by Janette Jolly
from Signs of the Times No. 67 - Oct 2017
One of a set of five publications comprising the Church at Worship series (USA 2017) exploring the history of Christian worship, this volume centres on the context and ongoing impact of the worshiping community of the Anaheim Vineyard fellowship (1977-1983).
Clearly and thoughtfully structured, the book opens by locating the wider context of the case under scrutiny within the tumultuous second half of the twentieth Century in the US and its liturgical landscape, going on to summarize the significant aspects of Vineyard worship, along with necessary cautions for its study.
Having focussed on specific devotional practices explaining the nature of worship for the complete community of Vineyard worshipers, the next section presents an anthology of primary sources detailing worship settings and spaces, people and artefacts, service structures and content. The book concludes with a range of suggestions for further reflection and critique within congregational study groups, including a series of searching questions relating the text to current liturgical experience together with explanatory notes directing students of complementary disciplines to further study.
Accessible in style and presentation, this book offers rich insight into what many would consider a turning-point in the history of Christian worship across the Western world, chronicling how a new way of thinking about and enacting worship put the emphasis on simple structures and speaking directly and in loving terms to God himself, particularly in song. Inevitably for this well-researched account, the person and input of John Wimber becomes central to the unfolding of this new wave of worship, beginning with his involvement in a small group of believers meeting in a home from 1976 to seek the Lord. In his own words, having recognized their weak and failing spiritual health, John recalls,
‘As we worshipped, we began to get well. We began to feel a spiritual strength come into our lives- strength we had never known before. Worship had opened the door to a relationship with God that was totally new for us. We no longer felt impelled to ‘do things for god. We began to enjoy him and our relationship with Him…’.
Thus, the church that was to become the Christian Vineyard Fellowship was empowered on Mothers’ Day, 1977 out of which its core values of ‘Word-driven’, ‘Spirit -driven’, ‘prophetically-driven’ and ‘pragmatically-driven’ would emerge and bloom.
This redefinition of worship embodied the difference between singing songs ABOUT Jesus and TO Jesus, together with the added dimension of physical involvement and responses including bowing down, lifting hands, lying prostrate, kneeling and spontaneous prayer, with or without words; all enacted in both public and private devotional settings.
Whatever the opinion of the detached historian or onlooker, it remains without doubt that lives were changed by these devotional experiences, as Char Turrigiano (the future senior pastor of the New York City Vineyard Fellowship) testifies:
‘I suddenly realized that worship was an experience between me and God and in this case music was the tool in which He was meeting me. I remember singing, “Change my heart, O God” and immediately I wanted to change my heart… this was an experience that changed my life forever!’
As a practicing UK church musician across the Atlantic during the seventies and eighties (and still regularly today!), I and many others known to me can also testify to the life-changing power of this fresh wave of worship opening the door to a previously unexperienced deeply compelling sense of the personal closeness, forgiveness, acceptance and intimate love of God. Several members of my own fellowship attended the Wimber worship sessions during one of his group’s UK visits in the 80s, and our own church experienced an unforgettable golden period of surging growth, inspiring and deeply meaningful worship, empowered teaching and a wide range of spiritual signs and wonders.
However, readers need to judge for themselves as to the full significance on the Vineyard’s impact on their own experiences of what is termed ‘contemporary worship’ today. Rightfully, the authors acknowledge the limitations of their work due to the lack of a robust paper-trail chronicling in fuller detail some aspects of the Vineyard’s time-line. This also leads to a tendency to repetition in some chapters which unfortunately slows the tempo of the text.
Nevertheless, this is a worthy attempt to capture in a scholarly yet accessible way a most powerful historical spiritual phenomenon, the future impact of which the early participants undoubtedly had no inkling:
‘The historical significance of what this congregation was doing probably went unnoticed by all. These worshipers had come to worship in a way that filled their deepest longings for intimacy with God. They had not come to make history’.
I highly recommend this fascinating account with compelling, vivid case-studies to all interested in worship practice, particularly those involved today in what is termed ‘contemporary worship’, to learn and understand more of its historical roots.
Finally, this publication has an important role to play in increasing awareness of a period and movement, whatever our own opinions, persuasions and experiences, that undoubtedly presented
‘…an arena in which God has acted graciously’. (Rowan Williams)
Dr. Janette Jolly is a music educationalist and has been a church musician for more than 30 years.