Palo Alto Vineyard Church: How it All Began
(formerly Vineyard Christian Fellowship of the Peninsula)
The History of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship of the Peninsula
By Mark Pettersen, Senior Pastor, retired
Part I, beginnings
Part II, signs and wonders
Part III, visitation
Part IV, destination
Part V, arrival
Early in 1985 I was encouraged by old friends to attend a pastor's conference in Vancouver BC. We'd known George and Bonnie Mallone since our days together in Texas on Inter Varsity Staff in the early 70's. They had moved to Vancouver to go to seminary and eventually stayed to pastor a church, meanwhile we had moved to Kansas where I was pastoring. During that interim we had independently drifted from our dispensational roots ("God doesn't do that anymore!") to a quasi-charismatic theology. We had come to believe the Lord was much more active than our early training had led us to believe, speaking directly to us and healing the sick. Still we were uncomfortable with the coercive and sensational environment that often accompanies healing ministries.
George had invited John Wimber, a church consultant and seminary professor, to hold a seminar for pastors on the healing ministry. John had been creating a stir in southern California by teaching classes and holding seminars on healing for people coming from conservative backgrounds like ours. I remember George saying, "He's right where we are theologically, but he's doing it!" What George meant was that John not only believed God could heal the sick, but that he had learned to pray for the sick with visible results.
I decided to go to the conference in part because of my friendship and respect for George, but also because Gail and I felt I needed "something" if we were going to continue in the ministry. Up to that point I had tried everything I knew to bring health to our church (contemporary worship and bible teaching), but felt the church I was pastoring was far from what I had hoped for. It seemed that most of our people started out their faith in Christ with an initial sense of faith and expectation, but then had settled into a lifestyle that differed little from their non-Christian neighbors. As a rule, whatever level of dysfunction they had when they accepted Christ was where they remained. As a pastor I was becoming discouraged by simply overseeing what I viewed as a holding tank for people waiting for heaven.
During my conversation with George he also mentioned that a mutual friend was coming to Kansas to meet with some "prophets." George suggested I tag along. I was living an hour away from Kansas City and thought at least I'd meet some interesting people. I had expected there would be as many as a hundred people at this meeting and that I could blend in with the crowd. When I arrived there were fewer than a dozen of us and we met in the living room of a small house. The meeting began with one of the "prophets" reviewing some visions he had received and predictions that had come true. Then he and a younger prophet began to call out individuals in the room for ministry.
Apparently none of the participants knew these "prophets" better than I did. When the prophets spoke to each person, they would say things that they had no earthly way of knowing and then express what the Lord was about to do for them. Everyone confirmed what was revealed about them and seemed excited about the predictions. I was impressed by both the apparent accuracy of the "prophets" as well as the lack of sensationalism when they spoke. The "prophets" would spend about a half hour with each person and then randomly select the next person.
After a few hours everyone had been called out but me, so I assumed that either I was an unsuitable candidate (was my skeptical nature that obvious?) or that God didn't have anything to say to me. Then the old prophet looked over at me and said, "We haven't ministered to this young man yet." (He was very old!) "Have you got anything for him?" he asked the younger prophet. At this point I felt more an object of pity than faith. The young prophet looked "on the spot" and said some general things in my direction to the effect that I was a nice guy and God thought I was cool. This confirmed my suspicions that I was nothing special (at least in this corner of the Kingdom) and God didn't have any great plans for me. Then the old man grinned at me and began speaking.
Like the others in the room my skepticism evaporated as he began to describe me. He said, "You've been a workhorse for the Lord, pulling more than your share for a long time. You've been searching and searching and now the time is coming where you will find it. Within a month you will have a visitation from the Lord and he will show you a new thing." There were many other things said during that time but what I remembered was that in three weeks I was going to a conference in Vancouver. Would God be "visiting" me in Vancouver and show me a "new thing"?
Three weeks after the old prophet spoke of God's promise of a coming "visitation," I flew to Vancouver B.C. to attend a conference on "Signs and Wonders and Church Growth," featuring John Wimber, an adjunct professor at Fuller Seminary and a man with a burgeoning reputation as a new kind of "faith healer."
After getting settled at my lodging, I drove over to the conference center early hoping I might run into my old friends, George and Bonnie. They were tied up with registration logistics so I wandered around the conference center checking out the facility and bumping into other old friends. Perhaps the words of the old prophet were working their "magic" on me, but I remember feeling a deep sense of ease and expectation as I walked around. It reminded me of the time I went back to my hometown in Iowa for my twentieth high school reunion. I had this sense that I was coming home after a long time away.
