(RNS) — When Dave King heard his Anaheim, California, church was about to call Alan Scott to be its pastor in 2018, he was thrilled.
King, who had long been part of the Vineyard movement of churches, known for their charismatic practices and popular worship music, had met Scott and his wife, Kathryn, while visiting their home country of Scotland and had been impressed.
The Scotts, King felt, were the kind of leaders Vineyard Anaheim needed. A onetime booming congregation under John Wimber, a legendary Vineyard leader who died in 1997, the Southern California church had struggled in recent decades and needed a shot in the arm.
Alan Scott, King felt, could help turn the church around.
“The truth was, no one pushed harder for the Scotts than me and my wife,” said King. “I thought he was my friend.”
Things went well at first. The Scotts settled in and began attracting new people to the church, located just 10 miles from Disneyland. Then COVID-19 hit, shutting down in-person worship services. During the pandemic, the Anaheim church’s board of directors turned over. Most of the people who had been there before the Scotts were gone, replaced by friends and allies of the pastor and his wife.
In an early February dinner meeting with Vineyard USA leaders, the Scotts made a surprise announcement. God had spoken to them, and Vineyard Anaheim would cut ties with the national movement.
“As per our conversation tonight, we are writing to formally notify you of our decision to withdraw Vineyard Anaheim as a member of the Association of Vineyard Churches USA with immediate effect,” they wrote in a letter dated Feb. 24.
According to an account of the dinner, distributed to Vineyard USA leaders, the Scotts gave few specifics about their decision to leave, saying mostly that God had told them to do it. They did, however, mention King twice, complaining about a small group gathering King had been leading in his backyard during COVID-19.
The disassociation letter was met with shock, dismay and dozens of questions — along with frantic efforts by national Vineyard leaders to try to head off Vineyard Anaheim’s departure, or at least to slow it down to give the movement time to get used to the idea.
Those efforts failed.
RELATED: Mumford & Sons: Hootenanny for the soul
Though Alan Scott would eventually apologize for “missteps” in how the decision to leave was communicated — he and his wife, backed by the church’s board of directors, did not back down or change their minds.
“We did not take this decision to withdraw from the Association of Vineyard Churches quickly or lightly, but reverently in the fear of the Lord,” the church’s board wrote in a March 20 statement affirming the decision to leave. “We have waited before the Lord and sought His counsel and direction in scripture, prayer, and the counsel of others.”
The departure of Vineyard Anaheim marked the end of an era for the Vineyard USA. The church was one of the earliest churches of the movement and for decades had hosted national Vineyard meetings. More than that, it had been the Vineyard’s symbolic home for decades — a place that helped launch the contemporary worship music revolution and made charismatic practices commonplace in many churches.
The decision to leave also reveals the growing challenges facing many Protestant groups: the decline of denominational loyalty, the rise of “pastor-warlords” who run their churches with little or no accountability and the influence of so-called Network Christianity, a growing movement led by pastors and apostles who claim to hear directly from God and turn their churches into personal platforms for spiritual influence.
Led by a Wimber, a former musician turned charismatic preacher who championed “power evangelism” that combined clear Bible teaching with the signs and wonders found in the New Testament, the movement grew from a handful of churches in the early 1980s to a worldwide network of more than 2,400 churches and a musical empire.
Before Hillsong — the troubled Australian megachurch and music empire — there was the Vineyard.
Vineyard songs such as “Breathe,” “Lord Reign in Me,” “Refiner’s Fire,” “Hallelujah” and “Come, Now Is the Time to Worship” combined the adult contemporary melodies and grooves of the 1980s and 1990s with spiritual themes. Churches began to replace traditional hymns with the popular, easy to sing songs — helping spark what became known as the “worship wars” in churches.
Leah Payne, associate professor of American religious history at George Fox University and Portland Seminary, said that like Hillsong, the Vineyard has had an outsized influence on charismatics, evangelicals and Pentecostals because of the popularity of its music.
“They were really skilled at taking whatever the popular trends were in pop music and adapting them,” said Payne. “I think of them as the ultimate ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ kind of music.”
The Vineyard, said Payne, also helped mainstream charismatic practices like raising hands in worship, speaking in tongues and proclaiming “words of knowledge,” where leaders or worshippers get insights from God about certain people or specific situations. Often, said Payne, they’d do this in a laid-back, matter of fact manner, as opposed to the more extravagant forms of Pentecostal faith healers and televangelists.
“They did it in a way that was cool, for lack of a better word,” said Payne.
The Vineyard also played a role in Bob Dylan’s dramatic conversion to Christianity, which led to his albums “Slow Train Coming,” “Saved” and Shot of Love.” His then-girlfriend, Mary Alice Artes, introduced the legendary songwriter to the Vineyard and for a time he studied with the group.
By the time Wimber died, after a series of health problems, there were close to 500 Vineyard churches in the United States and more than 200 overseas, the Los Angeles Times reported at the time. The group had grown in large part due to Wimber’s dynamic leadership and force of will. In the group’s early years, there were concerns that if he died, the movement would fall apart.
“There would be no force to hold it together; he’s the cohesiveness, the central figure,” Jack Deere, a leading Vineyard minister, told Russell Chandler of the LA Times in 1990.
