Becoming Series: Becoming Vineyard
This post, Becoming Vineyard, explores how I found myself in an association of churches known as Vineyard USA. The Becoming Series features blog posts that explore some significant and defining moments in my journey. Most of these moments were surprises along the journey for me, and sometimes for others too, and now they are stories that I have found worth sharing.
This journey begins in 1996, when I fully realized that through various experiences, I had become disillusioned with the church. Over the next few years my interest in the church as a practice and a institution were waning - and I found ways to stay away as much as I could. By 1998, I began working for a Christian theater, settling into the role of a full-time Animal Trainer and Actor. Though I had not abandoned the evangelical faith of my upbringing, I found myself on a spiritual pilgrimage. Working for a Christian theater was about all of the church and Christians that I could take at the time. My sojourn was initially fueled by numerous experiences with church and church leaders that had led me to a distrust of both. A little after graduating high school, I moved out on my own, and the amalgamation of disillusionment along with my own doubts, questions, immaturity and brokenness inspired me to explore my options – reading everything from the Qur’an to early church history, theology to Buddhist thought. There was much that I did not know, but I did know that Jesus was still alright with me, but the church was not something I trusted or had desire to reconnect with.
During my sojourn, I had visited a few churches, but I always found more reasons to stay away. I never found a safe and healing community to ask my questions. Small towns talk, and years later the pain that I had experienced, and the narrative set by those early Fundamentalist Church leaders shadowed me everywhere I went. My life had found new and unmatched meaning as I participated in event promotions, the music scene, my ongoing sojourn and a growing community of friends on similar searches. As I begun to settle into who I was, and accept what made me who I am, belonging to a church community was still not a priority for me.
While I was never overly rebellious, I cannot deny that my immature and wandering ways were quickly leading towards the life of a boundary-pushing vagabond – one whose life was spiraling but curtained by great beauty and brokenness. My antics in this season of my life would develop for me a moniker, an identity, and a growing recognition. In 2003, I was increasingly hitchhiking around the country, traveling with various organizations, and finding new ways to explore activism and the music scene. By 2004, I would abandon my apartment, friends, job, and the life I had made - and literally live on the road for eleven months straight. This would become a defining reality for me, and it became who I was until the fall of 2006.
The purpose of life for me, was primarily to experience the lure of adventure. If adventure was my main propulsion, the need for significance was my secondary desire, followed closely by a need to be known in community. Though, who can know for sure which order those desires were expressed in my life, The open road provided an answer to all of those things and for years, as the Spring Season would return, I would feel my traveling bone was aching, and the open road was calling. I was in one of those Spring seasons in 2003 when I encountered a Vineyard Church in an unusual way, but to my knowledge, I had never heard of the Vineyard Church. Though later I would realize that I had sung and heard songs from Vineyard Worship, I didn’t know it at the time.
This story might have grown in my mind over the years, and so I will tell it loosely here. I was living in a small studio apartment, preparing for a road trip. There was suddenly a growing desire in me to connect to a church community, but at the same time I pushed those feelings away, because every encounter until this point had left me wanting. Though I was settling into Jesus and the Christian faith, I didn’t know what kind of follower of Jesus I was – though I enjoyed arguing theology, history, and ideologies. From what I recall, I had a vivid dream while in that small apartment. I have always been a vivid dreamer, and this one was especially memorable. A mix of the details of that dream (I was in a local orchard in my dream), and perhaps some other influence that I have forgotten now, woke me up and drove me to search out these words that were now on my mind, “Vineyard Church.”
I wasn’t paying for internet at the time, because I was trying to save money for the road, and so I rooted through my trash to find a CD that came in the mail often during those days, a CD that would allow you to try out a dial up Internet for free through Juno and/or AOL. I passionately and rapidly installed that CD, and in these days before the monarchy of Google, I used Search.com to locate a Vineyard Church near me. Sure enough, I had learned that a growing church plant from the Vineyard USA association was just beginning to host Sunday morning worship gatherings – not far from where I was.
