A Diagram for Fire: Miracles and Variation in an American Charismatic Movement

A Diagram for Fire: Miracles and Variation in an American Charismatic Movement

by Jon Bialecki

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What is the work that miracles do in American Charismatic Evangelicalism? How can miracles be unanticipated and yet worked for? And finally, what do miracles tell us about other kinds of Christianity and even the category of religion? A Diagram for Fire engages with these questions in a detailed sociocultural ethnographic study of the Vineyard, an American Evangelical movement that originated in Southern California. The Vineyard is known worldwide for its intense musical forms of worship and for advocating the belief that all Christians can perform biblical-style miracles. Examining the miracle as both a strength and a challenge to institutional cohesion and human planning, this book situates the miracle as a fundamentally social means of producing change—surprise and the unexpected used to reimagine and reconfigure the will. Jon Bialecki shows how this configuration of the miraculous shapes typical Pentecostal and Charismatic religious practices as well as music, reading, economic choices, and conservative and progressive political imaginaries.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520294202
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 03/07/2017
Series: The Anthropology of Christianity , #21
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.75(d)

About the Author

Jon Bialecki is a fellow in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. His work has been published in several edited volumes as well as in academic journals such as the South Atlantic Quarterly, American Ethnologist, Anthropological Theory, Current Anthropology, and the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

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A Diagram for Fire

Miracles and Variation in an American Charismatic Movement

By Jon Bialecki


Copyright © 2017 Jon Bialecki
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96741-0


Vineyard Time

The first time I walked into a Vineyard church, I was worried I was late. I needn't have worried. Even on my way to that church, there was a sense of time being out of joint. This particular church was located in the kind of Southern California inland industrial park that you find on the trailing edge of some suburbs. This part of town was built to a vehicular rather than human scale. A thin low line of chaparral-clad mountains was along the immediate horizon, trapping the air and ensuring the sky was an exhaust-fed shade of beige. The few cars on the roadways (who would go to an industrial park on a weekend?) made it feel as if time had stopped.

It was the overall stillness that made the action of the parking lot all the more striking. The vehicles were mostly small economy cars, some of which were the worse for wear, and midsized family SUVs. The latter were almost always adorned with various stickers. One common motif was representations of the family members as stick figures. There were also stickers with the initialism "NOTW" (standing for "Not of This World," a Christian apparel company). The letters were stylized, with the T fashioned to look like a cross and the O to look like a halo floating over the T. (This logo was not just for cars; more than once while working with Southern California evangelicals, I saw people who had it tattooed it on their bodies).

As I walked to the open doors of the warehouse, I could hear the music play: uplifting, midtempo, catchy. It was Christian pop, though it is more commonly referred to as "praise music," at least when it is deployed in worship sessions. There were a couple of people working the door; like most Vineyard churches, this one had a small set of volunteers referred to alternately as the welcome ministry or the welcome team. These positions were more than just names. Enthusiastic handshakes and sometimes hugs were offered to familiar worshippers as they passed through the door. The members of the welcome ministry were handing out that weekend's announcement bulletin, which invariably included the following information: the name of the pastor, a list of home groups one could attend, and the nominal starting times of meetings (the term usually used for church services). Often these flyers also had information about the "word" or "message" for the day, what other churches would call the sermon or homily. Other information might include upcoming workshops; church community–building activities, such as picnics or barbecues; and news about various other ministries, or teams orientated around concerns, such as the homeless, food donation, or the short-term mission trips, which are basically vacation-length jaunts to assist churches in other nations.

As I crossed over the threshold, I was greeted by a large, heavy man with a shaved head and a goatee, who was wearing denim and a t-shirt. He looked like a cuddly biker. The biker held out a copy of the circular to me. While he was obviously friendly and happy to be greeting people, I was put on the back foot by having to engage in conversation after arriving late (on this initial visit, I had intended to sit in the back as an observer). I murmured an apology for being late. He immediately said that I wasn't late at all. "We're on Vineyard time," he stated, laughing.


And they were on Vineyard time. Vineyard time was not a commonly used phrase; in fact, I don't think I heard it uttered again for years, though I would eventually hear it often enough at different Vineyard churches and meetings to know that Vineyard time is a very real phenomenon. Time was loosely kept at almost every church service and Vineyard event I ever intended, whether they were open to all or just a select few. As this chapter will show, Vineyard time is a complex, heterogeneous entity, a direct expression of a series of institutional, embodied, and cognitive practices made up of numerous different pneumatological and practical strands that work as much in conjunction as separately.

