Does Gainesville Need the Vineyard?
On January 1st, our church announced that we were beginning a process to hire a new lead pastor. That’s a big leap for any church, but especially for one that has been through a lot in the past several years. Our senior pastor Arty Hart also announced he’d be preaching the next week on the question of whether Gainesville needs a Vineyard church. After all, nowhere is it written that the Vineyard has to continue. Perhaps God is leading us to close our doors. He certainly has that right!
After the service, a good friend came to me and asked the question directly: Why DOES Gainesville need a Vineyard? Why don’t we all just pack up and go to the larger church down the street? Is it really all that different? His intentions were absolutely sincere and good, yet the question threw me for a loop, I admit it. I couldn’t sleep that night or shake the question the next day. I knew the only way to get beyond it bothering me was to honestly ask myself the question and try to answer it. So, here it goes.
It’s a big question and a good one, and one that I admit at times I have pushed down and ignored from time to time, especially in those times when it has felt like our church has been spinning its wheels, or even rolling downhill. Asking that question requires a square look in the mirror and that isn’t always easy. It also requires thinking beyond our walls, to the rest of our city. It’s not just, do I need the Vineyard, but does Gainesville? Does the world?
After all, there are other churches out there and many of them aren’t all that different. Sure, the Vineyard was cutting edge in the 80s and 90s when the very idea that you could pray for someone and they would be healed, or that God might actually speak to us were viewed with skepticism and suspicion. I grew up thinking that charismatics were deceived, crazy, or literally demon-possessed. But the winds have shifted over the past 30 years. There’s been a change. Many of the Vineyard’s distinctives have been become not-so-distinct; you can hear people talk about the ‘already not yet’ of the Kingdom in tons of evangelical churches and have people pray for your healing in a brick Baptist sanctuary.
In Gainesville in particular there are other churches where the charismatic gifts are practiced and the kingdom is preached. And they are bigger. They have better programs. They make a bigger impact on our city through outreach. They have active youth groups and go on mission trips. They support overseas missionaries and feed the hungry in our backyard.
So, why don’t we all just go there? We should really ask the question. Why don’t we sell of all our assets, donate the money to St. Francis House or some other charity, and just start attending the big Assemblies of God church in town? They’ve got room. Our whole congregation would take up about three rows in their sanctuary. Our kids would have a blast in their colorful classrooms and youth rooms (I hear they have indoor basketball). Their coffee might even be better.
It’s a real question. We should ask it. I’m asking it. Actually, I’ve been asking it off and on for a long time. It’s one of those questions you have to keep asking.
I think the answer is, ‘yes,’ by the way. I think Gainesville needs the Vineyard.
I’ve never written it out before. Or spoken of it this way. I’m going to try and do that here. Some of it will involve some necessary idealizing – I’m going to talk about Vineyard culture and theology and why I think it is distinct and matters and is important for our city. Not everything might feel true of our particular church as it is right now. But we are not a church that wants to remain as it is. We want God to continually shape and change us.
I’ve been a part of the Vineyard for 16 years now. It contains a broad spectrum. Yet we hold some things in common – the things that make us ‘Vineyard’ – that are distinct and important and transformative. They keep me a part of this community and give me hope for the future. I’m just going to talk about four of them here that I think are central.
1. Jesus at the Center. John Wimber used the phrase ‘the main and plain’ to express the idea that churches should center themselves on the life and teachings of Jesus. He was a scholar and knew theology was important, yet he also knew that discipleship means following a man, not a doctrinal statement. Did you know the Vineyard has a statement of faith? It does. But you rarely hear about it. To become a member – or even a pastor! – in the Vineyard, you don’t have to swear your allegiance to it or even agree with all of it. Many Vineyard pastors I know openly disagree with certain parts of it. They all agree, though, about who Jesus is and that following Jesus is what a life in the Christian faith is all about.
Centering our church on Jesus in this way keeps ‘the main thing the main thing.’ It keeps the Vineyard committed to discipleship as the main activity of the church. It also means that in the Vineyard there is plenty of room for disagreement and discussion when it comes to things that aren’t the main thing. It means we can be generous when it comes what people believe about things other than the Gospel. For example, we can disagree on whether unbelievers go to hell and are tortured there for eternity. Some Christians believe that. Others don’t. Both can fit in in the Vineyard. We can disagree about whether there’s going to be a rapture one day where all believers are suddenly taken to heaven and everyone else gets left behind. Wimber didn’t believe that. I don’t believe that. But many Christians do. And they are welcome in the Vineyard.