That next Sunday, or the following, I visited this church plant, making it the first church community that I had intentionally gathered with in sometime. I quietly walked into that church gathering, unsure of what I would find or experience. Thankfully, I was greeted by some deeply humble and caring everyday people, and I would find that I knew people that were in fact part of this church plant – but apparently had never let their colors fly around me. That first Sunday I was not only welcomed into the most laid back church gathering, but I was also greeted by the pastoral leader, a loving and unassuming individual who disarmed me by the way he greeted me. We had coffee the following week, and from that point on I knew that I had found a community that I wanted to explore more about – a community that I might want to belong too.
From 2003 to 2006, when I wasn’t traveling, I was participating in that church community. I was meeting with the pastor, inviting friends, and even helping to set up and tear down. One Sunday, something subtle happened in me and I found myself experiencing a transformation of heart. The pastor allowed me to wrestle with faith in his presence, and eventually I walked out the act of baptism. In 2004, they invited me to do announcements and even preach, which I am not sure they realized how dangerous that was – I am certain the first reaction to the invitation to preach was indeed a denial from me with expletives and improper hand gestures.
In 2005, I was spending some extended time in Southern California, after a seven-month road trip and a fun hitchhike down the coast. I was in SoCal, pursuing a girl, that would eventually become my wife. Late that summer, while I was out there, I took a job in the café and bookstore of one of the original Vineyard Churches, the church in which the movement was undoubtedly launched from. The six months I worked there were deeply formative and meaningful for me. One night, while walking Main Street in Huntington Beach, I was once again met with a vivid vision-like experience. That experience left one major impression on my mind, an impression that I was to return to Pennsylvania and serve that church I had known and that I also was to surrender to the Pastor as an understudy. After a train trip across the country, in December of 2005, I limped home knowing that I was about to pause my dreams and be dedicated in new ways to serve Jesus, Jesus’ church, and Jesus’ cause. In the winter of 2006, I became an intern under the pastor, I began being mentored by him, and I started attending both the Vineyard Leadership Institute and Vineyard East Region Bootcamps on Church Planting. Church was still a weird place for me, and when I was first invited to the Leadership Team meetings, I would bring a six-pack of beer to make this extended time with church politics and church people more palatable. Though I would still sneak a few road trips in, and one major tour in 2006, I started preaching more regularly, studying the scriptures deeper, serving on the leadership team, and overseeing some projects and ministries.
In 2009, my first six years in the Vineyard came to an end. Though I moved on from the Vineyard Church that had discipled and influenced me, the Vineyard ideologies and theologies that I learned would be a noticeable and undeniable part of me as I would take on new adventures. In fact, not only did I continue to track the Vineyard USA movement, and utilize their resources, I would go on to study and graduate with two undergraduate certificates from Vineyard Institute. In those new adventures, I took a few last cross-country trips and as I began serving the church in new places, until I started pastoring in Mennonite contexts. As I left the Vineyard in 2009, I had a clear sense that I would be back in the Vineyard USA network again someday and that I knew that in many ways the Vineyard was my people and my home.
God honored that sense that I had, and after seven years of pastoring a Mennonite church community, I transitioned into a new role pastoring for a rescue mission and I found myself once again settling into a local Vineyard Church. Eleven years after I last left the Vineyard Church, I was back home again, this time with my family. I was blessed to once again join leadership and preaching teams during my return to the Vineyard. Sadly, almost two years later, that struggling church community would close and I would move on to serve in another Mennonite context. Like before, I am sure that I am not done in the association of churches known as Vineyard USA. I am glad my children have experienced this passionate and laid-back church movement and that they have found their home in it as well. This story will continue someday, and the Vineyard has shaped me and continues to shape much of who I have become.
As of 2022, over 125,000 people call over 500 Vineyard churches home throughout the United States. The Vineyard USA association of churches is looking to embrace God's Kingdom and engage the world through their local church communities. Today, “the Vineyard family of churches is a missionally-minded community, committed to carrying the words and works of Jesus into every arena of human life.” As an association of churches, the Vineyard sees “Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God as the overarching and integrating theme of the Scriptures.” The Vineyard movement is one that confesses “the historical, biblical, orthodox Christian beliefs that we hold in common with all Christians,” but it is also known for its “unique call to Kingdom theology, ministry of the Holy Spirit, justice, and building healthy churches.” You can learn more about this association through their website.