Interview with Springfield Vineyard Church

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.

Spiritual Gifts

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.

Missions

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.

Finances

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.

Church Leadership

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.

Sermons

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

First & Calvary Presbyterian Church Cutting College Ministry

I am currently distributing this letter to members of First & Calvary Presbyterian Church who also happen to be faculty, staff, and/or students at Missouri State University, but also wanted to post it for everyone to read.

In short, First & Calvary Presbyterian Church has elected to respond to budgetary concerns by cutting the position of College Minister from a full-time staff position to part-time with no benefits. This will effectively mean the end of the college ministry at First & Calvary, a move I find particularly remarkable for a congregation that resides on a college campus. Because a lot of people weren’t aware the position was being cut, I wrote the above letter to notify them and encourage people to attend the upcoming Town Hall meeting.

Part of the problem, as I see it, is that the church views college ministry as a component of Christian Education (that is, after all, the budget and line items under which the ministry has been placed), and strictly in terms of CE, it might be viewed as less than satisfactory. Many members have children who grew up in the church but, upon reaching college-age, stopped attending, and we have not been successful in getting those kids to come back. Moreover, we only have 5-10 college students attend on Sunday mornings, and if that’s the only means by which we are measured, it is difficult to justify a full-time position for 5-10 people.

However, the college ministry is so much more than that, and I fear that our benefits have been overlooked. As Brian wrote in The Review (the church’s weekly newsletter) last week, we have had over a hundred students through our doors in the last four months, with over thirty attending most every week, and have logged more than 150 hours of community service in the last semester. We serve members of the church as well as the campus community, but a lot of members don’t even know we exist.

Now is the time to let them know. If we’re going to get this decision reversed, we need to convince people that college ministry, that FnC, is not just a Christian Education youth group for five or ten kids. Rather, it is an outreach, a ministry that dives into one of the most important mission fields in the world, ministering to and discipling the future leaders and visionaries of our world. Working with college students means investing in the lives of those people who will, very soon, be changing the world in which we live. If you want to “go into all the world,” train college students in the teachings of Jesus and you’ll be right there.

There is a Town Hall meeting at the church this Sunday, February 1st, at 12:15 p.m. in the Multi-Purpose Room (downstairs, AKA the gym where the contemporary service is held). It is ostensibly for members of the church, but if you are a student, faculty, or staff member, not just of Missouri State but somewhere in the Springfield area, I would encourage you to attend and let your voice be heard. As far as I’m concerned, First & Calvary is stating that they are cutting missions work to the university, that the university is no longer valued or valuable, and that they see no need to invest in it.

I value college ministry highly, and cannot stand idly by when such talk is bantered around. Whether or not the above sentence represents the motivation or feelings of the people who voted to cut the ministry, it is most certainly the outcome. Cutting Brian’s position to part-time means the end of FnC and subsequently the end of any real missionary and discipleship work towards the university.

I will be at the Town Hall meeting, and I encourage you to attend as well. Let us show the church the value of a college ministry and implore them to reconsider.

To read my letter about the ministry, its impact, and its value, please click here.

If you’ve got nothing to say…

Oftentimes, when teaching aspiring poets, you will see a particular mistake repeated frequently. This mistake is one of apology or introduction, where the poet feels that their idea, their goal, or the emotion they wish to communicate is not powerful enough on its own, and so they seek to introduce the premise to garner buy-in from the reader.

To use the example of a sonnet (traditionally fourteen lines with the last two lines containing a twist), a new poet will have twelve lines of fluff and a solid idea at the end. The only advice one can give on such a piece is to cut the body of the poem, keep the idea (or perhaps the entire lines) expressed at the end, and start over. What you have is solid, cut everything that isn’t, and build anew.

Yesterday, our pastor gave a sermon about waiting on the Lord, which is all fine and well, except that he didn’t begin the sermon until 11:55 a.m., about five minutes before the official end of the service. I’m not sure how long he talked prior to that, but his sermon (as so often happens with him) touched on at least three unrelated topics and therefore could have been three different sermons. One of his statements I found wildly inaccurate (and perhaps inappropriate), and when he did get to the meat of his premise, he lacked the time necessary to really dig in and develop that idea.

I really want to talk to him about it, give him some advice, even offer to work with him on public speaking, preparation, etc. But though I think I could help him, I feel horribly conceited and arrogant even considering such a proposition, and I therefore lack the courage to actually talk to him about his sermons. Other people from our congregation have independently (I neither prompted the subject nor offered any criticism of my own) brought up complaints about his sermons to me, and while I can see where he can improve, I can’t bring myself to confront him.

At the same time, his sermons make me really not want to go to church. Or, at the least, not to stay through his part of the service. I’m really enjoying worship now, far more than I was when I first started going to First & Calvary (which I attribute both to some changes among the worship team and my own willingness to worship God no matter the setting or format), but it’s hard to motivate myself to even go to church when I know that 20-30 minutes of the service is somewhat wasted listening to a sermon I get very little out of.

We’ve all found ourselves in situations where we can offer unsolicited advice but are uncertain whether such an offering is wise or not. What was your situation, and how did you address it?