And…and this is the truly great thing….we can disagree about those things OPENLY. We can talk about them. In other churches, sure, you might not agree with everything in their statement of faith – but you better not talk about it. You better not mention it openly in smallgroup or bring it up to a pastor. Disagreement is seen as weakness, as a source of division. It’s a great way to get uninvited to the next church potluck.
In the Vineyard, we consider our diversity a strength. We love tension and want to live in it. We sharpen one another that way. We learn to love one another better that way. It’s easy to love those who are just like us. It’s hard to love those who are different, who think differently. It’s easy to call someone my brother or sister in Christ if we have all the same beliefs. It’s harder if we differ in how we think about the nature of heaven or the subject of gay marriage. And in the Vineyard, we think that’s a good thing. Because at the end of the day, we both wake up in the morning thinking, ‘how do I follow Jesus today?’ And on Sunday or Tuesday night or whenever, we sit side by side and take the bread and dip it in the cup and eat it and say ‘Jesus is Lord.’
Keeping Jesus at the center this way also means that it’s the center that counts. It means we don’t have or shouldn’t have invisible boundaries – cultural or theological – that tell some people they’re out while others are in. It means people – all people – are welcome to come find out more about this Jesus, and mingle with those who follow him. No pre-conditions, no pre-qualifications. All are welcome.
And when people come, we have only one thing to offer them – Jesus. There’s no sales pitch, no bait and switch. There’s no sinner’s prayer you need to pray. There’s no Roman’s road you need to go down. There’s just an invitation to a life meaningfully and truthfully lived following the Jesus Way, the way of the Kingdom.
When people come into a Vineyard church, they won’t likely find a Starbucks gift card in their guest bag; they won’t find slick video announcements; they won’t find colored backlighting or a sermon style worthy of a TED talk. But they will, if we are doing this thing right, find Jesus preached from the pulpit and Jesus worshipped in our simple love songs; they will find a community centered on Jesus.
2. Honest, Broken Worship. What was it, exactly, that made Vineyard worship so infectious in the 1980s and 90s? It’s frequently said that Vineyard worship started just by ‘singing simple love songs to Jesus,’ but why was that so powerful? Having grown up in church and yet never experienced worship like I have in the Vineyard, I tried for many years to put my finger on the unique quality of Vineyard worship. I finally named it ‘worshipful brokenness,’ but even that doesn’t quite cover it. But it gets close. Vineyard worship, I think, is characterized by honesty and brokenness. You don’t have to feel whole to sing these songs. You can bare your sin and brokenness to God even as you sing to Him (you can bare it ‘cause he can bear it).
I have worshipped in other charismatic churches (once for about a year and half). The majority of the songs told of God’s power and glory and awesomeness and holiness. And that’s great. But I could never sing them in an intimate way. What has this holy, perfect God to do with me? How can I sing of his perfection when my heart is so broken? I needed songs that sung of God’s love, of his willingness to get his hands dirty, of my failing but never ceasing journey to be more like Him and his unquenchable thirst for intimacy with me and all of the mess involved in that. I found those songs in the Vineyard and they opened me to experience God’s love in new ways.
And since the Vineyard recognizes that worship isn’t limited to singing songs, but in fact characterizes every aspect of our lives, this attitude toward worship bleeds out into everything else that’s a part of what makes the Vineyard distinct. If we can be broken and honest with God, we can be broken and honest with one another. We can be truly vulnerable, which is what is needed for real community to take place since it is what is needed for real love to be experienced.
I see this in the Vineyard and in our church in particular – people who care for one another with vulnerability and honesty, who pray for one another for healing and forgiveness, who share meals together and buy food for another – sometimes because a friend doesn’t have enough money for groceries. People who have the honesty and courage to speak the truth to one another in love.
You might think this would be characteristic of all churches, but you’d be absolutely wrong about that. I haven’t found it in other churches I’ve been a part of; not as a cultural, community value.
When we first moved back to Gainesville, my wife and I and our kids attended a large Pentecostal church in town – one we all know – for a year and a half. And for nearly all of that time, we were part of a smallgroup with other young parents. They were all great people. And yet after a year and a half of meeting weekly with this group, praying together, and studying scripture together, I really couldn’t say that I knew them any better than I had at the beginning. I knew more things about them, sure, but there was some barrier there that couldn’t be crossed. Vulnerability and honesty and brokenness were missing. My wife and I finally heard God telling us that we should go somewhere else – leave all the great kids ministry programs and slick Sunday morning service and seek out more authentic community. We came back to give the Vineyard a try and attended a smallgroup that first week, led by Grant and Suzanne Raudenbusch, whom we’d never met before. Within an hour, we were all laughing and singing together. Within two hours, we were crying together and praying for one another. Valerie and I knew we were home.
