The Holy Spirit & The Life Of The Mind

Since its founding, the mission of the Society of Vineyard Scholars (SVS) has been to foster and sustain a community of theological discourse in the Vineyard movement.


Caleb Maskell

Steering Committee Chair, Society of Vineyard Scholars

Vineyard USA

Extending the Kingdom of God through church planting and missional living.

In this interview, Caleb Maskell of the Society Of Vineyard Scholars (SVS) talks about the life of the mind, and the purpose SVS serves in the Vineyard family.

VUSA: How long has SVS been around? What was its original purpose, and how has that evolved over the years?

CM: Since its founding, the mission of the Society of Vineyard Scholars (SVS) has been to foster and sustain a community of theological discourse in the Vineyard movement. When the Vineyard USA Executive Team commissioned SVS in 2009, I think it had two purposes in mind.

The first purpose was to establish a community space within the Vineyard movement for Vineyard people who are called by God to do theologically-oriented intellectual work. Even though many folks in the Vineyard—me included—sometimes chuckle a little at the idea of a “Vineyard scholar,” the fact is that God has called hundreds of people in our movement to do rigorous intellectual work as part of their vocation and part of the way they express love and glory to Him.

Many of these folks, from pastors to theologians to scientists to business people and beyond, have found their “Vineyardness” (for lack of a better word) to be integrally important to their intellectual identity. And, sadly, many of these folks have not often been intentionally affirmed in their vocation or blessed in the things that God has called them to do. We wanted to make a place for such folks to come together to be blessed and called forward into God’s purposes for them.

The second purpose followed from the first. Given that God has called all these “Vineyard” scholars, perhaps, just maybe, He might want to make a way for some of these folks to be helpful to the Vineyard movement. Exactly what that way would be was not at all clear, but it seemed like it could be a good idea to come together as a community and ask the Lord to show up and guide.

That said, when we first set out, we honestly had pretty low expectations. In 2009, for our first Annual Conference, we sent an email around to Vineyard pastors saying, in essence, “Hey! Are you Vineyard? Do you think you might be called to do intellectual work? Come to Houston for two days!” Not exactly a hard sell.

But, to our great surprise, eighty people showed up from all over the USA and from several countries besides. We heard more than twenty papers on a huge range of subjects from biblical interpretation to earth science to the sociology of poverty, all from a Kingdom perspective. It was quite encouraging and we decided to continue!

By contrast, last year, at our sixth Annual Conference, held in Media, PA, we had more than 160 attendees, from at least six different AVCs. We heard nearly forty papers, including plenary presentations from Stanley Hauerwas, Rose Madrid-Swetman, Andy Crouch, and the leaders of City Seminary of New York. We had an extensive art show, featuring dozens of works by Vineyard artists, many of which are regularly used in Vineyard worship services. Mike Turrigiano led the prayer ministry and David Ruis and Sarah Elmer led the worship — it was glorious.

While we’re pleased to have grown in numbers, our purpose has basically remained the same: to bless people in the intellectual part of their vocation and to call them to use that vocation to serve God and serve the Vineyard.

VUSA: This may seem like an obvious question, but give us your best swing at it—how does academic research fit into a movement like the Vineyard that is so committed to the spontaneous, unplanned, mysterious work of the Spirit?

CM: One of the deepest convictions at the heart of the SVS is that there is needn’t be conflict between the “life of the mind” and the “life of the Spirit.” In Luke 11, Jesus calls his disciples to live as whole beings, to love God with all parts of themselves, including their minds.

For many people, intellectual work—whether it’s sermon prep or lab science, archival research or economic analysis—is a place where the Holy Spirit moves. This is the common experience of many of the folks in our congregations who work in these fields. Why would there be less “spontaneous, unplanned, mysterious work of the Spirit” in areas that demand rigorous scholarly labor? In fact, it seems that it’s often precisely in the context of those disciplined moments that the Holy Spirit seems to move most.

VUSA: Tell us about this year’s conference—what’s the theme, what are your goals?

CM: The seventh annual Society of Vineyard Scholars Conference will be held April 21-23, 2016 in Raleigh, NC, USA. The theme of the conference is “Hospitality, Holiness, and the Kingdom of God,” and it will be hosted by the fine folks at Raleigh Vineyard.

Among the dozens of panel sessions in which Vineyard scholars will present and discuss their work, we will hear plenary talks on the subjects of hospitality and holiness from Charles Montgomery (Vineyard Columbus) Christine Pohl, (Asbury Theological Seminary) and Luke Bretherton (Duke University). Worship will be led by Tina Colón and Julian Reid, and prayer ministry will be led by Josh Williams, pastor of Elm City Vineyard in New Haven, CT. [People can register for the conference at http://svs2016.eventbrite.com]

Our highest hope for the conference is that God will use it as an occasion to allow us to take careful stock of the ways that hospitality and holiness operate in our imaginations as Vineyard people. How do we practice hospitality to visitors in our communities? To strangers? How does Jesus model the tensions between hospitality and holiness? What should be the contours of Christian witness in public life? And so on.

We have found in past conferences that God moves in remarkable ways as we ask Him to speak to these questions through our presentations and dialogue. The opening session of last year’s conference, for example, was a talk on the practical theology of Don Williams – and it ended with ten minutes of tearful repentant prayer for God’s presence among us.

The year prior, Craig Keener gave a plenary talk on miracles in the New Testament and today which landed in an astonishing powerful ministry time. I’m not even going to tell you about how Cherith Fee-Nordling made Stanley Hauerwas cry with a question about how to pray for peace in a war-torn world.

SVS meetings are anything but dry and academic. God is enthroned on the praises of His people, even when those praises take the form of scholarly dialogues.

VUSA: Why would non-academic folks care about SVS?

CM: We try hard to make SVS a very inviting environment for all comers—not just “academic” types. Many people ask me every year if there is a place for them in an SVS meeting, and my answer is invariably a resounding, “Yes!” We are much more “user-friendly” that one might expect. The conversations we have are typically very practical, very grounded in the realities of ministry – which makes sense given that almost everyone involved is a leader in a Vineyard church.

Almost all the papers given are deliberately intended to be accessible to a broad, interdisciplinary audience in which most people are not specialists. They aim to bring forth the fruit of academic labor to a broader audience. The only requirement for participation in SVS is a desire to think theologically in loving community with other Vineyard people.

While there’s no roadmap for how to do this, we are enjoying the journey, and doing our best to walk faithfully on it for the good of all involved. Keep on praying for SVS—we need it!

VUSA: If SVS fulfills its purpose, what would be the long-term benefits for the Vineyard movement?

CM: My dream for SVS is that it will encourage generations of Vineyard leaders to produce tons of intellectually excellent, kingdom-oriented, theologically sound, breathtakingly beautiful, scholarly work for the long-term good of the Vineyard movement. The world is the Lord’s and everything in it.

The world is also super-complicated, filled with unresolved questions and massive challenges that Christians need to grapple with in their full reality.

If SVS continues to work well, it will grow to be an engine for equipping and empowering people who are called by God to address those questions and challenges with mind and heart. This would be good for them, good for the Vineyard, and good for the world at large. May it be.