Longform

Preach for the Stars

Page 5 of 7

At the Vineyard, half the service is music, starting with a solid half-hour of songs praising Jesus. People stand or sit or kneel--whatever turns you on. Some stretch their arms out to God. It's time to get in touch personally with Jesus. People straggle to the front of the sanctuary for a do-it-yourself communion; no one is there to hand the wafers to them. One person is being baptized in a pool right in front of the big windows. As the baptism flashes on the TV monitors, cheers erupt.

As the music ends, Pastor James Ryle mounts a small stage on the far right. But before he can speak, someone walks up and grabs the microphone. It's time to honor the heroes who have returned triumphant from Jericho. "As the body of Christ here and your church family," the member says to Ryle, "we love you." The crowd lets loose with a standing ovation. Coach Mac, sitting inconspicuously halfway up the spacious sanctuary, is introduced and gets an even bigger standing O.

On the TV monitors, a homemade parody of Final Jeopardy airs, hosted by Vineyard member Stu, a converted Jew from Brooklyn. It's a promotional spot for "Vessels of Honor," the Vineyard's women-only fall retreat, scheduled for early next month in Colorado Springs and led by Ryle's wife, Belinda. Although the congregation is heavy with nuclear families, Stu points out that single moms aren't excluded from potential "vessel" status.

Then a staff member of Promise Keepers walks up and grabs the mike. "God has used our pastor in an incredible way," he says, adding as he turns to Ryle, "We want to submit to you as our spiritual leader."

Graciously accepting the mantle, Ryle has his own announcement: The Vineyard's men-only "Chapel of Champions" is the next Friday. The purpose, says Ryle, is to "lay out our vision."

He follows this with a pitch for money. Most offshoots of the Vineyard movement don't push the hard sell, and some churches don't even pass the basket, but Boulder Valley is not one of them.

"God knows every one of us personally," the pitch continues. "He knows our needs, knows our church, knows the necessary provisions. It's when someone holds back--when one member holds back--that the whole body suffers."

The week's featured speaker, an elderly, old-time evangelist named Dick Mills, leads a shouted prayer for more money: "Thank you, Lord, for meeting my financial needs so I can give more to the kingdom of God to promote the gospel of Jesus Christ! Hallelujah!"

Mills's sermon is standard evangelical fare, but it closes with a joke that features a classic PK/Vineyard twist. He imagines a conversation between Adam and God in which Adam says, "God, Eve is really attractive and I'm thankful. But why is she so dumb?" God replies, "So she'd be attracted to you."

No one yet knows what impact--if any--this month's massive Promise Keepers rally will have on the country or even on the men who attended it. But scholars of America's religious scene are well aware of the movement behind the Promise Keepers and of its momentum. From its beginnings in the counterculture of the Sixties, today it is changing the way Americans pray--and the way they respond to social issues.

In the religious marketplace, mainline denominations of Presbyterians and Methodists are ailing, having failed to hang on to the baby boomers they once held as children. The Catholic Church is scrambling to find enough priests and nuns to run things. That doesn't mean fewer people are attending services in the Nineties, though. The conservative Southern Baptist Convention is thriving. And while congregations of liberal Protestants committed to social justice and a pluralistic society struggle to keep members, congregations of evangelical, conservative Christians who are taught to disdain tolerance of others' beliefs and behaviors grow rapidly.

Mega-churches--huge, nondenominational bodies like Faith Bible Chapel in Arvada, Heritage Christian Center in southeast Denver and Cherry Hills Community Church in tony Highlands Ranch--are booming. Calvary Chapel, a loose association of evangelistic Protestant churches begun in Orange County, California, as a ministry to hippies during the Jesus movement of the Sixties and Seventies, has planted fifteen churches in Colorado. The Vineyard, an offshoot of Calvary, has sprouted eighteen congregations in the state. Both clusters of churches--you can't really call them denominations--have made inroads not only nationwide, but also overseas.

Even in the big new churches, people are prodded into forming small home-study prayer groups--much as the communists used to form little cells. Sometimes these groups grow into churches of their own. The Calvary and Vineyard groups encourage this kind of decentralized, non-bureaucratic religious intimacy. Baby boomers respond well to the entrepreneurial spirit of the spirit.

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Ward Harkavy
Contact: Ward Harkavy