To be honest about our brokenness, about our flaws, our limits and our failures and yet to worship ANYWAY, to love others ANYWAY, to build relationships ANYWAY, is, I think, a central value of the Christian journey and yet it is incredibly rare to find a place where this is valued and encouraged. The Vineyard is such a place.
3. The Kingdom of God. It is so common today to hear Christian leaders talk about the Kingdom of God that it’s hard to believe that just 50 or 60 years ago the phrase was virtually absent from Christian conversations. The Kingdom Theology detailed by George Ladd and many others has had an enormous impact and it continues to grow and involve. Only the Vineyard, however, can claim to be a church movement that from the beginning put the theology of the Kingdom at its center and continues to press into it.
Those who’ve been part of the Vineyard for any time are familiar with at least some basic tenets of Kingdom Theology – the idea that the reign and rule of God, which will one day be perfected on earth, can ‘break through’ from the future to the present so that we can experience God’s Kingdom now. This is one way of thinking about the idea that the Kingdom has already begun on earth with the ministry, death and resurrection of Christ yet exists alongside and overlapping our present fallen world. The Kingdom is possible now, but isn’t guaranteed. We call this ‘the already and not yet’ nature of the Kingdom.
The topic is often emphasized when talking about the phenomenon of prayer and super natural healing, a foundational value in the Vineyard. We pray for others to be healed, but healing doesn’t always occur. Unlike in many Pentecostal traditions, we do not ascribe this ‘non-healing’ to lack of faith on the part of the prayer or prayed-for. Instead, we simply recognize that we live in a fallen world and the Kingdom hasn’t fully arrived yet. We keep praying and pray more. If and when healing does take place, we celebrate it as a Kingdom breakthrough. (Our culture of honesty also comes into play here; we do not pretend to heal people or go in for hokeyness in our prayers. We pray simply and honestly for healing. If it happens, we tell the healed to follow up with the doctor and make sure the healing has really happened.)
The implications of our focus on the Kingdom, however, reach much farther than praying for physical healing and in my opinion, the Vineyard is only just beginning to explore this. After all, Jesus preached the Kingdom as the reign and rule of God in our lives; it therefore touches everything we do and who we are as a community. In this sense, the Kingdom is thoroughly political, an alternative way of living that contrasts with that of ‘the world’ for Jesus and for us.
Some argue that Kingdom ‘goals’ have become goals of broader society: help for the poor, justice for the wronged, home for the homeless, etc. But the Kingdom isn’t fundamentally goal-oriented, as Jesus makes clear. It is, rather, way-oriented. In other words, it’s not the end, but the means.
For example, Jesus said the Kingdom was like a mustard seed – small and unnoticed, yet insidiously growing to spread throughout the whole garden. A Kingdom-oriented church, then, is more likely to value the small and quiet than the large and intrusive. I would not expect a Vineyard church to implement and orchestrate a city-wide plan to restructure how the homeless are cared for in Gainesville. Rather, I would expect members of a Vineyard church to love homeless people, volunteering to help them, inviting them to be members of their church, sharing meals with them, praying and mentoring them toward wholeness in relationships that might last years or decades or lifetimes.
The Kingdom doesn’t value big and powerful; it doesn’t value and flash and glitz; it doesn’t value loudspeakers and stage lights. It doesn’t even value social impact. It values the small, the relational; it values investment in people, not programs. Often larger churches are run by visionary leaders with amazing administrative skills; they are great at building organizations; that can be great and I’m certainly not saying such churches can’t be effective at supporting people and sharing the gospel. But I would not expect a Vineyard to operate that way. Rather, I would expect a Vineyard to operate on Kingdom values of smallness, hiddenness, and being relational. The Vineyard seeks justice by forming people who seek justice and supporting them in seeking justice.
4. The Holy Spirit. In the Vineyard, we talk about the Holy Spirit a lot, not simply as an evidence of salvation or as a mystical force of God’s will, but in personal ways – as a companion that makes our Christian walk unique and possible. The New Testament understanding of the Holy Spirit as a paraclete – an advocate – has a reality in the Vineyard that I see in few other places.
