This is a story on belonging.
Some of you know that in February 2020, Vineyard Canada (VC) made their final decision pertaining to human sexuality. That’s a fancy way of saying the denomination is now fully NON-affirming. Clergy cannot perform same-sex weddings. It also means LGBTQ persons cannot serve as ministers unless they remain celibate (which I maintain is an unbiblical demand). In light of this choice I cannot in good faith remain a licensed minister with the “movement”. I’m giving up my credentials with Vineyard Canada. This letter is my attempt to offer some context as to why I made the choice to leave. My story is probably unlike many other ministers in the Vineyard because I’m relatively new. I have little clout or sway, I don’t have a big following, and ultimately VC won’t miss me.
I became a VC minister in 2013. Their denominational structure, coupled with a key relationship, presented a unique opportunity. I could perform marriages, but I could also operate my church, which would not become a Vineyard Church, without direct oversight. I had (still have) relationship to a regional leader which made this arrangement possible. (You may have heard me talk about the work of Mosaic Ministries. It was technically a Vineyard church.) I’m grateful for the space. Although VC decisions had no direct impact on my church plant, Cypher Church, I was a minister and needed to honour their rules.
It wasn’t until late-2017 that a team from the national office came to visit Mosaic. (The Vineyard is quite small so everyone knows everyone). I wasn’t sure what to expect. My connection to denominational leadership in the past was largely negative. I was orphaned from the Christian and Missionary Alliance and frankly expected the same level of dismissiveness. But that’s not what happened. The national leader, David Ruis, genuinely welcomed me. Even the off-the-wall church community I pastored was approached with open arms and intrigue. David listened and empathize with my experience with conventional evangelicalism. His style leadership is a far cry from the typical CEO you’re used to seeing at a national office. It was at this point I made a commitment to draw deeper into the Vineyard “movement” as a way to honour this connection.
Context on Human Sexuality
At that time I had little context about VC’s emerging dialogue (or lack thereof) on human sexuality. Internally, they were facing questions on the need for an official position. This stemmed from a letter sent to pastors in 2014. A letter likely spurred from ministers elsewhere in the country performing same-sex marriages. Hold off. We have to figure this out, was the message. But in the meantime they asked leaders to maintain a traditional view.
The decision made last month took six years. Many were too tired to wait it out. A six month process began in Fall 2019 was in many ways too little too late. Some left even before the process began (perhaps the most popular “exit” was Sarah Bessey). I was largely on the periphery of these events when I decided to take that step deeper. My action was to attend the VC national gathering the Summer of 2018.
I should make note that during this time I completed my second book called Thrive. David endorsed the book and graciously offered input and a by-line for it.
The Wall of Sameness
In Montreal, I came ready to dig into the charismatic underworld of Vineyard. But stepping into the first meeting I was immediately struck by something I had taken for granted. My church context is deeply multi-ethnic. The Vineyard gathering, and I assume a reflection of the Vineyard across the country, was decidedly not. I was surprised when I shouldn’t have been. I grew up in white evangelicalism and forgot how white white evangelicalism was (and is). Vineyard Canada is white.
Now before we proceed I have to stop here because invariably white people will get upset with the mere mention of race used to characterize a church or “movement”. I’m merely making an observation based on reality. It’s not a mis-characterization. Just take the feedback. I’m not saying being white is a problem. The issue I’m digging into is sameness. The problem isn’t white people, it’s what happens to a culture or organization when everyone looks the same.
Of course in every white space there’s the odd tokenized minority. In Montreal there were 3.5 brown people (I was the half). Even in this setup white people still couldn’t tell us apart. Are you Joe or Suhail??? The obvious lack of diversity in the room didn’t reflect the quality of the speakers. Drew Hart and Sarah Bessey were exceptional. The former leaned into presuppositions that define belonging in white dominated kingdom spaces. Was it well received? Maybe. But Drew was one third of the entire Black presence in attendance, not including the visiting family from Rwanda. Maybe this is all irrelevant. Vineyard Canada is really no different from any other run-of-the-mill evangelical denomination in the country. Exclusively white, with white dominated pastoral leadership, and nationally led by mostly white men.
So here’s the problem: if the people who inform your thinking are the same, you will default to build community for people who look like you. In this case middle-aged white people.
Digging Into Sameness
For the most part white people don’t think about sameness or uniformity. Issues of diversity aren’t at the forefront when everything looks “normal” (white). Who gets to determine the “normal” view? Dominant cultures who build to match their worldview. It’s the natural result of “birds of a feather flock together”. The way you and your crew see the world is the assumed “standard”. It’s also assumed the “standard” is ubiquitous. This assumption is an inherited product of privilege. When white leaders unaware of their power to perpetuate “sameness” gather, they default to continue building spaces of belonging that suit their needs and culture. Only outsiders can point out the barriers on belonging.
I knew within minutes of walking into the first gathering that Vineyard wasn’t going to be for me. Not because people weren’t nice or the music was too long, but because the space was dominated by sameness. Sameness is incapable of seeing the need to welcome outsiders and work towards equity for those who don’t belong to the dominant culture. That’s the problem. Even before the issue of human sexuality, diversity was an issue, and diversity doesn’t magically appear without hard work.
