Does God talk to us? If so, how? And what does he say? Is prayer a one-way conversation or a two-way one? These are some of the questions our week’s reading tries to address. So how does it do? I think it depends on whom you ask.
When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God by T. M. Luhrmann is a sociological case study on a particular evangelical denomination called The Vineyard Christian Fellowship. I know about this group; in fact, for a short season of my life I served as a youth pastor in one of the Vineyard’s successful churches in Southern California. The memories are not fresh but they are still within, tucked away in some dark corner of my mind. I thought I had heard God when I was part of the Vineyard; everybody thought they did. Without hearing God, the Vineyard would not be the Vineyard. At least that was true in the early 90’s. I am not certain if that is true today.
Luhrmann, in my view, does a fair job in her book of relating the history of this movement. I know this because I worked firsthand with the people she writes about: John Wimber, Chuck Smith, Ken Gulliksen. I worked with them, attended their pastors’ conferences, and believed some of the things they proclaimed – but not everything. Yes, there were lots of powerful things happening in the Vineyard, especially in John Wimber’s church. The spiritual gifts were manifested in many services. Prayer was a huge focus in the church. There may have even been some healing that happened there. But there were also many who were not healed, not delivered. God talked back to many of the people there. But there were some who didn’t hear God talk back, and when they prayed some only heard silence. It was for these that my heart grieved. I ministered to some of them during the week. Eventually, I left the movement quite disillusioned and confused. But it was important experience nonetheless. I learned a lot about this branch of the Church that one could only learn experientially. The Vineyard, you see, is a very experiential place.
One of the first things a person must master at a church like the Vineyard is to recognize when God is present and when he responds. This can seem odd to someone raised in a mainstream church, where God is usually not imagined as a person with whom you have back-and-forth conversation throughout the day. At the Vineyard, people ask about recognizing God’s “voice.” They talk about things God has “said” to them about very specific topics—where they should go to school and whether they should volunteer in a daycare—and newcomers are often confused by what they mean. Newcomers soon learn that God is understood to speak to congregants inside their own minds. They learn that someone who worships at the Vineyard must develop the ability to recognize thoughts in their own minds that are not in fact their thoughts, but God’s. They learn that this is a skill that they should master.
Whose voice is whose? My voice? God’s voice? As you can see, this could be quite exciting and empowering for some, but quite confusing for others. In my experience with the Vineyard, we were coached on how to hear God’s voice, particularly in services where “inner healing” took place. The “inner healing” ministry became very popular since there were so many people with inner wounds. Lots of people believed that they had heard God speak into their lives. In these services or individual sessions, a person was usually guided through a role-playing experience back into their childhood to go to the source of where their particular affliction had begun. The Holy Spirit would take the person back to that place in the person’s memory, and the prayer leader would then pray for the person’s healing from that bad experience or memory. I am sure that some found relief, but I know for a fact that many were often tossed into an even darker place than where they started after these sessions. I know this was true because I would talk to parishioners during the week. Sometimes, it was perhaps not God at all who was speaking. So who was speaking? I am not sure I can answer this question. But my own experience tells me that miracles did not happen as often as they claimed to happen. I am only reporting what I saw and heard. I am not saying that good things never happened; I am only stating that I think that sometimes harm was done as well as good.
When I first heard about the LGP program, I was amazed how well it seemed to fit my heart, my desires, and my schedule. But when I discovered that our program leader was a pastor in the Vineyard movement, I was somewhat skeptical – actually, very skeptical. So, I did my research and made an appointment to talk with Jason Clark on one of his visits to Oregon. What I discovered was a treasure of a man, an incarnational Christian with a good mind and heart. I will never forget that meeting almost two years ago now. That meeting sealed my decision to attend George Fox…and that is one of the best decisions I have ever made. It has put me into relationship with people who think differently than I do. It has opened my mind to a brand new way of seeing things. I am eternally grateful for this chapter of my life. But I did not “hear” God that day back in 2013, nor have I heard Him much since the 1990’s. However, I have certainly “seen” His work, His hand – many times. I see Him in Jason Clark. I see Him every week in and through my cohort members. I also see Him in and through my students and in and through my friends. Yes, God does show up at times, and I am glad for this. But what about those who do not “hear” Him or “see” Him? I think we need to be careful how we approach our theology. We must allow God to be God in people’s lives, wherever they are. I have learned that God works in mysterious ways but not always in miraculous ways. My prayer is that we would love people where they are and who they are. God does. This is the wise thing to do.
“Humility plus wonder equals wisdom.” — David Maybury-Lewis
 T. M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012) 39.