Sunday, June 7, 2009

Church #23: Vineyard Community Church

A couple of months ago, I attended the Vineyard Westside and spoke about church as “family.” Because of my relationship with Tim (Westside's lead pastor), visiting his church was like reconnecting with a brother.

This week, visiting the Vineyard Community Church was like going home to mom and dad.

My spiritual journey began at the Vineyard more than ten years ago. I attended church a handful of times as a kid and even less as an adult (I went to my brother's church a few times so I could play on his basketball team). After I met Evan Griffin in 1997 and reconnected with him in early 1999, I agreed to start reading the Bible, hanging out to discuss life, and visiting his church … the Vineyard.

I don't remember specifics of my first visit, but I do remember feeling comfortable in church, which was a first for me. Every Sunday felt like a little slice of home, so I kept going back. By the fall of 2000 (my second year of graduate school), I was at an incredibly low point in my life. I hadn't been to church in months. I basically told Evan I had no interest in becoming a Christian. My relationship problems were out of control. I was committed to trusting my own abilities and charting my own course. It didn't matter that the previous six months had been a disaster. I wanted to make life work on my own terms.

Then, on November 26, 2000, Dave Workman stood on the Vineyard's stage and gave a very simple talk that stirred my soul. He spoke about the greatest commandment: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love other people.

It was just that simple. For the first time in my life, I thought, I can do that. Don't drink? Don't have sex? Don't curse? I had no idea if I could control my behaviors. Dance during worship music? Read the Bible? Pray? I didn't know if I had it in me.

But I could love God. And I could try like hell to love other people. So, I was sold. Two days later, I asked God to change my life. Evan Griffin and Dave Workman played huge roles in my story, and I know I wouldn't be the man I am today without the Vineyard.

I met my ex-girlfriend there, and even though it didn’t work out between us, we influenced each other heavily. I worked there with some of the best people I have ever known—Susan Carson, Scott and Claire Oppliger, Tim Urmston, Sharon Karns, Mark Stetcher, and Garry Shirk (among others). It was where Aaron Wright and I crossed paths, beginning a friendship that led to our future church plant in Uptown Cincinnati.

But my relationship with the Vineyard became strained over the years.

I worked there for eighteen months writing curriculum for the Vineyard’s small groups. Had some amazing times. In the end, I felt “wronged” by the way my position was eliminated. I continued to speak at Alpha until I publicly announced my stance on gay marriage (I’m in favor). As a direct result of that blog post, I was told I wouldn’t be speaking at Alpha anymore. (For the record, about a year later, I was asked back.) Shortly after that incident, a friend of mine was badly mishandled by Vineyard leadership, leaving me incredibly frustrated.

I resented the Vineyard for a long time. When you see so much of the inner workings of a place that played such a huge role in your life, it can be disheartening. To be fair, most of my frustrations were due to my lack of maturity at the time. People at the Vineyard made mistakes, but I held the church’s leadership to an impossible standard.

I could write thousands of words about the rollercoaster ride I have been on with the Vineyard in the last ten years (like how I had to stop attending for a while because my ex’s new boyfriend was the drummer, and I couldn’t sit through worship without freaking out), but there is one thing I have never doubted: Dave Workman’s heart to follow Jesus and care for hurting people.

Perfect? Nope. Genuine? Yep. And in the spiritual landscape, I’ll take that any day of the week. Especially on Thursdays.

Because I have so much history at the Vineyard, a number of people have asked why I made it a stop on this journey. One friend even joked, “Wow, you really stepped out of your comfort zone this week.” My short answer:

I have had so much fun doing this experiment. I love that I have been able to visit the Church of Scientology, a Muslim Mosque, a Mormon Church, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a gay church, and so on. Heck, I even drove to Savannah, Georgia and found Compline. I love learning about new cultures. And I have been pleased to find that most people, regardless of faith, pretty much want the same things out of life. Black, white, Muslim, Christian, male, female, young, old … we are one people bound by a common history and a shared destiny. Religion may make us crazy, but the craziness of people doesn’t change who God is.

With that said, there was another purpose to this experiment, and frankly, it hasn’t been happening. I haven’t been connecting to God in deep and meaningful ways. My faith isn’t being redefined. Honestly, these past couple of weeks have been rough. My life isn’t falling apart, but in certain areas, my faith in God is being tested, and without a church home to remind me who God is, and who I am, often the wrong voices have been infiltrating my thoughts.

Simply put, I visited the Vineyard because I desperately wanted to experience God this weekend. I needed it. And … I got it.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Vineyard Community Church, it would probably be classified as a “seeker-sensitive megachurch.” The main room is a large auditorium, and I believe their weekly attendance is around six thousand. The 11:40 am service had about one thousand people. Ages varied widely, most people were white, and the dress code was casual. It had been a few years since I sat through an actual Vineyard service, so I was curious to see how things have changed.

Not sure this is typical, but right off the bat, I loved that the worship leader played a Queen song (Crazy Little Thing Called Love). I just wrote last week that I would love churches to loosen up a bit with music, and you can’t get much looser than Queen! After the song, he did say, “Hopefully that didn’t offend anyone.” Come on, seriously? If you are offended by that, please bend over and ask a friend to pull the stick out of your buttock. Opening services with fun songs is … fun, they create energy, and it immediately disarms new people, which is a good thing in church.

Speaking of worship, it was great. Really quality stuff. I’m still not one of those people who is going to go nuts over worship music, but I definitely felt a closeness to God that has been missing for most of this experiment. Pretty good songs, great band, good energy, and Charlie led worship well.