I use the words “incapable” to describe the capacity for “sameness” to change because it’s another observation of reality. Sameness won’t welcome the outsider because it would shift culture in unwelcome ways. Existing leaders, almost exclusively white, would have to give up their power in pursuit of equity. Power is paramount here because it’s behind the decision making on the issue of human sexuality for VC. Keeping power to preserve a way of life (and theological position). Power to assuage other power holders (think big churches and their donations). Without any level of diversity at the decision making tables, “sameness” reigns supreme and unabated. It will work to protect itself and, pun intended, keep everything the same. It’s for this reason that the pursuit to explore human sexuality at a national level was a foregone conclusion.
On Human Sexuality and LGBTQ2+S
Vineyard went on their 6-month discerning process starting in the fall of 2019. Immediately it came under scrutiny from those remaining in the “movement” who were affirming. That decision-making table was dominated by sameness. Now bear in mind, Vineyard is unlike other denominations (they don’t even use “denomination” to describe themselves). Individual churches are largely autonomous. However, when it comes to official mechanisms for important and sweeping theological decisions, only the national leaders have a “vote”. A heavy burden for a few dozen to carry. Also an expulsion of the local body to have a say. Genuine discourse on a topic that’s so contentious is hard. Arguably, most, including the national team, were already decided even before the process began. That’s expected at the table of sameness. I raised my concerns that the process, although genuine in its attempts, was a futile exercise from the start. It doesn’t matter how “hard” a decision is to make if it’s already made.
There’s some question whether the decision was a foregone conclusion. I think there was space for everyone to re-evaluate. But when the decision makers, and the resources provided to churches, were dominated by traditional voices, you develop your suspicions. Ultimately, without any discernible diversity in VC, there could be no internal fight for justice on behalf of minority voices. We were simply not well represented.
But the Bible Says….
How you stay in a non-affirming position isn’t so much what theology you want to protect but a question fundamentally about how you view God and read your Bible. I’m not going into detail here, but I will say most of scripture is contextual and needs to be interpreted in context. That’s the beauty of it. There’s always a level of looking at how we can discern scripture in light of a modern-day context. That means a certain level of picking and choosing what fits and what doesn’t. That’s what always happens. In the case of same-sex marriage, if you say “no” then you better double down on that same approach of interpreting scripture. No more marriage for a couples who can’t have kids. No more marriage for divorcees. And while we’re at it, let’s go back and ban interracial marriages too. After all that’s what the Bible says. Maybe that one’s too far. [On this subject I encourage you to read one book, Karen Keen, Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships. While most books cancel each other out, this is the leader on the subject in my opinion.]
How will this impact the “movement” as a whole? I don’t know. The weight of their choices will be felt by for generations to come, if it’s still around.
You may have noticed that I kept using “movement” in quotations. I don’t think VC is a movement. Movement language is something the relatively new Vineyard adopted to differentiate from denominationalism. It’s a way to relive the Glory Days. Now far be it from me to say where God and the Spirit will move, but VC is not moving. It has made a decision to step backwards as a way to self-preserve. Preservation is settling and as the saying goes, “where you settle, there you die.” I’m also unfamiliar with data of denominations that have double-downed on non-affirming positions which later became catalysts unto growth. It’s not a life-giving choice. Becoming non-affirming doesn’t lead to movements. In many ways it’s a curse to movement. It’s unclear where there’s hope for a now-defunct movement struggling to reclaim the bygone era of white Protestantism that swept the nation in the 1950s. That time is no more.
Where does this leave me? Well without credentials for one. But that’s more of an administrative loss than anything else. The VC offered me a temporary home and I’m grateful for that. I will miss some of the relationships for sure. But it was evident in Montreal, then set in stone in February of 2020, Vineyard is not a space that will welcome marginalize people. Queer folks have been ostracized and abandoned. LGBTQ is one thing, but there’s nothing stopping regressive thinking from maintaining the power seat of whiteness. I can’t champion organizations that codify marginalization of marginalized people. It’s a real signal marginalize people ultimately do not belong. That’s the final issue and now we’ve come full circle. Belonging. The decision regarding human sexuality isn’t about same-sex marriages. Rather, this is a fundamental question on who can belong in VC. That “who” was determined by a decision table rooted in sameness
Vineyard is not for me because I’m not white and they have demonstrated a willingness to vilify marginalized people. Christians of colour are hard-pressed to find brave spaces where they can live out the fullness of their humanity in their own skin. This is why I co-started Decolonizing Christianity Canada. Across this country there is a very real systemic problem of excluding racialized minorities. You can only belong if you stay within ethnic boundaries, or assimilate to white culture.
Well I choose not to assimilate.
There’s no place for me, and other marginalized people, if I have to give a piece of myself to assuage the theological presuppositions of power holders. I’m out. I choose not to hitch my wagon to a culture clinging to racialized and sexual sameness. This picture does not reflect the fully inclusive community fundamental to the Christian church. Fundamental because it bears witness to the incarnate Christ at work in the here and now. It is a picture of the hope to come, a hope for all to be welcomed at the table and have a chance to eat, play, and fully belong.