The Kingdom in Columbus
The day they arrived at the church's doorstep on a sweltering July morning in 2010, Venant and Nshimira were weary travelers losing faith in God's provison. Refugees from the volatile eastern Congo, the couple had been resettled the previous September in Columbus, Ohio. Among their few possessions was a box stuffed with legal documents, leftovers from their case recently abandoned by a resettlement agent. When they arrived in Columbus, they had joined a French-speaking group for African expats, whose leader, Emmanuel Sotondji, invited them to accompany him to his church of a decade, Vineyard Columbus (VC), in suburban Westerville.
"The first time I saw Venant, his face showed so much fear," remembers Chris Childers, a social worker at VC since 2009. "He wasn't sure where he was in his faith."
And for good reason. Venant had been tortured by soldiers of a Rwandan terrorist group and suffered severe back and neck pain. He and Nshimira spoke zero English. Their furniture was a mattress and chairs with no backs; their six children slept atop blankets strewn across the linoleum kitchen floor of a two-bedroom apartment.
Childers immediately brought her 25 years of social service work to bear. She discovered they were eligible for food stamps and health benefits and could reduce their electric bill, which was burning through 10 percent of their income. She recruited another VC minister to gather layette supplies and furnishings for the couple's seventh child, arriving any day, and e-mailed VC's staff members, who brought a truckload of furniture in two days. She located an esl class within walking distance of the apartment (learning English is required for continued federal benefits). And, in a gesture unseen at their resettlement agency, Childers, Sotondji, and associate pastor Bill Christensen prayed for complete healing of Venant's scars.
The couple represent 1 of the 104 nations now gathered at the largest church in the Vineyard movement, a loose association of 1,500 congregations that infuse evangelical distinctives with the "signs and wonders" of the charismatic movement. VC's multicultural push over the past decade marks the next wave of a denomination taking its strong "kingdom of God" theology to the ends of the earth—or, rather, welcoming the ends of the earth to its Western center.
'A Serious Tipping Point'
It's no happenstance that VC's international flavor has been driven by a culturally Jewish, formerly atheist lawyer. "My passion for immigrants and racial reconciliation comes from the sense that I'm not an insider to white evangelicalism," says Rich Nathan, 56. The New York City native came to Christ when a friend, Marlene, took him to a Messianic Seder meal his freshman year at Case Western Reserve University. "When the pastor broke the matzo and explained the connection between the Last Supper and the Passover, the Holy Spirit hit me in the chest," says Nathan, whose wiry dark hair and 5'8" frame betray his lineage. Nine months later, Nathan was president of the college's InterVarsity chapter. He eventually married Marlene, and while he was teaching law at Ohio State University in the mid-'80s, they attended a revival in Harrogate, England. John Wimber, a leading founder of the Vineyard and a charismatic church-growth enthusiast, had planned to teach on healing, but at the last minute, sensing a Spirit nudge, spoke on the pearl of great price. "Some of you tonight are wondering about whether God is calling you into full-time ministry. You will know it's the Lord when there is no more time." Nathan says he gripped his seat, knowing God had answered his prayer for a sign.
That was 1986. The following year, Nathan became VC's senior pastor, and the fledgling congregation was adopted into the Vineyard. Since then, he has pushed to make sure VC's ethnic makeup matches that of Columbus: currently 64 percent white, 28 percent African American, and 4 percent Latino. Since 2001, VC has gone from 10 percent to 28 percent non-majority persons, and each Sunday attracts people from 44 of Ohio's 88 counties.
"There's been a serious tipping point," says Andy Saperstein, VC's small groups pastor, noting that for over a decade now the church has prioritized reaching international communities and modeling racial diversity. Pastor Christensen says outreach to African Americans began in 2000, and to immigrants and refugees in 2006. Now people from 104 of the world's 196 nations attend weekend services, whose total attendance tops 9,000.
Nathan roots such multiculturalism not in the politically correct "diversity campaigns" of mainline churches but in the Vineyard's kingdom theology. "Along with signs and wonders and healings and reconciled marriages, one of the great signs of God's kingdom is visible diversity in the local church," he says. "We ought to see Revelation 7:9 right now. There's no way apart from Jesus that this group of people would gather for anything, because naturally, birds of a feather flock together."
