A gazillion years ago when I was a traveling musician, we had been touring across the country a good bit and with our second album release (vinyl, anyone?) we played a concert in our lovely hometown of Cincinnati. Through some odd circumstances that night, I ended up invited to lunch with someone named Walt, who not only was a fan of the growing Jesus-music world, but had an ulterior motive: to invite me to a new church he was a part of—the Vineyard.
It was meeting in a house in Mason Ohio, which seemed like the uttermost regions to me. I immediately went back on the road again, but my wife decided to check it out while I was touring. When I eventually got home, she said simply: I think you’re going to like this.
So on a Sunday night in 1984 we made the drive from Norwood to a house in Mason. Crammed in the living room were about twenty people and Steve Sjogren on a twelve-string guitar. As he sung some extremely laid-back unfamiliar California songs (“…change my heart, oh God, make it ever true…”), Anita and I found ourselves inexplicably crying. I don’t know if I was burned out from my then ten-year journey as a Christian—from Jesus-movement, charismatic, word-of-faith, to traveling musician—but it struck a chord in me: pared-down no-hype worship, a marriage between evangelicalism and the power of the Holy Spirit, and, as I soon discovered, a heart for the poor.
Could church be that simple? I felt like I had returned to my Jesus-people roots.
We never left. Two years later I left the band, found work at local recording studio, and began leading worship as a volunteer for the Vineyard Christian Fellowship that had now moved to a roomier hall at Scarlet Oaks Vocational School in Sharonville.
It was the transparency, honesty, the simple invitation of “Come Holy Spirit”, the laid-back approach, the lack of “religious airs”, the simple outreaches to the poor, the “kinships” (small groups), the churchplanting emphasis, the humble approach to praying for healing, and non-manipulative worship style that kept me. It was refreshingly different. Steve’s irreligious, outward-focused attitude challenged my inner cynic; he had me at hello.
And so I found my tribe.
As the years passed, while we planted dozens of Vineyard churches directly and indirectly, my understanding of our place in the larger Vineyard movement was fuzzy. We had become extremely outward-focused, struggling to maintain seven services every weekend (not to mention a midweek!) in a building that seated a little under six-hundred. The Vineyard movement seemed to have struggled through several different phases, from equipping conferences to the Kansas City prophets to the Toronto Blessing. At times it felt like we were a bit on the outs.
For various reasons, we had developed what felt to me a tenuous relationship with the movement as a whole; by 2000, I had only been to one national pastors conference in the previous sixteen years. From his Anaheim roots, Steve obviously had developed relationships with the earliest Vineyard movers-and-shakers. But whether geography or personalities or just the speed-of-life, it was sometimes an awkward bond.
That year I stepped into the senior pastor role at Vineyard Cincinnati and Rich Nathan invited me to attend the once-a-year regional leaders meetings in Columbus (though I had no formalized role in the movement). The national Vineyard had survived the death of its founder three years earlier, was redefining itself and in the unsexy throes of developing systems and processes.
We had given very little financially to the national movement over the years, but the push was stirring for a mandatory 3% of local church income to go to Vineyard USA. This was creating an issue for many churches and feeling like the slide toward a more institutionalized, denominational approach. In the free-wheeling, baby-boomer, Kingdom-oriented Vineyards, this seemed like a disturbance in the force.
But now that I was feeling the unique frustrations of leading a growing megachurch (read: herd of cats) and the tension of trying to grow outward-focused disciples, I came upon a simple realization: I could only ultimately move forward with our Kingdom mission to “love the people of Cincinnati into relationship with Jesus” if I had a certain percentage of sold-out, skin-in-the-game disciples. And in the American me-first, consumer-driven culture, letting go of money was the most difficult thing.
I quickly discovered that the people in our church who were most demanding and criticial were typically those who invested the least. In other words, it’s way easier to be an armchair quarterback on Monday night than to actually suit up and get leveled by a two-hundred-fifty pound defensive end. Multiple times if you’re Ryan Tannehill.
But I was no different at a global level.
Truth is, I found it easy to take potshots at the Vineyard movement as a whole (phases, trends, direction, etc.) when we didn’t have a lot of skin in the game. But it was the same thing that bothered me as a pastor with non-invested parishioners. And God nailed me on it.
So years ago I came to the leaders of our region at a Columbus meeting and repented. I told them we had not been fully invested and was embarrassed by it. They responded graciously, “No, you guys have always been a big help to lots of us and led the charge in servant evangelism. Vineyard Cincinnati has always given away resources and time to us.”
“Yeah, but on our terms,” I said. “And that’s not how real relationships work. And certainly not how to respond to leadership.”
After conversations with our trustee board, we began the process of giving the three-percent. For us at the time, it really was a difficult decision and required budget cuts in other areas to the tune of several hundred thousands of dollars. But it wasn’t the “three percent” that was the issue; it merely represented something deeper than that.
At the heart of it is this: I would have said that I was a firm believer and respecter of spiritual authority. The best leaders have at some point been good followers; there’s a holistic tempering that happens in that process. I knew that in the local church there has to be leadership structures in order to have focused impact. I fully subscribed to Hebrews 13:17—“Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority…”—and expected it with healthy symbiotic relationships in the local church.
There has to be more than mere tribal identification; there is the reality of spiritual authority. And there is no real spiritual authority without spiritual followership. That’s when I questioned my investment in the movement.
So I’m personally not a fan of the independent local church. And “networks” are not the same, because truthfully there’s no real sense of accountability and buy-in to something bigger than your own fiefdom. Although there’s no overpowering hierarchy in the national Vineyard movement, there’s enough relational capital and leadership investment that demands some submissive responsibility. And for me, I think that’s a tremendous safeguard for any church, even in an internal board-empowered organization. If Jesus is the CEO of the whole Church, shouldn’t it make sense that we learn the power and beauty of submissive health through earthly relationships?
Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not into entrepreneurial-strangling, institutionally-heavy, bloated bureaucracies. But how do we ask our people to be fully invested and yet we leaders of local churches are resistant to it ourselves? I’ll admit it: the current trend of people attending multiple churches and never committing to one drives me crazy as a pastor: how do you lead people missionally with that consumeristic approach and have any true sense of challenge and accountability?
The Vineyard movement is my family. Yep, the one with the crazy uncle and the second-cousin-removed that makes awkward comments at the family reunion. But it’s my family.
And the leaders of the movement have the unenviable job of making ecclesiastical decisions and giving direction for a much larger herd of cats that require me to weigh…and follow.
This is my tribe.