Understanding the Vineyard’s Soul: Called to Be the Observing Church
What is the Observing Church?
I have a dear friend whose church almost killed him. They were charismatic Jesus Freaks back in the 60’s. Like a lot of Americans, both inside and outside the church, they really believed in the power of positive thinking. So instead of sending my friend to get urgently-needed medical care, they just kept piling up words in prayer as they tried to believe harder. As often happens in these situations, they also chastised him for not believing harder because, of course, the only reason he was still sick was because he wasn’t thinking positively enough or believing hard enough. As he was dying, they even kept assuring him he had been healed.
When he and they finally lost enough faith in the power of their self-confidence, which they had falsely called faith in God, he was rushed to the hospital. The doctor thought he was probably too far gone. That doctor didn’t have a lot of positive thinking on his side. But he did have medicine and he faithfully administered it, although the probability of success was low.
My friend has gone on to live a rich and fruitful spiritual life, serving the poor and marginalized in and through the Vineyard. What attracted him to the Vineyard? When he came and got prayer for the first time he wasn’t physically healed. But the prayer was still appreciated and did help heal his relationship with the church. How? Because the people who prayed with him were attentively observant and honest: they didn’t try to lie and deny, in the way that had almost killed him.
When the Vineyard trains people to pray, there are two important and under-appreciated things that often happen. I’m centering these essential practices here, because I believe that we need to cherish and preserve these in our prayer training and in our normal liturgy. Physically, we often tell people to keep their eyes open when they pray for someone. This is hard for me, but I work at it. We also give advice that accords with that: we encourage people to be honest and humble about whatever is actually happening. So we don’t usually say, “Thus Sayeth the Lord” but instead we say, “I think I heard this.” Or, “Is it okay if I describe what I experienced?” In all of these, we are training people to observe more than we assert: we are training people to notice, to be responsive and receptive to what is actually happening in front of us. I think we kill fewer people as a result, and see more authentic healing as well. A large net gain, all around. So keep your eyes open. And understand that this gesture isn’t just about looking in the moment, but it is also about training us to be the Observing Church.
This liturgy and the deeper training involved is important to the soul of the Vineyard. I believe it is an important part of how the Holy Spirit has formed us. I think we need to appreciate how counter-cultural and precious it is in our religious context. We, by which I mean the whole church throughout the world, urgently need more of this kind of training. Even when we are experiencing the most overwhelming forms of religious rapture, which we welcome from the Holy Spirit, we also train people to depend on observation. Even then, we are trained to be willing to question what seems certain to us. If we are even willing to question something that really feels like a word from God (to us), what can’t we question? This liturgy helps root us in the foundational teachings of Jesus, and protects us from deadly systems of epistemic capture. I discuss epistemic capture in a lot more depth here, but the basic idea is nicely illustrated by the thought control system that almost killed my friend. Similar systems killed an enormous number of people during the COVID crisis, as people were led to mistrust scientists who were engaged in the lifesaving work of reconciliation. They were often led to trust deadly deceivers and slanderers (many of them in the church) instead. To be clear, we are in a spiritual struggle with life or death consequences. One of the ways we fight is by encouraging people to keep their eyes open, remaining humbly rooted in observation.
It is important for us to understand how very bold it is that our basic liturgies and trainings encourage us to be the Observing Church, in a world where the church has so often betrayed the foundational teachings of Jesus that undergird these practices. It is also important to understand how very dangerous our liturgy and training really is to the Slanderer, the enemy of our souls even today, because it flies straight in the teeth of his empire in the church. As the epiphany of 1/6 has made obvious, empire hates those who oppose it with observation and truth. It uses slander and abuse and deception and concealment and ultimately violence to try to avoid accountability.
The Observing Church is always in a spiritual war, and we need to be aware of this fact. I’ve chosen the language of “Observing Church” carefully because it can also translate the phrase Bekennende Kirche, or Confessing Church. The Bekennende Kirche was the relatively small part of the Protestant church in Germany that opposed the efforts of the Nazis to spiritually corrupt the church with Christian Nationalism. Here, politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene proudly embrace the term Christian Nationalism as they stoke anti-semitic and anti-Christian conspiracy theories like QAnon. In Germany a closely related tendency went under the name, “German Christians.” I am convinced, through prayer and study and observation in community, that we are called to be part of the broader Observing Church, the Bekennende Kirche, in our own generation today. I am also convinced that we genuinely face the same sort of spiritual threat in the United States today that the Bekennende Kirche faced then. This is why I am exegeting something of the soul of the Vineyard from the heart of our liturgy and practice, with fresh urgency and burning concern.
Observation or Blind ‘Observance’?