I remember very little about the first session that day other than being disappointed that John Wimber had missed his plane and one of his assistants would be filling in for him. But the next morning, I remember well. John Wimber was so likeable and down to earth. He came across as sort of a wise Santa Claus figure, with his white beard and extra girth discreetly draped with a loose fitting Hawaiian shirt. He explained how his healing ministry began. Having become convinced that healing was both central to Jesus' ministry and relevant today, his church began weekly healing services. They held these meetings for many months, but no one was healed. In fact, many of them got sick! But in faith they continued "believing the bible" instead of their "experience." Finally someone was healed. Soon after more healings came and subsequently it became a regular thing.
John's teachings were a mixture of gospel passages, missionary studies, and personal experiences. It was the latter that were the most convincing and encouraging to me. After an hour of teaching, John would close his notebook and say, "Let's do clinic!" Everyone would stand and John would invite the Holy Spirit to come and then wait in silence. The first time it seemed like fifteen minutes of silence (I'm sure it was more like five). I remember thinking, "Oh well, I guess nothing is going to happen today." Then John called out a man from the audience. At first I thought he was going to fill the silence with a testimony but then I realized he was giving a "word of knowledge" about this man he didn't know. He said to him, "You're not able to swallow. Is that correct?" The man nodded his head. John continued, "The reason you can't swallow is because you have a cancerous growth in your throat. Is that correct?" Again, the man nodded his head. "The Lord wants to heal you today. Can I get one of our ministry teams to come over and pray for this gentleman?"
John then turned and began to call out other people in the audience; either by name or by symptom and within a short time there were at least a dozen group of people praying for individuals who had been identified by John. The room was buzzing with conversation and prayers. From the podium John would revisit each group, asking how things were going and then explaining to the rest of us. Each time he came back to the man with throat cancer there was significant improvement. He was now able to swallow, later the pain went away, and finally there were no discernible symptoms. At that point John said, "We don't know if you're healed or not. You'll have to go back to your doctors to find that out. If they say you're healed, then you're healed. If they say your not, then you still have cancer but with no symptoms. We can live with that."
Two things struck me about the clinics John conducted. First, they were natural and unsensational. There was no yelling, no coercion; no one was pushed down. There was no sense we were being asked to believe anything that wasn't self-evident.
Secondly, the ministry of healing was being done by regular, ordinary Christians who were simply praying for the person singled out. I remember thinking, "How simple! They're just praying for each other." I was convinced that I could go back to my church in Kansas and we could do the same thing.
During one of the clinics, the Lord began an unexpected healing of my own. I heard a woman sobbing from across the room and immediately remembered an incident from my own childhood. The sobbing sounded exactly like my older sister after one of her many conflicts with my father. I was taken back to that scene (actually many scenes) and remembered the grief and shame I felt about the way my father was treating my sister. Those painful incidents in my childhood began an estrangement with my father that lasted throughout my childhood and into my adulthood. Could it be God was bringing this up for a reason? When I finally found the courage to ask some people to pray for me, it didn't take long before I was both forgiving my dad and confessing my own sin of rebellion and hatred towards him. That was the first of many times of prayer ministry that God used to bring substantial healing to my soul - healing that I hadn't realized I needed.
After a couple of days of the conference, I was very excited. I thought, "This is what's been missing in our church. We simply need to start praying for each other, but praying with faith in a God who answers!" My expectations were totally met. I thought, "Certainly this experience is the 'visitation' the old prophet had promised." But I was wrong! The visitation was yet to come!
In May 1985, Mark went to Vancouver B.C. to a conference taught by John Wimber. This was his first direct contact with John Wimber and his ministry then known as Vineyard Ministries International. The following is a continuation of the story of how our church was conceived at that conference.
After several days of conference intensity (lectures, workshops, meals with friends), I felt a need for a break, so I cut the afternoon workshops and went for a run. It was a beautiful spring day in Vancouver, and I found myself running through an affluent neighborhood in central Vancouver. After ten or fifteen minutes of running, I ran past a neighborhood park that looked so inviting and peaceful that I decided to stop and just enjoy the view. I found a large tree to rest against and sat there looking at the flowers and trees in full bloom.
After just a few moments, I “heard” these words go through my mind: “I’m going to give you a park like this.” My first impulse was to dismiss this message as a sign of an endorphin rush from the running, but I was suspicious. God had spoken to me in the past in a similar way – words going through my mind seemingly coming out of the blue. So I continued to sit there, resting from the run and taking in the beauty of the park.
Then the words came through again: “I’m going to give you a park like this.” This time I began to realize that God was in fact speaking to me, but I was puzzled by the message. I knew He wasn’t calling me into gardening and this was a metaphor, but what did it mean? “A church,” I thought immediately, but then I thought that doesn’t make sense: “I’m already pastoring a church.” Besides, we had recently moved to a new home (by a great sailing lake!) and I had no interest in moving again. Then I thought about the fact that I was on the West Coast (albeit Canada) and how much I felt at home in the culture of the West Coast. But these thoughts seemed like vague wish-dreams and totally disconnected to reality.
