands, lie prostrate, or worship in the manner that suited them. “Worship was a time to commune with God alone while in the presence of others.” [5] She resonated with the dynamic, intimate, contemporary music that was not about God, but personally to God as opposed to the older church hymns.  The author noted the congregants expressing familiarity with God’s voice and His presence and they talked about specific things He said to them.  “God is understood to speak to congregants inside their own minds. Worshiping God at the Vineyard requires developing the ability to recognize thoughts in your own mind that are not in fact your thoughts, but God’s.” [6] It is taught that when Christians develop a relationship with God through prayer, “God will answer back, through thoughts and mental images He places in the mind, and through sensations He causes in the body.” [7] God is always talking to His people. They must learn to listen and be attuned to His voice.  He may talk through the Bible, prayer, silent time, circumstances, worship, or dreams.

Luhrmann identifies four tests for knowing God has spoken to a congregant: [8]

  1. “What you had heard or imagined was the kind of thing you would say or imagine anyway; If it was, the thought was probably yours.”
  2. “Whether it was the kind of thing that God would say or imply.” (Didn’t contradict God’s word in the Bible).
  3. “Whether the revelation could be confirmed through circumstances or through other people’s prayers.”
  4. “The feeling of peace. Prayer and God’s voice are thought to give you peace and comfort.” (If what you heard or saw did not, it did not come from God).

Luhrmann indicates, “The failure to recognize God’s voice—or even worse, in recognizing him, the failure to respond—is understood to carry real-world consequences.” [9]


Just how closely Luhrmann depicts the tenets and practices of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship congregations is not known to me right now.  But, from all appearances it seems to earn its name as a “new paradigm Protestantism.”  But, Luhrmann states, “Churches like the Vineyard handle the problem of suffering with a fourth solution: they ignore it. Then they turn the pain into a learning opportunity. When it hurts, you are supposed to draw closer to God.” [10] There are no easy answers when a loving and powerful God does not deliver. According to Luhrmann, “As a result,  cognitive dissonance is sharper at a church like the Vineyard than at any of its mainstream counterparts.” [11] Since Luhrmann is not a Christian, I wonder if she is misreading these situations.

Last week our cohort read Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of a Leader, by Shelley Trebesch in which she informs us that seasons of “dark nights of the soul,” or “isolation experiences” are processes designed by God for spiritually refining and transforming our character, increasing our intimacy with Him and dependency upon Him, and pruning and developing us to be all that God created us to be for His purposes.  That would mean that the Vineyard got it right. There’s no better place to go than closer to God in humility and submission when it hurts, to see what He wants to do in the situation.


  1. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 3.
  2. T. M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2012), Front overleaf.
  3. Ibid., xvi.
  4. Ibid., xix.
  5. Ibid., 4.
  6. Ibid., 39.
  7. Ibid., 41.
  8. Ibid., 63.
  9. Ibid., 52.
  10. Ibid., 268.
  11. Ibid.












About the Author

Claire Appiah

13 responses to “ABIDE IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD”

  1. Marc Andresen says:


    You wrote (quoted), “Worshiping God at the Vineyard requires developing the ability to recognize thoughts in your own mind that are not in fact your thoughts, but God’s.”

    Have you found this to be true? Do you process what is possibly God’s voice by noting that it is different from how you normally think and speak? (I realize this isn’t a good question, because you could simply answer ‘yes’ or ‘no.’)

    Perhaps a better question would by how you process hearing from God.

  2. Claire Appiah says:

    I believe I hear from God especially when I speak to Him about a situation and ask for His guidance or resolution. I trust that God’s answer will always be the best outcome and it will always be in accordance with His character and doctrinal truths illustrated in the Bible. I remember in the early days of my Christian walk I had a problem with forgiving those who had wronged me; I tried to get a free pass from God about this.

    God answered that it was imperative that I be obedient to Him and adopt His character in forgiving. After all, if He could forgive all humanity in the cumulative sins they have committed throughout human history, who was I to withhold forgiveness? God let me know that if I willed to forgive, His Spirit would undergird and overshadow me throughout the process and the end result would be therapeutic and a release from spiritual bondage. I wanted to be obedient, so I surrendered it all to God and got the victory in the end. I no longer struggle with that issue.

