Mission and message remain the same for Lodi, Calif., congregation
By Myra Holmes
Vinewood Community Church, Lodi, Calif., marked 100 years with a day of celebration April 19. The anniversary festivities will continue with a family-friendly picnic this summer.
An overflow crowd attended a Sunday morning service with the theme “100 Years of Celebrating God’s Grace.” All five living senior pastors were there: Henry Dick, Vernon Janzen, Jim Holm (pictured right), Gary Wall and current pastor Rod Suess. Holm preached, using the seven words to the seven churches in Revelation to challenge Vinewood with “Seven Words for the Next Century.”
The morning also featured a video of interviews that reflected on Vinewood’s past and future. Suess says that in those stories and in informal conversations, God’s grace through people who are both flawed and faithful was a continuing theme.
An impromptu choir sang a closing blessing over the church with “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.” It was a beautiful reminder of God’s blessing, said Suess. “It has really been all by his grace.”
A poignant moment came when attendees observed a moment of silence to remember the impact of those who had died throughout the church’s history—many whose influence is still felt, although they are no longer present. Suess says the moment reminded him of the temporary nature of life. “It calls us back to the mission—to make disciples,” he says.
As often happens at a milestone celebration like this, members and former members seemed to enjoy reconnecting. A luncheon followed the morning service, and the celebration continued with an evening concert of the West Coast Mennonite Men’s Chorus which took place at another local church in order to accommodate larger crowds.
Some 100 volunteers worked hard to make the Sunday celebration a success.
The anniversary celebration will continue with a picnic June 14 at Micke Grove Park. Centennial planning team members Tim and Kim Suderman say the church has always valued children: “Our children are our future.” Organizers recognize that a formal service, such as the one April 19, isn’t necessarily kid-friendly, and they wanted to make sure the children were included in the celebration. The June date was chosen to coincide with the end of the school district’s “modified traditional” school year.
Vision for mission
The congregation, first known as Lodi MB Church, was founded Jan. 1, 1915, with 21 charter members. By 1920, the quickly-growing congregation had built their first building.
In the late 1960s, under the leadership of Arno Wiebe, the church envisioned a new building on the west side of town. The motivation for the move was mission: This area of town was experiencing growth and had few churches.
The congregation was committed to that vision to such an extent that when funding fell short by about $100,000, several individuals took out personal loans in order to fill that gap overnight. Suess notes that such sacrificial generosity continues to be a core value of the church.
The building and the move was a leap of faith for both those individuals and for the church as whole, says Vinewood elder Scott Hudson. It required sacrifice, vision and faith and expressed a strong desire to “put themselves in a new mission field.” In many ways, Hudson says, the move “set the foundation for who we are as a church.”
The congregation moved into the building in 1968, and it still houses the congregation. Although the congregation filled barely a third of the space on the first Sunday in their new facility, they eventually grew to fill it; typical Sunday attendance now is about 230. In order to reflect a new identity in their location, the name of the church was changed to Vinewood Community Church. Additions over the years have added more space for ministry, particularly for youth and children.
The outreach mindset that propelled the congregation to a new location continues to be key for Vinewood. The congregation regularly sends teams on short-term mission trips and generously supports foreign missionaries. Local ministries include supporting work with the homeless and at-risk youth with both funds and volunteers.
“We’re really outreach-oriented,” says Hudson.
Two ways Vinewood has reached out to their community are a now-defunct radio ministry and a preschool. The radio ministry started in 1955 under the leadership of H.H. Dick and continued well into the 1980s.
Vinewood Community Preschool was established in 1987 and continues to serve the church and community. The Sudermans say the preschool is known as one of the best in the area, and church attendees serve as both staff and volunteers in order to connect with families. A strong Wednesday night program aims to further relationships with families from the preschool, with a convenient meal at the church followed by activities for kids through sixth grade.
Quality worship and preaching
Like many early Mennonite Brethren congregations, the Lodi church first worshiped in German, with a gradual transition to English beginning in the 1940s. Hudson says that, whatever the language or style, excellent worship and preaching has always been highly valued at Vinewood. He says worship at Vinewood is “quality-driven” so that visitors and regulars alike will know they’ve been in the presence of God.
He says that the church has likewise been blessed with a strong pulpit ministry, with challenging and uplifting preaching. “We’ve been very fortunate,” Hudson says.
Suess names a commitment to the truth of the Bible as one of the church’s core values, both historically and for the future. No matter the trends, he says, Vinewood has been and will be rooted in the Word.
As the congregation celebrates a century of God’s grace, attendees also look forward to the next 100 years. Suess says that effectively reaching the next generation will continue to be a challenge. He notes that Vinewood has a long history of raising up leaders, cheering young people on and calling them back to the truth, and he says that will be an ongoing need. “There is a generation that’s hungry,” he says.
Hudson, who collected the video interviews for the centennial, notes that many interviewees talked about the challenge of staying relevant in a changing culture. As Suess says, “If the church doesn’t speak with a clear voice in a relevant and loving way, we’re just going to be sidelined even more.”
At the same time, many of those interviewed for the centennial video said the church’s vision and message will remain the same. Hudson notes that while language and worship styles have changed over the years, the gospel has not changed, and it will not change in another 100 years. “We serve a living Christ. That will always be true,” he says.