After a period of silence and puzzlement, I got up to finish my run. I said very quickly to God, “If this is You, You’re going to have to make this a lot clearer to me than it is now.” I decided that any further communication with God on this matter was going to have to come at his initiative because there was nothing more I could do (besides, it was very intimidating!). I went back to have dinner with some friends and said nothing about this experience until I got home and shared it with Gail.
Returning from the conference, I was excited about this new thing I now call “prayer ministry,” but I decided I needed to be careful about how I introduced it to my church. I gave a short report about the conference the following Sunday and at the end invited anyone who was interested to come to my home that evening where I would share in more detail about how “prayer ministry” works. That evening, at 7 pm, about twenty people showed up at our door. After a short introduction, I broke the group up into small prayer groups to practice praying for each other. The prayer groups finally broke up at 1 am the next morning, with many people experiencing profound healing prayer. No further announcements were made to the church about our informal prayer meeting, but the news spread quickly and soon our Sunday evening prayer meetings were packed with people coming for healing.
While I was in Vancouver, I found out that John Wimber was coming to Kansas City in a few months (August ‘85) to teach the same material. Since Kansas City was only 60 miles away, I was able to recruit 40-50 people from our church to attend. It was during this conference that Gail and I received more confirmation about this word I had received in the park.
One time a pastor prayed over Gail for the “new ministry” to which God was calling her. Another pastor told me he felt God was calling me away to a different place. But the most compelling word came when I was consoling a friend who had received some disturbing counsel from a Vineyard pastor.
My friend Terry, who was co-pastoring another church, had gone for prayer regarding a conflict he was having with his co-pastor. When he explained the problem to the Vineyard pastor, he responded, “I don’t need to pray for you, brother, it’s your leadership structure. There needs to be one man in charge!” This response was very upsetting to my friend, so he came over to me, a fellow believer in co-equal pastoral leadership (to complain). Unfortunately I wasn’t much help to my friend because as he repeated the words, “There needs to be one man in charge,” I heard the words in my mind, “He’s right!” This time I knew the words weren’t mine because I was a convinced advocate of co-equal leadership. I don’t remember what I said to my friend because I was immediately thinking about the implications of this “word” for my own situation. At the time, I was co-pastoring with a very dear friend.
Later that evening when I was alone with Gail, I told her what I had heard and mused that perhaps we were to start another church in Topeka (I was still too scared to think about moving!). In her usual wise way, she said we could never do that. That would be so hard on our church and our friends, Dick and Laura (the other co-pastor and his wife). If God was calling us to start a new church, it could not be in Topeka. When she said this, I knew I was caught! Yes, God was giving me a “park,” and no, it was not going to be easy; it was going to disrupt our life and force us to trust God like we had never trusted Him before!
In August of 1985, Mark and Gail took about 40 people to the John Wimber conference in Kansas City. During that time, the Lord continued to confirm that He was calling them out to plant a new church somewhere other than Topeka, Kansas where they were living.
After the Kansas City conference, Gail and I felt confident enough to talk to the other church elders about our call to plant a new church. They not only confirmed this call but decided that we should share this with the church. A special meeting was called where I explained the encounter I had at the park in Vancouver and the subsequent confirmations of that experience.
When we were done, two couples came up to us and told us that as we were speaking, the Lord had spoken to both husbands and wives independently that they and their families were to come with us to plant this new church! We felt both excited and stressed. One couple was very gifted in worship; the other was promising small group leaders. Neither Gail nor I had any idea where we were going to plant this church or how it would be done! It’s one thing to subject your own family to the vagaries of the unknown, but it is quite another thing to take two other families along with you for the ride!
By this point, I was feeling especially vulnerable. We had announced our imminent departure but did not know where or when we were going or how we were going to get there.
The first question was answered the next week. Larry, an old friend and leader in our church, walked into my office for our standing brown bag lunch together and said, “Mark, I think I know where God wants you to go.” Since Larry was renowned for his dry humor, I expected the next words to be the punch line of a joke. Instead he said, “I was praying for you, Mark, and as I was praying, I had a picture of your face and I heard the words, ‘I’m calling you home, son.’”
I joked back, “Larry, you know that means God is calling me to heaven!”
Larry said, “No, I know it’s not heaven because I saw you running along a beach with the surf coming in. Then I saw this big tree, I think it’s called a sequoia (he couldn't pronounce the word) tree. Does that mean anything to you?”
I was immediately petrified but said calmly, “They have those trees out in northern California, but I don't understand.” (In retrospect, it was impossible that I didn’t understand. I just didn’t believe it.)
