April and I have been considering changing churches for several months now, long before the announcement in January that they were cutting the college minister’s position to part-time. We already had some issues with the worship and preaching at First & Calvary, so the stuff with the college ministry just highlighted how some of our priorities differed from those of the church leadership. Subsequently, over the last few months we have been visiting other churches and asking around to see if there might be a better fit for us here in Springfield.
I had been invited to the Vineyard numerous times over the last six years, but I had never managed to visit. Now that we were shopping around, though, it seemed like an ideal opportunity to check it out. As I have since learned, Vineyard is more of a movement of affiliated churches rather than its own denomination, though labeling it as the latter wouldn’t take too great a stretch of the imagination. We didn’t know much about Vineyard as either a movement or a church, though, and beyond knowing a few of the members we were pretty hazy on what this congregation was like. Though we are going to participate in some of the community events they have coming up, we had a few topics we wanted to discuss specifically with Tim, the pastor of the Springfield Vineyard Church.
This was the biggest topic of the night and the one on which we spent the most time. In general, I have never felt particularly free to practice or express giftings of the Spirit in church, but that freedom is something I am desperately seeking now. I wanted to know how the Vineyard approached spiritual gifts and what they did about/with them.
Tim’s response was a bit of a surprise because he began by telling us how the Vineyard first came to be. In short, the man who eventually founded the denomination was on mission in Africa and he noted how certain ministries’ mesages were received. Those who embraced the gifts of the Spirit, performing healings or prophesying in the name of God, were well-received by the natives and took root. The more conservative missionaries who performed no such acts were largely ignored. After all, if a man can go down to the witch doctor and be healed, why listen to someone who cannot heal you?
If God is ready and willing to act in such a manner (such as healing), why should we avoid it? Therefore, the Vineyard embraces spiritual giftings and seeks to employ them, but it attempts to do so in a method that leaves room for… disbelief and error, I suppose. They don’t want non-believers to feel particularly uncomfortable, so if a person is prophesying, that person will phrase it in a way that allows the recipient to say, “No, I don’t think that’s for me.” Likewise, humility is essential in the exercise of the gifts, because it is entirely possible for us to misunderstand God or God’s intent.
The conversation on this point was rather lengthy, so I’ll leave it at this: I appreciated his response, and while I don’t particularly agree with always phrasing things in non-committal terms (I think that when God reveals himself, or commands us to do/say something, that’s unequivocal and shouldn’t necessarily be couched in terms that could imply relativity), the openness and acceptance towards those giftings was encouraging. I was satisfied with Tim’s response.
The Vineyard is a church planting movement, which is to say that one of their primary focuses as a denomination is to start more churches. They believe this is the most effective way to spread the Gospel, and so the job of a Vineyard missionary is to enter an area, start a church, train indigenous leadership, and after a few years hand that church over to the new leadership.
The Springfield Vineyard church supports three missionaries and also supports a team on short-term missions. In addition, they regularly schedule community service projects in local neighbourhoods, including the one in which April and I live. Their priorities seem pretty solid here.
Tim admitted that their church is struggling, just like every other, and this is due to a combination of different factors. Their budget, originally made three years ago, assumed a congregation of 150 members (at the time, they had 115). However, they recently bought a church building and moved. At this time, a number of the families that had previously attended the Springfield Vineyard stopped attending (presumably due to the longer drive). The Vineyard is now around 90/150 members, has a building to pay for, and all this in the context of an economic downturn.
Despite that, Tim shared the algorithm for judging church financial health with us: a financially average/healthy church receives $20 per person per week. The Springfield Vineyard is around $30 per person per week.
So, while they have less money than they need to meet their budget, less members, and specifically less affluent members, the numbers are encouraging. I’m glad to know that people are giving. I also appreciate the way the church goes about collecting money (it’s pretty understated, but also very transparent–Tim lets everyone know what’s going on along the way, and the weekly email sent out includes a budgetary summary). Tim told us that the Vineyard has always had an emphasis on serving the poor, and their previous location in an upscale strip mall in the nicest part of town was incongruent. He feels they are truer to themselves now and better able to serve God’s vision for them, and that’s what is important. I am confident the finances will work themselves out, and appreciate the transparency on the matter.
Over the last three years, I have become accustomed to the somewhat democratic organization of the Presbyterian denomination. There are committees and subcommittees and voting sessions and nothing takes less than six months to get done. This system has its strengths and weaknesses, as you might well imagine,
The Vineyard is almost completely opposite, and Tim wanted to be very up front about that. The denomination believes in local control, so there isn’t really a hierarchy or strict set of codes by which local congregations must abide. There are no dues that I know of. And there is no congregational voting or even appeal. The only restrictions placed on Tim, as he put it, are ones he places on himself. That being said, there is a body of elders that leads the church and makes the decisions. The number of elders is currently… two. And Tim’s one of them.
This doesn’t particularly bother me, as I’m personally fairly oligarchical. I don’t think running an organization by referendum really works, so I think the key is getting good people in leadership and letting them do their job. If you don’t approve of the job they’re doing, you kick them out or go elsewhere, problem solved. But you can’t have ninety people with their hands at the tiller. I do hope the number of elders increases soon, but apparently there are more people involved than just those two, so that’s something. There are also the spiritual leaders and the Board of Trustees.
After the frustrations April and I have both encountered with the sermons at First & Calvary, I was curious what Tim’s sermon prep was like. He told us that he knows what he’s preaching every Sunday through the end of the year and that average weekly sermon prep is about twenty hours. After hearing him preach twice, I was already sold though: he can manage 30-45 minutes sermons without notes, pausing, losing his place (except once, briefly), or repetition (unless such repetition is called for). As someone who has to do a decent amount of public speaking, I found his oration skills particularly impressive. Tim said that he has been doing this since he was thirteen years old.
We met for about two hours and left feeling better about the Springfield Vineyard Church than when we sat down. I was already pretty positive, and I’m even more so now. I think April is more satisfied with the church as well now.
We are attending a communal dinner with six other people on Saturday night, and we’re going to volunteer to contribute food for the upcoming church painting. After we’ve spent some more time with the community of the church, we’ll know better which direction we’re going.
Until we make a final decision, we will continue tithing to First & Calvary, but I’m definitely leaning towards the Vineyard. We’ll see.