I hate standing during worship. I love to sit, relax, and feel the lyrics. Most churches create unspoken (or sometimes spoken) pressure to stand, but sitting in the balcony at the Vineyard gave me the opportunity to just relax and soak up the vibe. Good stuff. I’m not saying hymns are bad, but man, I can’t imagine people are moved by hymns the way I have seen people moved by the Vineyard’s style of worship. Obviously, to each their own.

The one snag in the service came during announcements. I think they were trying to have fun and capture the theme of the series (carnival vibe), but they played a little game that badly missed the mark. Those moments are always high risk/high reward. If it works, great. If not, major awkwardness. The guy doing announcements called a random person from the congregation on stage to guess her age, asked her two unrelated questions (favorite color and ice cream flavor … her answers were purple and mint chocolate chip), and then he guessed twenty-seven. She said the guess was way off, so he gave her a stuffed monkey. That was it. We never even found out how old she is.

My guess … twenty-two. Now where’s my stuffed monkey?

The jokes just didn’t work. Then, he mentioned his comedy troupe, “The Grapes of Laugh.” Yikes. Was “The Great Laughsby” taken? I cannot think of any book more depressing than The Grapes of Wrath. I have seen attempts at comedy fall short many times before. I have been part of my fair share of such moments. Life goes on.

Next, a crazy bearded man took the stage. At first, I thought a homeless Ray Romano snuck past security, but I quickly realized it was actually the teaching pastor, Joe Boyd.

I was secretly (not so secret anymore) glad Dave was not speaking this weekend. Dave is good, but I have heard Dave teach hundreds of times over the years. I was interested in hearing Joe. From day one, a dozen friends who still hang around the Vineyard have raved about him, and I caught a couple of his talks online about a year ago, but nothing beats a firsthand experience.

Joe was an interesting speaker. I have seen him perform comedy before, but his style Sunday was very unassuming. If it had been anyone else, I think I would have been bored and tuned out, but Joe captivated with his simplicity. Simple wisdom, simple humor, and before you know what’s happening, you’re reeling from a brilliant point that shakes you to the core.

Joe spoke about idols, defining them as any thing that got us to where we are now and will get us to where we’re going. He went on to say idols often begin as gifts from God that we are free to love, but then we turn them into something ugly. I could so easily do that with teaching, or writing, or relationships (and often do).

“Here, Steve,” God says, “I have blessed you with the ability to throw sentences together in a way that interests others. I take great pleasure in watching you use this gift.” But then, I make writing my identity, seek to use the gift for my own gain, and completely forget about God in the process, so writing becomes an idol. Something I worship more than God. Not good.

Joe went on to make a point that I have ignored most of my life. It is actually possible to worship both God and idols. I have always had two gods. In fact, I would classify myself as a part-time follower of Jesus. Too often, we play the either/or game. You either love God or you love money (in fact, there is a Bible verse pertaining to this). But that hasn’t been true for me. I do love God. Deeply. And I also love money. Deeply. And I love a lot of other crap. Deeply. Maybe it’s hard to love both God and money at the exact same moment, but it’s easy to love both in the same lifetime. Too often we make assumptions and judge. If someone has a nice car, he can’t possibly love God, or he would be donating all of his money to charity. Really? Maybe he just has two idols. Or ten.

I’m not saying that’s a good thing. A part-time relationship with God isn’t ideal. We need to work to overcome false idols because they have the potential to destroy our lives. The issue is more complex than some of us would like to admit. The love of one false idol does not exclude a deep passion for God. Someone could be a sexual predator, or a thief, or an adulterer, and still love God, which is messy.

I like it when faith is complex … it makes that faith seem more genuine.

I really do want to worship God only, but it is sooo difficult. I am much more comfortable trusting myself. It feels much more natural putting my hopes and dreams in my own hands. Honestly, part of me is okay with that. God doesn’t pay my bills; God doesn’t write my novels; God doesn’t teach my classes. I do. My own hard work. My talents (although I do believe those are given by God). We can’t just sit back and pray all day, waiting for miracles. If I give none of my paycheck away, you would call me selfish. If I gave all of it away, you would call me crazy. So, what is the percentage that is sane? What is the Godly percentage? Ten percent? Jesus commends a poor widow for giving every penny. What if I gave every penny and couldn’t pay my rent? That would be dumb, right? But what if I gave ten percent to the church and couldn’t pay my rent? Would that still be dumb?

Welcome to the questions that keep me awake at night. I am convinced my brain keeps me from experiencing God supernaturally. But I don’t want a faith that doesn’t also involve logic. I don’t think Joe Boyd does either, which is why I appreciate his teachings.

Joe wrapped up his message, said a prayer, and I was out the door in a little over an hour.

One thing I noticed about the Vineyard was a very different vibe than the church I left four years ago. My impression back then was that things had become stale and predictable. Sunday, the creative vibe was better—younger, fresher, and more polished (the set design was elaborate, fun, and very cool). Worship was better. I always remember Charlie being incredibly talented, but I felt led in worship yesterday. Something I think most worship leaders don’t do well. There was more energy. The teaching wasn’t a scripted PowerPoint presentation. For me, God’s presence was palpable.

So, where did this week’s visit leave me?

Part of me wanted to quit the experiment and start attending the Vineyard again. But another part knew there was more to experience on my journey. (And who wants to read a book called, The Church Experiment: 23 Churches in 23 Weeks?)

So, I kept going. And I kept waiting for Joe Boyd’s call asking me to star in his movie, Hitting the Nuts. That call never came.

If this week was proof of anything, it’s that we truly can go home again. Even if you take the long way.