Back to church: In search of the '98 percent'

By Max Perry Mueller

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Oct. 6 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

A middle-age African-American woman and young Caucasian man cooed over a Hispanic family's newborn son as they all walked up the steps into the church.

Before the service, a rock band played Christian worship songs while much of the crowd grabbed a bagel and coffee in the church's café, before sitting in the church's plush red seats. The pews were removed when the Vineyard bought the building from the Catholic Church, which had constructed it a century before to house the French Canadian Catholics in the area. Though the building has been completely renovated — with sophisticated acoustic panels hanging from the vaulted sealing and flatscreen TVs mounted throughout the sanctuary — the Vineyard left in place the ornate stained-glass windows with biblical verses in French.

The religious message at the Vineyard is also meant to dispel the notion that church must be stodgy, pious and theologically abrasive. Pastor Dave, dressed in khaki slacks and a casual button down shirt, preached a sermon meant to inspire better relationships with others and with Jesus Christ — and not to fear him.

The come-as-you-are dress code, café offerings and non-confrontational sermon — all of these efforts are geared to lowering the bariers the 98 percent might feel about joining a church. Pastor Dave explained that these aspects of his church, which some might consider trappings of "secular" society, stem from how he thinks about the best way to create vibrant Christian community in the 21st century.

Too often one of the main boundaries has been politics, Dave says. Because he holds this view, Dave is a prime example of what Notre Dame's Campbell describes as a growing number of American "clergy (who) have recognized that too much Caesar keeps people away from God, or at least from church."

As Dave puts it, many churches have gotten the relationship between religion and politics backwards. "It's an error, to my mind, to make second order things, like politics, first order things. Christ, and our relationship with him is first order. In comparison, everything else, how you vote, for example, is a secondary concern."

A revival in "secular" Cambridge?

It's hard to say if the Vineyard alone has moved the dial much on the 98 percent. Still Pastor Dave and his ministry staff have created a vibrant, diverse community of some 800 regular attendees.

Many are like Victoria Marriman, who because of her "fire and brimstone … traditional Methodist" upbringing became an "avowed atheist" during her college years at Harvard. But at the Vineyard, she found a home among people with whom she "can question, debate and even doubt." And for Marriman, being a member of the Vineyard doesn't just mean showing up on Sunday.

"People are amazing here," she said. "They rally around someone in the church that they might not even know who just got kicked out of her apartment. Or go shovel the side walk for an old lady."

For Cambridge-era residents like Marriman, Pastor Dave's message of a church that helps people achieve "impossibly great lives" and helps "make (them) resilient to life's trauma" as the church website states, even in the one of the epicenters of America's "secular culture," clearly resonates. Pastor Dave has brought a lot of people from the 98 percent into his church, people like Marriman, who says, "I probably would not have a church otherwise."

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