Newest faith community begins
BY MELISSA LAUBER
On Feb. 27 at Bel Air UMC, 30 families walked out of the contemporary service – called to try something spiritually unexpected and new 4.4 miles down the road.
The next Sunday, they gathered to transform the ordinary surroundings of the cafeteria at McComas Elementary School in Abingdon into a sacred place. And the following Sunday, the people of The Vine became the newest worshipping community in the Baltimore-Washington Conference.
The three-week creation of a community was several years in the making as the leaders of Bel Air worked to find the right formula for growth.
The principles The Vine is founded upon stretch back to John Wesley's small-group class meetings and even further back to the wisdom Jesus shared with his disciples.
The Rev. Stan Cardwell, pastor of The Vine, is excited about the new thing being created out of the blessings of Bel Air UMC.
The new community, he said, is made up of "seed-throwers and faith cultivators, fruit-bearers, risk-takers and dream-sowers, young and old, rich and poor, diverse yet unified. They link arms with anyone who connects to the story of Jesus, who is the True Vine."
The Vine, which draws its inspiration from John 15, will differ from many United Methodist congregations in its focus on spiritual transformation through "life groups."
In addition to committing to weekly worship, Vine members each will belong to a group of about a dozen people, who will "do life together." These affinity groups will study, join in spiritual practices, genuinely share joys and concerns and serve the communities in which they find themselves.
"Picture deep friendships and shared lives, all connected in Christ," Cardwell said. "Life groups are like small groups on steroids. In some ways they will be more important than gathering together for worship."
This hands-on, missional approach to ministry will replace the more traditional "attractional model," in which churches offer worship and programs that draw people to them.
The Vine is less about what happens on Sunday morning and more about how fellowship, discipleship and mission is being lived out the other six days of the week, Cardwell said.
Members of the church report they're already beginning to move out of their comfort zones, trying new things in faith and stepping up to new experiences. The chaos some are experiencing is to be expected.
"People here are just on fire for God," said Stacy Nail, one of the leaders of The Vine.
But the life-group focus doesn't mean worship will be neglected. Vine leaders have developed an informal, experiential, grassroots worship experience, gathering at 9:30 on Sunday mornings.
Those who attend with be invited to share in the worship, playing musical instruments, displaying artwork or reading poetry. The teaching time will explore the Bible using a variety of other media, and conversation will be encouraged in community breakout sessions. Communion will be served every Sunday.
"This focus on small groups and offering creative worship that leads to outreach really is a reclaiming of Methodism. What they're doing here is very exciting," said the Rev. Andy Lunt, director of the Baltimore-Washington Conference Grow Congregations team, who suspects The Vine will be experiencing dramatic growth as it multiplies its efforts through intentional outreach to the community.
But the path wasn't an easy one. In 2008, Cardwell was appointed to Bel Air to lead its Pathfinders ministry and start an off-site ministry. At the same time the church was gearing up to start a new, contemporary worship service.
The conference funded Cardwell's efforts, but finding unchurched people, developing relationships and creating a worshipping community never quite came together as expected.
Instead, the church rethought its strategies and focused on a new contemporary worship service, knowing that when it reached a critical mass, members might be willing to start a new initiative.
"We saw the trend that 25-40 year olds were not returning to the church after college or never being a part of the church and we decided to explore how we might reach them. We decided to create a place offsite where we could connect to them through worship, life groups and acts of service and kindness.
"We studied our area and decided that the Abingdon area, which is about 10 minutes away, had the largest percentage of unchurched in this age group," said the Rev. Barry Hidey, Bel Air's senior pastor.
Bel Air, with 1,900 members, is one of the largest churches in the Baltimore-Washington Conference, but growth is part of their DNA, as they seek to continually make disciples.
In fact, Hidey reports, even though 60 people left the 11 a.m. service at Bel Air to join The Vine, "people who have never served are stepping up to replace those who we sent out. And each week we are attracting new visitors to that service."
While such a venture has not been easy, Lunt believes starting new worship communities and worship services is one of the principle ways to grow a church.
To do so, Hidey recommends, "Give yourself plenty of lead time in planning, prayer and keeping the whole church informed. Early on, we tried to get offsite too soon, without having a trained and fully committed core," he said. "Also, don't limit the team to the age group you might be targeting. We have retired people and teenagers serving on this team. I have seen people that were pew sitters for years and now they are deeply committed to Christ and eager to serve in new ways."
The Vine community now faces countless new challenges as it becomes financially self-sustaining and begins at once to grow. "We are like pioneers – stepping into the brave unknown – relearning how to be a 21st-century ancient church," said Cardwell.
As a blueprint, they've chosen to relate and serve, which they'll do by "loving people into a relationship with Jesus Christ and sharing all God has given them with the world."
For the past few months and into the future, members of The Vine and Bel Air UMC have been participating in Project 10:2b, based on the verse in Luke about workers being needed for the Kingdom.
At 10:02 each morning and night, participants set alarms on their clocks and cell phones to remember to pray for the new faith community. Cardwell invites all those around the conference to join them.
"This idea is not about us," Cardwell said, "it's about Jesus. We're being sent to offer an ancient yet relevant message of grace, a no-strings attached love for the people of Harford County and the world."
To learn more about The Vine, visit their Web site.