The Kingdom in Columbus
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."