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

When God Doesn’t Talk Back

Written by: on April 23, 2015

Listening  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.[1]

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

[1] T. M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012) 39.

About the Author

Bill Dobrenen

I am a husband, father, and educator. I love my wife, my two amazing children, and my students. My dissertation research is on the importance of Traditional Native-American Tribal Leadership Practices. Being in the LGP program is a gift from God for me during this season of my life. I look forward to another great year with my LGP4 cohort.

9 responses to “When God Doesn’t Talk Back”

  1. John Woodward says:

    Bill, what a great finish to the semester. Thanks for sharing your heart in this post. I honestly have had little (or no) involvement with the Vineyard Movement, but I think I share some of your concern about Luhrmann’s take on this particular sub-group of Christianity. I have a funny feeling that we probably have experienced a lot of the same history of dealing with the whole Pentecostal tsunami that came through the 70s, 80s and 90s (many of my friends got caught up) that caused me more questions than anything else. My first response was frightfully negative (I think I was fearful), but I have become a whole lot more mellow in my older age. I see God as working in a lot of different ways in a lot of different groups, and am humble to realize that I might be 90 percent wrong most of the time! So, I give a lot more room now. Sounds like you have come a long way too, but it is still good to question, to “test the spirits” (as Scripture says), and to never take things at their face value! I think it is healthy to be a life long learner rather than a curmudgeon that thinks he knows everything. I am now more fearful of become a know-it-all, grump old man than whether people are actually speaking in tongues or hearing God speak! Is that ok?

    Can’t wait for our trip in June! Blessings to you!

    • John,

      Thanks for sharing here. I appreciate your sane and mature thinking. On peripheral doctrinal issues wars are not necessary any longer. Whether or not one hears God is not my business any more. That is God’s business. I think the Lord is more concerned with whether we are doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly than anything else. By the way, I am of the belief that fruit is a better indicator that one is “spirit-filled” than gifting. Everybody has gifts; not everybody has fruit. Just my thoughts!

      June is right around the corner.

  2. Liz Linssen says:

    Thank you Bill for sharing your experiences. I think there’s so much we still have to learn about hearing God. Although God does speak, it does not mean He will speak to people in the same way. As you say, it’s important that we allow God to be God whether He speaks through circumstances or through Scripture or something considered more supernatural.
    Regards inner healing, wow, that’s such an important topic, yet one we still know very little about. There’s so much to consider when delving into someone’s heart and soul, and as you witnessed, sometimes a lack of wisdom can lead a person to do deeper into darkness. We have to be so careful as you say.
    When God Talks Back places so much emphasis on hearing God’s voice, but God can ‘speak’ to people equally well through nature, circumstances, and so on. It doesn’t have to be an audible voice which can leave people feeling not good enough if they don’t hear it. My husband has never heard the voice of God like Vineyard christians do, but He believes God ‘speaks’ in other ways, such as his everyday experiences. I believe that and respect that. It wouldn’t be right to force him to experience God the Vineyard way. Everyone’s relationship with God is unique.
    Thank you Bill for sharing your heart. May God bless you.

    • Liz,

      Brilliantly said. Thank you for sharing here.

      I hope I did not come across negatively. That was not my intention. Yes, God does communicate differently with people. How, I wonder, does God “speak” to a person who is deaf? I would be interested to know that. I have a student who is deaf; perhaps I will ask her. I am grateful that God “speaks” in many ways. There is not one right way that this is done. And yes, God does reveal Himself through nature — probably more than we think. The problem for most of us is that we do not take the time to listen. Perhaps that is the main problem; we need to spend more time listening than talking. Maybe that is the secret to hearing God.

  3. Man Bill, what a ride of an experience you have had. I too have been around many Charismanics that often shout their way out of a situation when they would have been better to sit quietly and allowed God to do His work in them. I have also met many in your same situation, burned and left confused after their time in charismatic circles. Again, I have to go back to Noll’s book where the reality is that most evangelical/charismatics just don’t think. And without really attempting good thoughtful dialog we can get sideways in all things. Thankfully you met a thoughtful Charismatic in Jason and hopefully myself. I love you Bill. I have prayed often for you and believe God loves you deeply. Bless you my friend and brother as you continue to seek God and finish up your semester in assignments.

    • Mitch,

      Thanks for your reply to my post. Yes, it has been an interesting ride, but I am glad I have had the experience, at least in hindsight. I have learned a lot about people and about God along the way. Personally, I believe that God does speak to some people, but I also believe that He speaks to far fewer than people think. Frankly, I think many people think they hear God but probably are merely hearing themselves. But, thankfully, I am not the judge of that. I wouldn’t want to be.

  4. Julie Dodge says:

    Great post, Bill. I too appreciate your candor and vulnerability. I remember being a young Christian in the late 70’s/early 80’s. A friend went to a charismatic church. She was a mentor to me and she urgently wanted me to pray with her to receive the Holy Spirit and the gift of tongues. I had been taught that when I received the Lord, I also received the Holy Spirit. But she believed in a second filling. I also encountered some Christians who wanted me to be baptized again in water so I could be saved. They believed that baptism was a step toward salvation, and that though I had been baptized after I became a Christian (according to how I had been taught), they believed I was not saved until I accepted baptism as an aspect of salvation. Conflicting teachings, and not “experiencing” God the way everyone else is, can be confusing for young believers. I am grateful for those who discipled me, encouraged me, and helped me through those moments that I found confusing. I wish we could know the mind of God and know with absolute certainty all of the fine points of who He is, but I trust that God is who He is and that He understands our hearts and our minds and accepts us as we are. As you have experienced, when believers become so fixated on specific acts and activities that the behaviors become more important than anything else. It can be damaging, abusive, and divisive.

    Thank you for continuing to share your story.

  5. Deve Persad says:

    Well said Professor. Your capacity to retrace your past experiences in light of your current journey are always an education to me. The thing that I learn most, is how much perseverance you possess to continue to work through your relationship with Our God. Thank you for the blessing you are in the authenticity of your life. As far as hearing God, I’m with you on this. I don’t always hear Him, in fact most times I don’t. However my ability to hear or see Him is never an indication that He is not present. That’s probably the greatest lesson I’ve learned.

  6. Michael Badriaki says:

    Bill, another authentic and great post! You and I have talked about the subject matter of the book before. I totally agree that believers need to be mindful of how we teach about God speaking or hearing God’s voice. You write: “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.”

    Thank you

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