The Holy Spirit mediates God’s work in our lives in shaping our spirit, directing our prayers and actions, giving us information we wouldn’t otherwise have, and comforting our spirit in times of trouble. We follow God as Jesus did – asking what the Father is doing through the work of the Holy Spirit and then partnering with him in that work.
Our commitment to following the Spirit’s guidance has big implications for how we do church and how we relate to one another. Since we know that all Kingdom work is the work of the Spirit, we don’t worry about efficiency and effectiveness the way the world does. We know the Kingdom is often wasteful, lavish, and inefficient, like the woman using priceless perfume to temporarily make Jesus’ feet smell good. We know that our measures of ‘what works’ aren’t necessarily God’s measures, like when ‘success’ looks like a death on a cross. We worry only about discerning what the Father is doing and participating in the work that Spirit puts before us.
Since the Spirit is like the wind, blowing wherever it wishes (John 3:8), we also know that a life in the Spirit is a life of faith, lived one step at a time, and that this life must be lived in community with others. I can’t discern the Spirit’s work on my own since I can only (if I’m lucky) perceived a small sliver of what God, in his infiniteness, is up to. I need others to pray with me, to speak into my life, to speak the words the Spirit gives them, to know just what it is that the Spirit is doing in my life. This again requires honesty and brokenness and vulnerability and creates a unique chance in the vineyard for the sort of authentic community that the Kingdom is built upon.
I could go on and on with things I love about the Vineyard and that are also reasons why Gainesville needs a Vineyard – our support of women in ministry (still surprisingly rare), our ‘everybody gets to play’ philosophy of ministry, our centered-set ecclesiology, etc. – but I think the things I’ve mentioned above are more distinct than these and create the church culture that we call ‘being Vineyard.’ Really, when you boil it down, I think, what underlies all of these are the values of love and honesty that take on a unique character in the Kingdom of God.
Several years ago, when I was just exploring what role God might want me to have here at the Gainesville Vineyard, I approached several leaders in the church and asked them a direct and simple question: Why are you here at the Vineyard instead of somewhere else? From one leader in particular, I got an answer that I think speaks to this question of whether the Gainesville needs a Vineyard. Keep in mind, this was an individual that at the time worked in the non-profit sector and spent a great deal of time visiting churches in our area, but had called the Vineyard home for years.
I’m paraphrasing here, but here’s what he told me: I go to the Vineyard because it’s the only place I’ve felt at home. There are other churches with good biblical teaching, but when I got there I feel like I have to turn my heart off. It’s all about knowledge. And then there are other churches where they’re all about the Spirit, but I have to turn my brain off because it all feels so silly. At the Vineyard, I can just be a regular person who is trying to follow Jesus with all my head and all my heart and I can do that with other people who are different than me, but trying to do the same. Other places either just don’t get it, or it’s like they’re pretending in some way and they don’t even know they’re doing it.
Gainesville, it seems to me, needs the Vineyard.
It needs honest, broken worship with honest speech and honest community.
It needs people who seek the Kingdom and the justice it brings.
It needs people led by the Spirit and not their ideologies.
It needs a place where Jesus is at the center of everything.
There is no doubt that the Gainesville Vineyard has had a rough go the past several years. We can be honest about that. I tend to think these difficulties have come about precisely because in some areas the Vineyard has not been the Vineyard. We have failed to be honest with another, preferring to avoid conflict wherever possible. We stopped praying for one another in the Spirit and wounds went untreated. We let our value of close community and brokenness wither. We worried more about paying the bills than about investing in people. We put paying the mortgage at the center instead of following Jesus. All of these things, I think, are true to some extent.
The person I mentioned above, who only felt home at the Vineyard, no longer calls the Vineyard home. We (especially those of us in leadership) failed him and his family and they left. They weren’t the only ones. It’s time to be honest about that.
But none of this means that Gainesville doesn’t need the Vineyard. It just means we need to have a long look in the mirror – both to see what we’ve become and to remind ourselves of who we are supposed to be. I think the leadership of the Gainesville Vineyard started doing just that about two years ago and has come a long way, though there is still some way to go. The decision to hire a new lead pastor is a result of that process. But of course this has to happen at more than just the level of the elder board. As a congregation – a community, a family – we have to look in that same mirror and ask ourselves those same questions.
For me at least, there is no doubt in my mind that Gainesville needs the Vineyard. The question is, can we become the Vineyard that Gainesville needs? Will we let God shape us into that? If we press into Jesus, press into prayer, let the Spirit guide us, and embrace the love and honesty that makes our movement so unique, I have every confidence that we can.