But diverse flocks don't always fly in the same direction. "Is there tension? Absolutely," says Christensen. "What do you do when a subcommittee has a highly organized American, a very organized Kenyan woman, and a Hispanic woman from Colombia who says, 'I want to make sure we just feel really loose and let this thing happen'?"
That Colombian, Maria Clayborn, "fell in love with the church" after moving to the United States in 2000 to get married. At VC, she received English lessons and legal advice. She's taught a "Spanish for Gringos" course at its community center for three years. Now a U.S. citizen, Clayborn feels the church often overlooks Latinos, whose numbers in Columbus have grown 158 percent since she arrived. "The church has a heart for the Muslim people," she says, "but they don't realize there are all these Hispanic people. Hispanics are filling this country with children who are going to be the future."
Political and Personal
Yet a Latino like Clayborn couldn't find a more aggressively welcoming white church in Columbus than VC. Nathan himself never shies from politics. He hosted a Sojourners "Justice Revival" at the church in 2008, to the consternation of some members and area pastors. And he has pushed for immigration reform, calling it "a biblical imperative" in sermons, op-eds, and speeches on Capitol Hill.
This March, during a sermon on Matthew 25, Nathan asked all those foreign-born to stand. "Our church is not interested in just welcoming you. We want to bless you, whatever your status," he proclaimed. Hundreds flooded the front of the auditorium, where church leaders laid hands on them. A member of Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, Nathan advocates a "third way" for the estimated 12 million immigrants here illegally: neither complete amnesty nor deportation, but a pathway to citizenship governed by a system of checks and balances.
"It's not like the church went looking to get involved in policy," says Erin Kutnow, VC's immigration reform advocate, who says it's the Columbus-area evangelical church most engaged on immigration. "Once you're in relationship with [people] and find out the variables that affect their day-to-day lives, you begin caring about things you hadn't."
One Haitian family had such an effect on VC last year. The couple had paid a Florida attorney $5,000 to get the wife's visa renewed. After hearing nothing for a year, they paid an Ohio attorney another $2,000, only to find that the first attorney had swindled them. The wife was deported back to Port-au-Prince; the husband turned to VC's legal clinic to land a work visa and a job to support their three children. Then the earthquake hit. No word from the wife for months.
"Praise the Lord, she was found. But the chances of her coming back are now slim to none," says Childers, noting that once one of their children turns 18, he has to wait at least 8 more years to apply to bring her back.
"Unless we're willing to turn our backs on evangelical family values, we have to figure out an earned pathway to citizenship," says Nathan, reflecting the denomination's stance. Bert Waggoner, the Vineyard national director since 2000, says it "took a very strong stand" when it encouraged the National Association of Evangelicals to sign a document calling for more just immigration laws in 2009. "We took the position that we were going to embrace immigrants," he says.
"Vineyard Columbus expresses in macro what is micro in our churches," says Waggoner. "We call ourselves 'Vineyard: A Community of Churches,' focusing on the fact that one of the foremost signs of the kingdom is the emergence of God's people … becoming more multiethnic. All of this comes out of our kingdom theology."
Islam Next Door
From his office, Saperstein watches two fully veiled women walk across VC's parking lot. "This is a normal sight," says VC's in-house expert on Muslim bridge-building in Columbus and abroad. "There's been a paradigm shift in Columbus in the past 15 to 20 years in terms of proximity of Muslims and Christians."
Saperstein and his wife were sent by VC to work in Central Asia, where they led educational development projects among Muslims for 12 years. Then Andy did a stint as associate director of Yale's Muslim-Christian Reconciliation Program. VC hired the extraordinarily well-qualified Saperstein in 2009 to, among other things, help the church engage Muslims appropriately, because it was increasingly apparent how deep the need was. Columbus has the second-largest population of Somali refugees (after Minneapolis), and most area Muslims are Somalis, some 35,000 by conservative estimates. Fifteen miles from VC is Noor Islamic Cultural Center, one of the largest American mosques built post-9/11, linked to the Rifqa Bary "teen runaway" case in 2009.