One of the foundational teachings of Jesus is that we need to remove the planks from our own eyes before we try to take the specks from the eyes of others. Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6 teach this, and the theme runs throughout the whole of the Bible. The image that Jesus uses is a bit of hilarious slapstick, but it makes a serious point. Imagine someone trying to take the speck out of someone else’s eye while they actually have an enormous log swinging around, dangling out of their own eyeball. That is how ridiculous, and ultimately dangerous, the unobserving and blindly ‘observant’ church is. As Jesus says at the end of Matthew 7 and the end of Luke 6, people who neglect this teaching build on sand. Sure, things look good for a while. A building or a church might grow quickly on sand, maybe even for a few generations. But in time, their epistemic capture systems encounter the avalanche of reality. They collapse and often kill a lot of people, much as the fall of Judah and its Temple in 70 AD killed a lot of people. COVID was a wake-up call for us that blind ‘observance’ was prowling and killing people en masse again today. The growing war in Ukraine is another sign for all to see, especially because the same pseudo-Christian and anti-Christian alliance behind the 1/6 coup is also behind that war. Victor Orban of Hungary is at the center of the coalition, and was recently celebrated by highly organized and powerful actors here in the United States.
How does the Enemy work through these systems? Those who are blindly observant follow human traditions, rules and regulations, even as they insist that they are from God. They are especially concerned with driving others to follow them. They manipulate our threat response system by issuing warnings that aren’t rooted in observed realities and truth, but are instead rooted in their epistemic capture systems’ urgent drives to preserve themselves. If people aren’t afraid of the false threats they wield, then these abusive capture systems lose their capacity to control people. But if they can manipulate our threat response, they can make people engage in deadly and risky behavior, from refusing medical care to joining in a coup against the people of the United States, because they are more afraid of illusory threats than the real ones.
For example, if people think that healing is about being extremely confident in their idolatrous god, instead of God’s faithfulness and our heedful response rooted in careful observation, then deadly denial is mistaken for the cure. And the cure is mistaken for a threat. Those who are caught up in these epistemic capture systems do this because they correctly understand that medical treatment, which is rooted in being reconciled with God as God is revealed in Creation, is a rival power to their slanderous systems of control. After all, if the doctor achieves what their prayerful epistemic capture system didn’t, that will discredit them. And so the souls that have been captured don’t think or question or notice what is actually happening. This makes it easy to control, manipulate and abuse them, like my friend who was almost killed by his church.
To be clear, I have been amazed and moved by all kinds of signs and wonders, including healings in prayer. I have also seen God bring his cruciform solidarity to us as we suffer through illness. Both forms of healing are involved in Christian faith. I get to joyfully observe one form of healing, or both, almost every time I pray with someone. The Holy Spirit is always showing up when we pray. Are we observing the Holy Spirit’s work with open eyes, or are we trying to be blindly ‘observant’ and then facing frustration when ‘it doesn’t work’?
What happened to my friend at a personal scale has been happening in a large-scale and organized way to the church throughout the world, including here in the United States. Even in the Vineyard, unfortunately, we have failed to hold to our Observing Church practices in a number of places. This has fed patterns of blind ‘observance’. One of the planks in our own eyes as a movement is that we played a small part in feeding the false prophetic movement that supported the coup attempt on Epiphany, 2021. As a healthy family system and not an abusive one, we need to talk publicly about these kinds of problems and not brush them under the rug in a misguided attempt to “protect the family brand”. This is why I’m incredibly grateful to the many Vineyard leaders, such as Rich Nathan and Caleb Maskell, who stood up against Christian Nationalism at the time in very public ways. They showed that they belong to the Observing Church then. Will we continue to do the hard work that this witness commits us to, or will we fail to look and see the signs that are there for everyone to see?
Jesus knew that blind guides, violent wolves in the non-violent clothing of Christian sheep, would come and afflict the church (the ekklesia) throughout our history. He has been proven right again and again over the last two millennia. I think that the enduring spiritual truths that Jesus taught will continue to be vindicated in each generation until God rolls up the universe like a scroll. In each generation these blind guides will continue to fall in ditches and drag other people into them, and this will happen at personal and church and national social scales. We need to keep removing the planks from our own eyes at all of those scales as well, if we hope to build on the rock that Jesus promises us in his Covenant on the Mount. This means that we need to be willing to correct ourselves: our churches, our denominations, our universal church, our cities and states and nations. We need to learn to avoid being blinded by the plank of our own ‘observance’, so that we can be the Observing Church in this generation as well. At personal scale, we need to attend and be honest and (unblindly!) observant in a person-to-person way. Where we can appropriately protect privacy in those contexts, of course we should. At larger scales, we need to bear witness and keep observing in a more public way, just as the Bekennende Kirche always does.
So when we train people to observe when they pray, and when we train people to be humble and open to correction, we should also be aware that we are engaged in spiritual warfare. The enemy of our souls hates it. My prayer is that by the grace of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit, we keep training anyway.