The Coffee-Shop Church

By Madolyn Jones

  • A band: check.
  • Casual dress: check.
  • An accepting and loving attitude: check.
  • A funky, down-to-earth location with a disco ball: check.
  • Alright, time to go to church.

To most people, this may not sound like a typical service, but to the members of the Vineyard Church, this is a normal Sunday evening. Past the students milling in and out of Faegan’s and Chuck’s, these churchgoers congregate at Funk ’n Waffles, a coffee shop, every Sunday at 6 p.m.

Head pastor, John Elmer of Syracuse, described the Vineyard Church as having a “non-judgmental, chilled attitude.” His main goal is to reach his congregation, not spew information at them that they can’t understand.

“We try to talk about things in an honest way that people can understand,” Elmer says.

The Vineyard Church follows traditional Christian teachings just like other churches – they believe in the word of the Bible, in God, and in Jesus Christ as their savior. But unlike most churches, the Vineyard Church approaches their faith with the motto “come as you are … and be loved.”

Just before service, people mingled about, greeting new and old faces as a funky Medeski, Martin, and Wood song played in the background and the disco ball sparkled overhead. When 6 p.m. rolled around everyone made their way over to the plush armchairs and small-coffee-shop tables adorned with flickering candles to listen to the worship band. The band, comprised of young musicians, played contemporary Christian music, during which the audience clapped, swayed and unabashedly sang along.

One of the vocalists in the band, Rachael Moriarty, a senior at SU from Fairfield, CT, likes how open the Vineyard Church is. “It’s hard to find a church that isn’t hypocritical,” Fairfield says.

The church started in 1991 in Elmer’s living room with five other people. They all shared the vision of developing a church with the atmosphere of, “come as you are … and be loved.” In 1992 the church held its first service, and a few years later they rented their own space above a pizzeria in Camillus. The Vineyard Church grew and expanded to three different sites: Auburn, Lakeland, and Funk ’n Waffles as their Syracuse University site.

The director of the University site, Matt Waldby of Syracuse, said, “This [Funk ’n Waffles] was the coffee shop atmosphere we wanted for our church.”

But the church is a part of a bigger picture – the Vineyard movement. In California in 1982 John Wimber, a pastor at a church part of the Calvery Chapel movement, took his congregation and joined with a few churches that called themselves the Vineyard. Soon other churches apart of the Vineyard movement were looking to Wimber to serve as their leader. And thus the movement began expanding. Despite his death in 1997, Wimber’s mission lived on, and there are now 600 Vineyards in the U.S. and 800 in other countries around the world, according to vineyardny.org.

When Elmer took the stage to deliver his sermon in a laid-back, yet passionate, manner to an almost-filled Funk ’n Waffles, he talked about trusting in Jesus and in God’s word.

“I’m gonna shoot straight- I’m gonna talk about sexuality, finances … let’s see what the Bible has to say about them,” Elmer says in his sermon.

“What keeps me coming is that it’s really down to earth and real and honest,” says Jamie Jones, a Vineyard member and ESF graduate student from Virginia.

Elmer stressed the importance of “shared life,” an atmosphere that allows people to come together as a community and share God’s word. Vineyard members radiated warmth as they greeted first-timers like old friends. Those new to the Vineyard were even given a gift bag full of the Vineyard essentials: a CD of music by the worship band, a copy of the New Testament, a pamphlet, and a pack of Pop-Tarts.

Tim Honess, a long-time member of the Vineyard, says that he likes the small, community feel, and how easy it is to get to know people. Honess said that at bigger, more traditional churches “it’s tough to get involved in people’s lives.”

At the core of the Vineyard, past the brightly colored walls and modern art of Funk ’n Waffles, is a group of welcoming Christians who want to move past the church-and-steeple setting to an atmosphere where they can connect and talk about God. Jones, who grew up attending a traditional Methodist church in the South, said that other churches talk too much about condemnation but that she likes the Vineyard’s opposite approach.

“The Vineyard Church reminds people that God is about love,” says Jones.

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