Rockville Centre’s Vineyard Church, which stands next to the parking lot on Merrick Road behind the AMC Movie Theater, became the Experience Vineyard Church on Oct. 1. The new name, and the new slogan: “Real God. Real People. Real Hope,” are appropriate vehicles for the church’s character, said the Rev. Ray Longwood.
“Authenticity is pretty important for us,” Longwood said. “We have to be able to say, ‘We’re real. Our faults, our shortcomings, the fact that we don’t necessarily have this God thing totally figured out. What we do know is that when we come together, we experience something different, something that changes us, and we’re never the same again.”
Parishioner Dave Parsons, who’d been attending services at the church for a few months, said — between bites of an empanada from a food truck brought in for the relaunch event — that Longwood’s sermons often touched on authenticity. “We’ve talked in church about the different faces of the individual,” he said. “You’ve got your church face, and your club face and the face you wear at work. I think what’s important is to keep your life real with Jesus, to keep your integrity intact, and to be the same person no matter where you go.”
Longwood agreed, saying “Our goal is to be a representative on Sunday of what we are Monday through Saturday.” According to him, that didn’t only mean that church members should wear their church faces throughout the week, but that they should show up at church the same way they would show up to a friend’s house.
Sporting a black t-shirt with the Vineyard’s new logo and slogan, Longwood said, “I think that’s why religion has gotten a bad name, because people try to dress up, and pretend to be something they aren’t.”
The crowd, which had gathered outside the church, waiting in line for barbecue hotdogs and shaved ice treats, consisted largely of young people. Longwood said that those between the ages of 20 and 35 historically showed the poorest attendance, a fact that would not have been obvious from looking at the attendees.
Parishioner Julie Presti attributes part of the youthful attendance to the Church’s outreach and involvement in the issues that afflict young people. She said that Longwood, “has a heart for youth, and for drug addicts. He’s bringing in anonymous 12-step programs into the church. A lot of the people that go to the church go to the groups, and vice versa.”
Presti also said that the church does a good job of incorporating the church’s outreach programs, like ministries with the Bethany House for the homeless, prison ministries, and hospital visits, into their image.
Mayor Francis X. Murray, who attended the service, called Rev. Longwood’s sermon inspirational. “Growing up in Rockville Centre – I was born here 1951 — I’ve never been here in this church,” he said. “It was wonderful to be invited, and it was wonderful to see how another faith brings people closer to God.“
“The Vineyard movement,” Longwood said, “started with a bunch of hippies that had a rock and roll spin on church music, instead of the hymns of their parents.” He added that although Christian rock has become a standard practice in many denominations, the founders of the Vineyard movement “birthed contemporary worship.”
About 15 minutes after the service ended, music began to drift out into the parking lot from the church. Drums and electric guitar provided backing for a spirited female vocalist. Longwood said that all of the songs belted out during worship had lyrics that talked directly to Jesus. “It’s a conversation,” Longwood said, “rather than just a profession of faith.”