“It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.” Romans 15:20

If I had to explain my job to you, I would give you the above verse as my mission statement. Since 1990, when John Wimber released me to develop cross-cultural church planting in the Vineyard movement, I’ve encouraged and structured our worldwide missions. Between 1990 and 1994, I embarked upon multiple ministry trips around the world in order to develop Vineyard churches outside of the USA. We planted churches in Europe, Africa, and Asia. In 1995, my job changed somewhat when John made me “International Coordinator” and he became International Director. It is important that John allowed the “flesh” of our work–the actual church planting–to precede the “bones” or organizational systems. He never wanted our man-made structure to suffocate church growth. Administration and accountability are important for a church movement, but the pioneering planting must come first.

I think of structure like a referee at a boxing match. You’re always aware of his presence, and the boxers rely on him, but you only notice him when something goes wrong. If the referee is too overbearing, then he’ll spoil the match. So, church structure should underlie church growth, not dominate it. Since 1994, then, I’ve worn two “hats”. While I still spend 2 weeks per month (5 months a year) traveling across the world, stimulating church planting and ministering to new churches, I also compliment this “fieldwork” with developing the structure.

In the AVC-USA office wing (where I have my office) there is what I call the “War Room” (like Churchill’s war room in the underground Cabinet) with maps of the world pasted to the walls, grouping the different countries where God is moving into “theaters of operation”. Within these “theaters”, I coordinate church planting and promote unity and communication among AVC leaders.

[bctt tweet=”John Wimber convinced me that the best way of spreading the good news…is through church planting. – Bob Fulton” quote=”John Wimber convinced me that the best way of spreading the good news…is through church planting.”]

Things have changed dramatically since we began emphasizing Vineyard missions and church planting overseas. In 1990 we had planted 20 churches in 4 countries outside the US: Canada, Mexico, South Africa and the UK. Now, just nine years later, we have about 400 churches in 53 countries. Even more significant statistics are these: 88% of all our churches have been planted, only 12% adopted. We’ve been spreading the gospel rather than “sheep stealing” other Christians or church planting on someone else’s foundations.

John Wimber convinced me that the best way of spreading the good news, sharing Jesus with the lost and fulfilling the Great Commission is through church planting. Peter Wagner was referring to church planting when he said; “It’s easier to have babies than to raise the dead.” What he means is that there is a vitality about new church plants that attracts people to Christ. Denominational criticism like “we’ve got enough churches already” or “it breaks up Christian fellowship” is, to be frank, ludicrous. Ten percent of the world’s population, at most, knows Jesus. Yet we believe in a truth that is for everybody; of whatever age, race, culture or predicament.

From my understanding of scripture, I believe the remedy to these problematic statistics is this–more churches. In Matthew 16, Christ stated triumphantly, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it”. In Acts, the Holy Spirit gloriously inspired the apostles to this task. The form this took was firstly evangelism–sharing the good news of Jesus with the lost -and, secondly, bringing the converts into a church. So I am committed to that biblical, Pauline, John Wimber idea of church planting. It’s been that way since the Vineyard first started. Now we’ve transferred that to whatever we’re doing worldwide. So we’ve started to focus on unreached peoples, we’re building an army to preach the gospel where “Christ is not known.”

In the Vineyard we believe our primary mission focus is, as J John so eloquently put it, ‘not crossing the sea but seeing the cross’. Our calling is the same as Christ’s calling in Luke 4: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” Through missions and church planting, we are simply continuing the ministry of Jesus. Christ said in John 5 that “My Father is always at work.”

As “missionaries” we shouldn’t see ourselves as taking something new from our “enlightened” countries into darkened ones. God hasn’t favoured us Western countries with his revelation; on the contrary, he is at work all around the world. The writer of Ecclesiastes says, “He has also set eternity in the hearts of men”; God prepares people to receive the gospel. When we journey to any nation under the sun, it is our job to connect to the Father’s work; like Jesus, “we can only do what (we) see His Father doing.” So the Vineyard isn’t a new product or formula we want to sell to others. We’re not a multinational company going out on a limb to try and make money out of lesser-developed countries. By “going to all nations” we’re just completing Christ’s work because he commanded us to.

In Acts 1:8, Jesus says: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” If we are to be the effective “fishers of men” Jesus called us to be, we also need to be aware of our calling to the three very different “fishing ponds” He mentions: His own people group–Judea; the near people groups–the Samaritans; and the far people groups–those of the “ends of the earth.” So often, people think of missions solely as traveling miles and miles to the remotest regions of the World in order to witness to far people groups.

Some say missionaries can only be intrepid explorers like David Livingston or Jim Burns, not ordinary people like you and me. But before his ascension, Christ, in Acts 1, called us to witness to our own local communities as well as to the “ends of the earth.” So I think that ministering to your own people is as much missionary work as climbing the Himalayas to find an unknown nomadic people hiding on the summit who haven’t heard the gospel. By misunderstanding the term “missions” from the bible, people have conceived of an elitist view of missions in which only a few are called to the life of missionary-hood. The truth is that “missions” is just another term for evangelism and should include cross-cultural ministry. Everyone is called to evangelism. To paraphrase Martin Luther, I believe “missionary-hood”, overseas or at home, is “for all believers.”

We want to have openness to the Holy Spirit using everyone, rather than predetermining who is a missionary or not. Now, once the church has been planted, once the mission has been successful, then we have the job of leading the newly formed church, training the people and discipling the converts. Whether the person who has planted the church goes on to lead it is not inevitable; they didn’t in Acts. Therefore, I’m not saying that everyone can lead, but everyone can minister. Church planting is ministry, and so, in the words of Wimber, “everybody gets to play” in this game.