VC sees the influx as both an outreach opportunity and a hard lesson in cultural sensitivity. Before joining VC's pastoral staff in 1996, Christensen and his family worked among Muslims in Morocco for 11 years. "We made efforts a few years ago that were too hard and fast, too aggressive," he says; "targeting" Muslims backfired among local Islamic community leaders, many of whom connected such efforts with colonial missions in their former countries that were manipulative and culture-destroying. "They are highly sensitive to churches saying, 'I'll give you this [social service] if you accept this truth,'" says Christensen.
Since then, VC has "pulled back" and now approaches Muslims the same way it does other internationals: through service, notably ESL classes, a legal clinic, and a food pantry, which this spring added a halal section. Rick Love, a Vineyard consultant on Muslim-Christian relations, believes this holistic, "blessing the nations" approach is best for engaging Muslims in a pluralistic society. "Blessing refers to God's gracious favor and power bestowed on those who respond to him by faith. This expression of God's global purposes refutes all forms of racism or tribalism," he wrote in a 2011 paper for the Society of Vineyard Scholars.
Mussa Farah, president of the Columbus nonprofit Horn of Africa Rescue Committee, has encouraged fellow Somalis to send their kids to VC's after-school program. It's hosted in VC's 40,000-square-foot community center, which is dotted with signage in Somali. "Vineyard Columbus is the best church in Ohio," says Farah. "Somalis welcome Vineyard because their kids' education has changed. I have the highest respect for them."
But so far, VC's holistic ministry has not led to many professions of faith in Christ among Muslims. Less than two dozen Muslim-background people have joined the church, and engaging Somali families in the apartment complex across the street has been challenging, says the VC member who started a tutoring program there six years ago (and who asked to remain anonymous). While a few families send their kids to the community center, "it's like the church parking lot is a barrier," he says. "Some of the Somalis think if they go to the community center, they are going to church."
"It's easier to engage Muslims with social service" and "more challenging to engage them on matters of the substance of faith," says Saperstein.
One path forward may be drawing on a core Vineyard conviction: that the Holy Spirit will show up. Wimber, who led the controversial "Signs, Wonders, and Church Growth" course at Fuller Theological Seminary from 1982 to 1985, taught that the works of Jesus—healing the sick, feeding the multitudes, and creating disciples—are available to believers as evidence of God's in-breaking kingdom. Wimber advocated an "empowered evangelicalism" that combines biblical authority and social engagement with healing, tongues, and prophecy. VC embodies this approach: In a five-week span this spring, it hosted an advocacy training on immigration that drew 450, and a "Holy Spirit Empowerment Night" where the Spirit was invited to minister through "spontaneous prophetic revelations, gifts of tongues, and other spiritual gifts."
"I think there's actually a strong connection between the signs and wonders, and how we engage with Muslims," says Saperstein. Over the course of a meal with Muslim friends on a trip to visit the Sapersteins in Central Asia, Nathan prayed over a woman whose daughter was thought to be barren, a dismal fate in her culture. "In short order," Saperstein says, the daughter became pregnant, and her mother came to embrace Jesus "in a way that didn't extract her from her Muslim culture.
"We serve a living God. If we invite God to work in the life of a Muslim friend, Muslims encounter Jesus in contexts like that," says Saperstein.
Today, instead of averting his gaze, Venant, the refugee from the Congo, greets social worker Childers with, "Hello, Sister Christine! God is power." At VC's international festival this spring—where 1,800 African Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and nonbelievers arrived at the 250,000-square-foot church to eat, laugh, and learn a bit about Jesus—Venant and Nshimira danced and sang praises in Congolese before the crowd.
"Christians here have so much opportunity to touch the nations without leaving their neighborhood," Saperstein says. "I don't know what God has in mind in gathering this range of people to this place, but whatever it is, it's incredibly exciting."
Katelyn Beaty is associate editor at Christianity Today, where she edits the women's blog, Her.meneutics, and the This Is Our City project.
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Previous articles about Vineyard churches include:
Hipster Faith | To remain relevant, many evangelical pastors are following the lead of hipster trendsetters. So what happens when 'cool' meets Christ? (September 3, 2010)
Theology in Wood and Concrete | Six Protestant churches that strive to match form with faith. (May 29, 2009)
No Religion-Based Zoning | Illinois Vineyard church wins right to worship in its own building. (June 1, 2003)