  3. Kevin Norwood says:


    I find it interesting that the author reveals that Christianity is something that she defends be she is not a Christian herself. She quoted C.S. Lewis within her book and he clearly pointed out that some things in this Christian faith you don’t understand till you have been on the journey a ways. What do you think is the disconnect for the author? She, in my opinion, has given the very best history of Pentecostalism, Evangelism and the sovereign moves of God in America. Since she isn’t a believer her language reflects both the institutional language and the “slang” language.
    You have been a part of this development of America, what is your perspective on her history?


  4. Claire Appiah says:

    You ask what I think is the disconnect for the author, Luhrmann. Concerning C.S. Lewis’ quote, she is not a Christian so she has not been on the journey of the Christian walk at all, let alone long enough to get revelation on the mysteries of God. As an outsider, naturally she cannot comprehend the world from a biblical viewpoint. Her objective is to interpret the world through the lens and methodology of science. However, none of her ethnographic work, observations, and experiments are pathways to understanding the intimate and sustained relationship between God and His people. The conclusions she arrived at were anthropological and psychological constructs she invented to explain the phenomenon of how rational individuals can sustain belief in and have conversation with an invisible God. Her research substantiated nothing regarding this unique relationship.

    I believe she provides an accurate history of transitions in Christian faith over the past fifty years. Moving progressively from the God is dead syndrome accompanied by a plummet in church attendance, to the rapid-fire expansion of Christianity around the globe, especially in the Southern Hemisphere and especially among Pentecostals and Neo-Pentecostals.

  5. Hi Claire. I really like your reflection and how you tied in Trebesch. How you pointed out the claim that the Vineyard ignores suffering reminded me how we ended our Zoom last week with talking about what responsibility a church should have for the suffering of the people who are part of that church. No really easy answer here, but I agree with you Trebesch is key.

  6. Claire Appiah says:

    I immediately thought about you and Jason Clark when Luhrmann selected the Vineyard model for study, and whether her assessment of the Vineyard would be consistent with my perception of your and Jason’s Christian walk. I appreciated her attempt to provide an objective account of the Vineyard’s historical background, statement of faith, and the diverse experiences of worshipers participating in church services, which I knew nothing about previously.

  7. Garfield Harvey says:

    Great connection with several books, especially the use of ethnography, which was important for the author’s research. He stated that using “the Bible to understand God as both a source of power and a personal and intimate friend” is very important. I believe this to be true in our Christian journey. Our faith relies on God’s word so if He’s speaking to us, then there should be an alignment with what’s written in the Bible. It is easy for us to accept what we believe God is saying through people but those words must harmonize with scriptures. The words of the Bible are God’s directives for our lives and we understand the power it holds, but we also understand how it helps us to embrace God as a friend.


  8. Pablo Morales says:

    Claire, there is something you said in your response to Phil’s blog that I found very insightful. You said, “Her project started out with the wrong hypothesis. Instead of exploring how intelligent people are able to sustain belief in an invisible God, she should have been investigating the substance and validity of what intelligent people believe about an invisible God. This would have eventually lead her to comprehend salvation through faith in Christ and the resultant regeneration and transformation of the human spirit which is capable of communing with God.”

    I found that your comment addressed the core issue with the book. Her very approach is misleading, because it is already assuming that there is something “abnormal” to discover. In contrast, skeptics like Lee Strobel began his research exploring the validity of the Christian claims, and as a result ended up embracing the faith. Big difference. Thank you for enlightening me with a new angle that I had not considered before.

  9. Phil Goldsberry says:


    You have given a balanced insight on what I thought was a very sad edict on academia in the church in 2017. She said all the right things, at times. But, her conversation and takeaway from her times at Vineyard churches was quite tainted.

    Why? Why did Luhrmann go down the path that she did in your opinion? How could an anthropologist and ethnographer come up with the slant that she reported in her book?


    • Claire Appiah says:

      In my opinion Luhrmann went down the path she did to preserve her integrity and credibility as a legitimate, objective, reputable social scientist. She envisioned an erroneous dichotomy between empirical, scientific inquiry and supernatural, spiritual reality. Therefore, for her to fully embrace a belief in an INVISIBLE, SPIRITUAL entity whose presence is felt and experienced, who communes with His human creatures in supernatural ways, and loves them unconditionally, would probably mean for her to relinquish her identity as an authentic scientist.

  10. Вау, эту идею предложила поклонникам страницы моя сестра.
    Ее действительно интересует данная
    тема, обещаю передать ей ваши комменты.

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