The Vineyard Ain't Your Momma's Church

(Originally published in the Daily Illini on 9/25/2005)

When some college students think of church, they think of endless sermons, ancient hymns and weekly recitation of creeds and prayers. To them, the environment is too formal, too traditional and does not keep up with the times. Those opinions are what drive 57-year-old University alumnus Happy Leman to make his church as contemporary as possible.

The result of Leman's efforts is a place of worship that staff member Don Follis said "ain't your momma's church."

The Vineyard Church, located at 1500 N. Lincoln Ave., Urbana, is what Leman calls a blend of standard theology, contemporary style and belief in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is an eclectic mix of all ages, all races, levels of education and walks of life. Leman estimated the church's membership at 2500 people, 300 of which are college students. Thirteen pastors share responsibility for the spiritual well-being of the Vineyard's congregation.

Executive pastor and University alumnus Ben Hoerr pointed to the wealthy owner of a cement company and then to a homeless man, noting how extraordinary it was to have both in the same room at the same time drinking coffee and enjoying Christian fellowship.

Most churches are fairly homogenous in their make-up, even if it is unintentional, Hoerr said. Churches end up representing one type of people, which makes them less welcoming for prospective members who may differ from the church's norm.

"This church is anything but homogeneous," Hoerr said. "If God had a family, I think that's what it would look like."

Tony Ranvestel, pastor for the Vineyard's blue community, values his church's focus on relevance. It is hard for people to relate to the liturgy used in traditional churches, he said. All of the Vineyard's music is in the style of 2005, so members are not forced to make a cultural leap.

Red community pastor Jim Wood echoed Ranvestel's point on relevance.

"I don't want a church to be a time-warp when you enter the doors," Wood said.

The Vineyard has approximately 130 small groups, each containing between five and 15 people. The church's emphasis on small groups may be due to the Vineyard's origins, Hoerr said. What became the Vineyard Church started as a small group Bible study in 1978.

36-year-old Anthony Belz is a member of a small group called the "Iron-Horse Angels." Many of the members are motorcyclists, although being a biker is not required, Belz said.

Belz found his group to be very beneficial. Studying the Bible is more fun and educational when done in groups because everyone reacts to the message together, he said.

Leman believes there are many misconceptions surrounding Christianity.

"Most people see Christianity as a self-improvement program," Leman said. "We don't think the job of the Christian is to be good. It's to continue the mission of Christ."

"Christianity is the original alternative lifestyle," Leman said. Christians follow Jesus' example by caring for the less fortunate and by loving people as they are. Jesus did not discriminate against the people thought to be undesirable, he said.

The Vineyard is in the final stages of adding 41,000 sq. ft, which will increase the building's size to 80,000 sq. ft. The addition will include a new auditorium that will seat 1000 people. The auditorium will have the second-best sound system in Champaign-Urbana after the Krannert Center, staff member Follis said.

The church staff conceived the idea of an addition in 2002, Leman said.

"We're full here," Leman said. "The next service will be overrun with people." The Vineyard has increased its number of services each weekend to four, and that is still not enough to comfortably contain all of its members. The church decided it was time to expand. It raised money in 2004, after which they began construction.

The addition will also include a new cafe.

"Eventually, we'd like to have the cafe open every day of the week," Leman said. "We'll open early in the morning. Students can hang out, and we'll have wireless Internet."

The new addition will be completed in time for the church services the weekend of Oct. 8 and 9.

The chain of events that resulted in today's Vineyard church began after the miracle birth of Happy and Diane Leman's first son. After extensive medical testing, doctors said Diana and Happy Leman could not have children.

"A friend said that if we would pray, we'd get kids," Leman said. "We started praying, and now we have five natural kids."

Those children's birth inspired Happy to tell others what he learned.

"I started a Bible study to tell people that God was still doing miracles," Leman said. "That Bible study in our home grew to this today."

The Vineyard will host an open house on Friday, Oct. 21 from 3-8 p.m. and Saturday, Oct. 22 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. During the open house, people may tour the addition and meet with the Vineyard's staff. All are invited to enjoy free food, drinks and live music from the Vineyard band.