Nationals Lead The Churches

Learning from missions in the past, and having put the Vineyard Movement into a historical “missions” context, what I’ve emphasized over the years is that when people say “What does a Japanese or Namibian or Venezuelan Vineyard look like?”, I’ll tell them, “We don’t know, you tell us when you develop it!” We want to be indigenous and contextual. We’re trying really hard to ensure that we don’t grow a colonial movement. Nationals are the only ones in leadership; we don’t have any ex-patriots running the show. So, in the 49 countries in which the Vineyard has been ministering since 1990, we have residential missionaries ministering in 7 of them. Whilst there is a desperate need for more missionaries to witness to people who have never heard of Jesus, their job is to preach the gospel, raise up indigenous leaders before they leave, and then to offer subsequent support with prayer, resources and encouragement. Then, they would become what is called a non-residential missionary who has continual contact from afar.

We believe in the apostle Paul’s model of “non-residential” missionary-hood; people who come and go, stay and serve, depart and support. We plan not to create an imported institution, but to bless the Lord’s church overseas. We intend to ensure that the Vineyard doesn’t get too Western orientated, to avoid developing a movement led by white middle class people who bring to lesser developed countries not only the gospel, but laws and customs and civilization too.

The Association of Vineyard Churches (AVC) might have started as a Western movement but we’ve changed since that time. Now a third of our churches across the world are non-Western. In our last Vineyard International Consortium (VIC) meeting (in which the leaders of the independent national AVCs meet together annually) I brought in potential national leaders from Costa Rica, Zambia and Venezuela in order to prevent a Western domination of the worldwide movement. Moreover, we have another two being introduced at the next meeting. The Vineyard has been ministering in these other nations for a long time, and now they’re developing structure and leadership. Soon they’ll be ready to be “released.” So, I’m not focused on some sort of Euro-American imperialism or Western take-over of third-world countries. On the contrary, I sincerely believe that within the next four years there will be more non-Western Vineyard churches than Western.

News From The Front

Personally, the part of my job I love most is the ministry trips. I appreciate the importance of my “coordinating hat”–my office job–but I love my “initiating churches hat”–my fieldwork. We started the Vineyard in 1977, so we were a young, vibrant, charismatic group of people back in those days, certainly more fun than we are now! The first ministry trips I took part in were to London at the beginning of the 1980s. I remember once that my wife Penny and I stopped at a restaurant for supper with our team. Penny got out her guitar and, as we worshipped, a number of strangers joined in. At some point I jumped up on the table and preached the good news. To our astonishment two men were saved.

Immediately we took them upstairs to the bathroom of the restaurant owner, who happened to be a Christian, and baptized them both in the tub, clothes and all. I have a huge appetite for that sort of ministry! Now, it gives me such pleasure to listen to “news from the front” as some of my friends, church planting in their own different countries, recount their own “power encounters.” In Namibia, we have a woman called Unice. As a schoolteacher, she’s developed four churches through evangelism. She has released leaders in 3 of the 4 churches, and is now going on to do more. In Brazil there have been some incredibly divine appointments through power evangelism. In Cuba we’ve got teams going in once every three months, the last of which reported back that there were 250 conversions. The Vineyard is planting churches in Cuba, “preaching the good news to the poor” and “setting the prisoners free,” but under a name other than “The Vineyard,” because the government won’t allow a new church movement to exist.

Another amazing story concerns the Philippines. A group went out with Vicky Penwell to serve as midwives. In 2 years they’ve delivered 2000 babies and by sending back teams to check up on the babies and minister to the families, in just two years they’ve connected with over 10,000 people and planted two churches. The Lord is gracious and compassionate.

The Future Is “Looking Good So Far!”

When John Mumford was interviewed on UK radio, after the death of John Wimber, he was asked, “As with so many other denominations in the past, will the death of the Vineyard’s great leader cause it to ‘fall apart’ as a Movement?” John answered by drawing an analogy with the death of his own father. He said, “Just because my father died doesn’t mean that our family will fall apart. The Vineyard worldwide is also a family, and John worked hard during the last years of his life to set up a leadership structure to cope with and develop the movement in his absence. Apart from that, I can only say ‘Ask me that question again in 20 years time!’”

John Mumford was right. Two years on, we’re seeing signs of growth, not decline. AVC USA and AVC Canada were my main concerns after John’s death. But their recent pastors’ conferences proved that the USA has solidified under Todd Hunter’s leadership and Canada under Gary Best’s. For me, however, the most significant indication that the Vineyard Movement is not going to fall apart without its founding leader is VIC. John Wimber and I created the Vineyard International Consortium in 1995 with the aim of drawing together the leaders of national AVCs across the world. John wanted the group to be relational in nature and structure, rather than governmental, in function. It was not meant to be a Vineyard police bureau, or an AVC HQ; it doesn’t make decisions for Vineyard worldwide. These leaders influence rather than direct each other. John chose it to be this way because he didn’t want any nation dominating or ruling over another. Every leader, every nation that is released, is equal to the other; we don’t have any person or country with more authority.

Even the US, the oldest and largest AVC, doesn’t have more clout than any of the other countries. Since John died, we’ve released three other nations–Sweden, the Netherlands and Switzerland–as their own Vineyard movement, in their own respective country, and the theatre of nations attached to them. The Vineyard is growing; people are committed to, rather than fighting against, each other. In 1995 we thought it would take about 4 years to establish VIC. In 1999 we met in Switzerland as a truly unified, friendly group, dedicated to the same vision, tolerant of each other’s different views and interested in each other’s perspectives. But now, with fine leadership and new church planting models, I trust the Lord that our future is bright. As far as I can see, I don’t think we’re going to “crash and burn.” It’s “looking good so far!”