While the Vineyard continued to grow worldwide after Wimber’s death and today has more than 2,500 congregations worldwide, the group’s growth has stalled in the United States, where there are 545 churches. Most of the churches are small — reporting a median congregation size of 75 people in 2021. The Vineyard in Anaheim was one of the larger churches in the movement —reporting 674 adults and 184 children/youth in 2021.
RELATED: Former atheist and post-evangelical dives into a ‘Blue Ocean Faith’
Finding the right structure to allow Vineyard churches to work together while still following God’s will has not always been easy.
Caleb Maskell, national director of theology and education for Vineyard USA, said the Vineyard has historically been a network of interdependent churches bound more by friendship and shared values than strict rules. Among those values is what Maskell called “a bias towards reality.”
That’s in contrast to a more “name it and claim it” style of Pentecostalism — which sometimes claims future hopes as if they are already reality. He said that in the Vineyard, it’s better to be truthful and boring rather than spectacular but inaccurate.
“We pray for healing and either God heals or doesn’t heal, and either way, blessed be the name of the Lord,” he said. “We have to be able to tell the truth. For us, faith in God’s power to lead and intervene in our lives is not at odds with discerning questions or critical inquiry.”
Early Vineyard leaders, including Wimber, had Quaker roots, which affected their leadership style. While Wimber was decisive, often taking big risks and leading in what Maskell called a “plenipotentiary” manner, he also believed saying “God told me to do this” was not enough to justify a leadership decision.
That can clash with the kind of leadership found in other charismatic or Pentecostal churches — such as the so-called New Apostolic Reformation or Network Christianity, where pastors and leaders claim to hear directly from God and make decisions on their own without consultation.
Anthea Butler, Geraldine R. Segal Professor in American Social Thought at the University of Pennsylvania, said that in so-called apostolic church movements, appealing to divine inspiration can be a kind of power play for church leaders.
“Many times when people say ‘God told me,’ that means ‘this is what I want to do and I’m going to use God to justify it,’” said Butler, who has studied charismatic and Pentecostal movements like the Vineyard. “It’s a form of authoritarianism, using God as a way to escape accountability.”
A graduate of Fuller Seminary, she lived in Southern California during the heyday of Wimber’s ministry and said he had profound influence on the way charismatic and evangelical churches operate. The Scotts’ decision to leave the Vineyard USA will cause a great deal of harm to that movement, she said.
“I found it very troubling that these people have decided that they can trash the history of what John Wimber did — and how God moved through John Wimber, and take this church into some kind of amorphous, apostolic theological conundrum,” she said. “In my opinion, this is not simply a power grab but a money grab for a property that is worth millions in Southern California.”
The Vineyard, like many other groups, is trying to balance accountability with a nimble form of governance that allows leaders to make the best decisions and act quickly and decisively, said Maskell. The group has no structural way to stop a pastor who wants to take a church and walk away.
“For many people it feels like a betrayal of a way of life together,” he said.
Leaders at Vineyard Anaheim declined an interview request. The church referred Religion News Service to its public statement instead.
“We love the Vineyard movement and although our association has ended, our affection remains undiminished,” the statement read.
Peter Greig, a well-known charismatic pastor, stepped down from the Vineyard Anaheim board after the decision to leave became public. Greig has said he was not aware the Scotts were thinking of leaving the Vineyard when he attended his first board meeting in January 2022. When they told the board they wanted to leave the Vineyard, Greig said no.
“I did not give my consent because this came as a complete shock and there did not appear to have been any due process. Instead I urged Alan to slow down,” he said in a recent statement.
Luke Geraty, a Vineyard pastor in Red Bluff, California, has been a vocal critic of the Scotts’ decision. Geraty grew up in the Vineyard, has been an area leader for the group and has been involved in national leadership.
The Scotts, he said, have essentially engineered a “hostile takeover” at their church by taking over the board and deciding to leave and only telling their congregation about it after the decision was already made. As a result, Geraty said, they now have control of tens of millions of the church’s assets.
“The ethics of what they have done are highly questionable,” he said.
Butler was also concerned about the way the Scotts have framed their departure from the Vineyard, talking about kindness and honor and how they love the Vineyard while acting in damaging ways.
“This kindness that they seem to exhibit belies the ruthlessness and the absolute power grab they are making, and not caring about the history or the feelings of the members of the Vineyard.”
Steve Nicholson, retired pastor of the Evanston, Illinois, Vineyard and former national board member, said that in most Vineyard congregations, a decision of this magnitude would have involved input from the local congregation — something that did not happen in Anaheim — even if the church’s bylaws did not require the church’s pastor to do so.
“It’s not how I would have done it,” said Nicholson, who was visiting Vineyard churches in the United Kingdom.
He also felt that if the Scotts and their church want to leave, why stop them?
“We have never been a family of churches that tried to keep people who didn’t want to be with us,” he said. “Why would you want to keep someone who did not want to be with you.”
The whole situation has left Dave King feeling bewildered.
During the pandemic, King hosted a meeting of mostly older Vineyard members — including Carol Wimber, John’s widow — on Sundays to watch the church’s livestream while sitting outside. They eventually turned off the stream and started holding worship services on their own.
When Scott heard what they were doing, things went south. Scott, who lives a few doors down from King, would tell him that “he loves us and was for us” but then express his displeasure, eventually telling King not to come back to the church when in-person services resumed.
“We’re not a threat to anyone,” King said. “I have no idea why we are at the center of this.”
RELATED: Spirited Toronto flock shakes, rattles, rolls—and howls