In March 2016 Lydia Read (of New Wine fame) together with husband Shane and 4 other couples left their churches to start Hope Vineyard Church in Palmerston North.
Why, in a city of 80,000 which has maybe 55 churches already would one want to start another church?
For Lydia and Shane it had been a growing calling on their life. “The churches of Palmerston North are doing a wonderful job and our new church is not born out of any sort of protest. But the day came when we became convinced God was asking us simply to do this. As we prayed and raised our objections we heard God ask, ‘Are you worshipping for an audience of one, or not?’” recalls Lydia.
The new church plant was encouraged by The Palmerston North Christian Leaders Association, whom they greatly respect. “They invited us to come and tell them about our vision. We made our ‘pitch’ to them and told them we didn’t think we were going to be doing anything different from what had already been faithfully doing, the difference being that the Lord was now asking us to play our part. They encouraged us and prayed for us and we felt utterly believed in.”
Based in rented retail space in the city centre, Hope Vineyard Church opened its doors in September 2016. At the time of this interview a mere nine months later, the church had grown from a core of 10 to attendance of up to 150. “We may have grown rather too rapidly. We only have one toilet!” laughs Lydia.
This is phenomenal growth and I press Lydia to help me understand what they did to achieve this. The answer seems to be the ‘all in, can do’ attitude of the core group combined with a focus on unconditional love and worship. For the rest, God did it.
“Within our core we have wonderful musicians, we have professionals, we have those with a hunger for kids’ ministry -- we have skills. But we constantly lean into ‘yes’. We don’t let obstacles stop us, we work around them.”
A great example of this is their decision to open a café, despite issues around water and toilets.
“When the gospel of God comes to town it should be good news for everyone. But we are not good news for the inner city if we are only ever open two hours on a Sunday. As we brainstormed, in our pioneering craziness we decided to open a café. So right now our only staff member is a barista! She is gorgeous and woos everyone.”
A local high school has asked the church if Gateway students can gain work experience, and Lydia had just seen a student practising coffee-making skills in their café, being only allowed to practice on hot water at this stage!
So what does church look like for them?
There’s a rhythm. We always kick off at 5pm with a meal for half an hour and then most Sunday’s there is a brief family time, leading into age-appropriate teaching in different spaces for around 40 minutes. Then everyone comes back together for a half an hour of worshipping together as a family, with things officially concluding at 7pm.
However, on the first Sunday of the month the focus is on music and various expressions of the arts. It includes a short talk, or poem, or puppets, or performance with discussion to follow. This is a safe space to which people can readily bring their unchurched friends, and is one of the easy entrance points to the church.
“We don’t have a big attractional model of church – we have a flag out in the street when the service is on, but that’s about all!” laughs Lydia. “Yet people just walk in.”
Who is coming to church?
Lydia estimates that around 50% of their gathering is unchurched. Some of those may have once attended church, but have become dechurched. Perhaps 20% of those who come could be said to be homeless, transient or suffer from mental illness.
“Those who aren’t comfortable around ‘rough’ people won’t want to be here,” says Lydia. She relates how one night a family came in, did a slow arc and left again!
We are calling this the grand experiment of Hope Vineyard. We don’t take ourselves too seriously and try not to think in terms of success or failure. All we have done is practise radical love. We are trying to say ‘come as you are, and we’ll love you as you are. But we’ll love you too much to leave you as you are’. Everyone that comes discovers that we’re about Jesus, that God is closer than you think and heaven is not a mile away.” They can point to several folk whose behaviour has changed and whose appetite for addictive substances has decreased because of their involvement with the church family.
“The big question here is, what can you do to contribute and serve? We have a young guy who wants to be a hairdresser. We now have a barber’s pole, with solo mums, fitness freaks and the homeless all lining up for a haircut. It’s a story of belonging!”