In its marked form, Vineyard time serves a specific purpose: When people say Vineyard time, or otherwise refer to the movement's flexibility regarding punctuality, they are invoking a sense of belonging that presumes shared traits. Notably, they are usually speaking tongue in cheek. This is both a way of casting playful aspersion on the Vineyard as a totality and a performative expression of the group's cohesion. It is no accident this is the same formula sometimes heard in ethnic jokes, particularly among those ethnic groups that enjoy telling jokes about themselves — for example, about "Spanish time," "Italian time," or the like. While suggesting an equivalency between ethnicity and a denomination-like movement may seem odd, I saw similarities between the two in the Vineyard. Vineyard believers often refer to the Vineyard as "their tribe," and the Vineyard pastor at the church where I spent the most amount of time often addressed the congregation with the phrase "let us be a people that." This would be followed by, for example, "aspires to" (some ethical or spiritual trait) or "will accomplish" (some ambitious collective project). Expressing a tribal-like identity is not unique to the Vineyard, but it is a recurring theme among other Christian movements. Recall the "Not of This World" bumper stickers that suggest unity and otherworldliness among the people whose cars or bodies bear this logo, at the same time distinguishing these believers from nonbelievers and notional Christians, who presumably are of this world. This framing had a historical pedigree; it was not uncommon for the early church fathers to refer to Christianity as constituting an e-thnos. The work of an ethnic joke (when it is not meant as a form of sublimated aggression) is to articulate some trait that might be ascribed to a particular group, thereby making that group distinct from outsiders. Vineyard time works in a similar way. Vineyard time works as a joke because each time it is told, it makes one of the particular traits that define the Vineyard seem more real.

But Vineyard time is not just a joke; for several reasons it is a substantive phenomenon. First, Vineyard churches are often staffed by volunteers. The ratio of volunteers to paid church staff is a function of the size and age of the church. Smaller and younger churches are more likely to rely on staff, who receive only notional or no pay; sometimes this includes even the pastors, who may be what evangelical Christians refer to as "bivocational," that is, either by desire or necessity they work outside the church to support themselves and their families (almost all Vineyard pastors are men with families). Even when pastors are running a church full time, they are not well heeled: a pastor at a fair-sized church, which might draw two-to-five hundred regular members, might make about as much as a public school teacher in the area. The vision of the megachurch pastor who drives over to his Lear jet in the back of his limousine may hold true in other movements and in other parts of the world, but it does not capture the circumstances of the majority of Vineyard pastors.

The use of volunteers, though, is informed as much by sensibility as fiscal constraints. There is a Vineyard expression going back to John Wimber that says "everybody gets to play." This is usually understood to mean that everybody gets to personally engage in the miraculous signs and wonders associated with the Vineyard. But that is not its only meaning. Playing also means participating in the running and management of the church. In churches that have elders — a small set of select members who have agreed to advise on pastoral and management decisions — "everybody gets to play" may mean that some get an opportunity to engage in hands-on church governance.

Vineyard churches are organized in this way in part because of their egalitarian tendencies, derived to a certain extent from the fiction of equality found in much of middle-class America. But it is also because of the Vineyard's Pentecostal- and charismatic-influenced ideas about the Holy Spirit. The egalitarian aspect can be seen in the Vineyard's unofficial dress code, which is weekend casual. This is part of the group's rejection of "religion"; in the Vineyard, as in much of evangelical Christianity, religion means the presence of a highly coded vocabulary, marked sartorial expectations (such as black suits on Sunday), and formal rituals. The Vineyard's egalitarianism is not just about not being religious, though, but also about having a democratic sensibility; it is harder to convey status when almost everyone is wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Money counts in the Vineyard, of course, particularly at the pastoral level; a small church can really feel the effects if a relatively well-off or generous family that tithes on a regular basis leaves the church, and this is a particular worry in Vineyards that depend on mobile populations like the military. And most pastors are very aware of who is tithing regularly and in large amounts. But at the interactional level, all members are at least ostensibly equal, and this equality is not necessarily fictive. Many Vineyards tend to be somewhat homogenous, drawing their populations from specific segments of the cities where they are located: students, young adults, people who are starting families, baby boomers, and so on.

This general American tendency toward a fictive or actual egalitarianism works in conjunction with Vineyard pneumatology. In the Vineyard, everyone has access in some way to the Holy Spirit, though given the unpredictable nature of the Holy Spirit, it might be more accurate to reverse the agency and say that the Holy Spirit has access to all Vineyard believers. And one way the Vineyard is different from some forms of classic Pentecostalism is that everyone is presumed, at least in theory, to be able to invoke any of the charismata associated with the Holy Spirit at any time (in many forms of Pentecostalism, there is a tendency for charisma to be centralized in particular leading figures). That being said, there is also a sense that some people are granted greater capacity to invoke a specific charism, such as healing; those with an extraordinary capacity or perceived heightened levels of success when invoking a particular mode of charism are considered "gifted."

This means that in theory everyone can do everything, but people also have gifts particular to them. Despite this, some are unable at a practical level to speak in tongues, have no special capacity for healing, have no prophetic gifts, and cannot have the kinds of sensory experiences during prayer that constitute what is understood as hearing from God. This can be a source of frustration and self-questioning; one way to deal with this lack is to consider positive personality traits or talents, such as being empathetic, encouraging, or well organized, as gifts that are equivalent to those that are more overtly supernatural. And these gifts are often expressed through volunteering. Also, people who understand themselves as being capable of hearing from God sometimes believe they should be more active in the church, which leads them to volunteer.

What this means for the Vineyard is that there is a sense almost any Vineyard member could conceivably have any talent. At the same time, there is also an acknowledgment that people may have more enthusiasm than ability; sometimes it's thought that people might at times imagine they have a talent for narcissistic instead of spiritual reasons. This is particularly the case for those in highly visible or leadership positions, such as heading a bible study group, preaching, or perhaps most compelling participating in the "worship" or "praise" ministry, that is, performing worship songs in front of the whole church. Not every church is large enough to have a choice about who performs in what capacity; new churches, or older Vineyard churches that are fading away, may not have enough active members to discriminate when it comes to who does what. But a sufficiently large church can slowly open up possibilities for members who wish to be more active; they may play guitar for a home group, and if that goes well, they may be asked to play at a night meeting of the whole church (typically affairs with much lower turnout unless the meeting really captures the imagination). Substituting for someone who cannot make it to the worship service on a particular Sunday morning might be the next stop, perhaps followed by regular participation in the worship ministry. Similarly someone might progress incrementally from running a Bible study group to being an assistant pastor. Leaders training leaders can be a successful vetting system and a way of encouraging greater participation, but even in the most well-oiled churches, it can also encourage a pattern of unpaid people taking over many of the church's functions.

Therefore, while there are all sorts of forces, from aesthetics to how they understand the Holy Spirit, voluntarism is the functional reason for the Vineyard's noted informality. Though it may seem counterintuitive, informality makes employing so many untrained people easier. But it also contributes to the lack of punctuality known as Vineyard time.

The temporal choppiness that comes from voluntarism is not unchecked by other imperatives. As we shall see later on, the culture of voluntarism is counterpoised by both an organizational imperative and a secondary aesthetic sensibility that demand commodity-centered perfectionism. This aesthetic sensibility stems from the way that the commodity functions as the measure of quality; the replicability and seamlessness of that form and of "branding" as well is held up as a certain standard in much of the Vineyard. This relates chiefly to the Vineyard's material culture, but it is present in other aspects as well.

Commodity-oriented perfectionism has its own temporal effects. While it would be ridiculous to say that Vineyard churches aim for absolute uniformity, I was told by one pastor that "uneven experiences" between meetings at different churches can be a problem. At some level, novelty is attractive to Vineyard believers, but many believers want to know roughly what to expect at a church service. This is especially the case when evangelizing is a concern; if you are bringing a colleague, friend, or family member who has expressed an interest in Christianity in general or the Vineyard in particular to a service, you don't want to be surprised at what happens after you have walked through the front door. Quality control means evenness, and evenness means having some sort of schedule.

Voluntarism's effect on punctuality and consistency is also partially checked by the Vineyard's historical ties to the church growth movement. During John Wimber's long association with the Fuller School of World Mission, one of his chief responsibilities was to train evangelical church leaders in socialscientific–derived techniques for growing churches. This movement in applied missiology aimed at identifying and circulating numerically quantifiable and replicable practices that would allow churches to bring in greater numbers. The Vineyard has never quite lost its connection to the movement, though it has to some degrees been diluted by both the imaginative shifts that have occurred with charisma and a lack of connection to the original stringency that founding church growth figures like Donald McGavran brought to the movement. But it still persists in the Vineyard's weakness for the genre of business-improvement literature, often centered around celebrating efficiencies. The literature itself of course is as much about innovation and change as it is about ratcheting things just ever so slightly tighter; especially during the period from the 1980s to the present, there has been a celebration of the deterritorializing creative distraction, or "disruptive innovation," in the sort of business efficiency literature that keeps popping up in the Vineyard. Using a business model casts a shadow on the organization, which is perhaps most evident in the variations in internal Vineyard nomenclature. Many Vineyard churches hesitate to acknowledge that they often switch between the term ministries and the more business-oriented term teams when speaking about groups working with the homeless, children, or missions; in fact, though, ministry and team are often used synonymously.


Commodity and business imperatives can push back against the softening of schedules that comes with voluntarism, but they are no match for the temporal forces that arise from the experiential side of charismatic worship. This has its own temporal self-organization, with overlapping timescales operating at different levels of magnitude and resolution. And this time does not work to one end, but to several, producing a disjunctive synthesis that gives rise to independent and crosscutting axes of Vineyard time, temporalities that run orthogonal to all the other colors of time discussed so far. An example will help clarify how these various modes of time operate. Charismatic time as an experiential force can be seen operating through worship music.


Excerpted from A Diagram for Fire by Jon Bialecki. Copyright © 2017 Jon Bialecki. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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