A few days later, I woke early from a dream. In the dream I was looking at a map of northern California and southern Oregon. As I looked at the map, I saw three rays of light highlight three areas: one was Palo Alto, one was the Chico/Oroville area, and the third was Ashland in southern Oregon. When I got to my office, I decided it would be good if I prayed about this dream to see if I could get more clarity. I thought that if I dialogued with myself about each of these three areas, I might get further confirmation.
So, I started with the least likely place of the three: Palo Alto. “What about Palo Alto?…Oh, that would be impossible!” (I was thinking of the cost of living and having no contacts there at all.) Immediately, these words rolled through my mind, “What I’ve called you to is impossible, so why don't you go where you want to go.” I thought, “Where would I want to pastor a church if I could go anywhere in the world?” My next thoughts were, “I love Palo Alto. That’s where I met the Lord (my spiritual home!). That’s the kind of culture I’d love to minister in (a college town). That’s the most beautiful place in the world!” Then the words rolled through my mind again, “What I’ve called you to is impossible, so why don’t you go where I want you to go!” The words were slightly different this time, and I knew what he meant. If God is calling you to do the impossible, then you’ll be a lot better off trying to do the impossible where he wants you to be.
With fear and trembling, I shared my encounter with Gail, and, as usual, she immediately had faith. (Truthfully, during most of this process, I was the one dragging my feet; Gail was way ahead ready to go.) When we shared this with the kids (Emily and Josiah), they cried with both excitement and grief. We all knew God had us on a mission and he would get us there.
We did have a few minor pragmatic problems, however. I was getting a full time salary from the church in Topeka, but given the size of the church, there was no way I could expect them to continue to pay me while I started a new church in California. We also had two homes in Topeka that needed to be sold, and the housing market in Topeka was slumping badly at the time. A third problem was our only savings was my retirement fund.
But God had said, “What I’ve called you to is impossible,” so he took care of each of those problems.
The first problem was taken care of when we came out to visit the Bay Area. As usual, housing was very expensive (about triple Topeka costs) and jobs were not plentiful. But the Vineyard pastor in San Francisco told me that he would be happy to train me in vinyl repair and help me get a business started. I had never heard of vinyl repair, which did not sound particularly lucrative, but it seemed like an upgrade from what Gail and I had planned to do—clean houses. I decided if nothing else more promising showed up, I'd give the vinyl repair business a try.
The problem of our houses was more difficult. After several months on the market, neither house was selling. During this time, Gail had a strong impression we should give our old Victorian home to a young couple in our church with a growing family. (“Giving” meant giving them the equity we had invested in this home, about $15,000). As usual, I was behind Gail on this one. When it became apparent the house was not selling even below market price, I agreed to sell it to them less our equity. Meanwhile, we found a family that was interested in renting our primary home.
By March (1986), we were ready to move. When we reached California, we had no place to live, only enough money to live on for a few months, and a business I was going to have to learn before I got it off the ground. In the meantime, we needed to plant a church—something else we’d never done. But, God was more than faithful: he far exceeded our paltry hopes.
We arrived in the Bay Area in mid-March of 1986 with three needs: a home, income and people. One thing we did have was faith: faith that God had called us to establish a new church and faith that he would provide the resources we needed. In a very short time, we saw God provide more than we could have imagined.
The day we arrived, a couple in Redwood City held an open house to welcome us and to introduce us to their friends. This couple had heard that a family was moving out from Kansas to start a new Vineyard on the Peninsula. They wrote to us in Kansas and explained that they had been praying for someone to come to this area to start a Vineyard-like church. They were eager to invite all their Christian friends to meet us and begin this new church.
When we arrived at the open house that evening, there were about twenty people waiting for us, eager to hear our plans for the new church. Gail and I had just driven 2,000 miles in three days and were slightly overwhelmed by such a warm welcome. It was a wonderful meeting, but it was clear that these people had a strong vision of their own. As we drove home, Gail said, “I feel like we’ve just been through an interview with a pastoral search committee. Mark, we can’t put our hopes in these people.” As much as I hated to admit it, she was right. There was something wrong with this picture. Later a friend put it this way, “Mark, you’re like Jack and the bean stalk. You’ve just sold the family farm for three beans, and you can’t give those beans away!” What he was alluding to was that God had given Gail and me a specific vision of the church we were to plant and we couldn’t give over that vision to a group of well-meaning people who had their own ideas of what this new church should be.
Finding housing was difficult in the spring of 1986. While I was driving all our belongings and two dogs in a U-Haul from Kansas, Gail was looking for a house for us to rent to no avail. After almost two weeks of searching, Gail saw an ad for a place in Palo Alto on Easter morning. Since it was Easter, the realtor who was handling the rental was unavailable, but the owner was so eager to rent it that she showed it to us herself. The house was perfect: four bedrooms, near the Stanford campus. After seeing the house, we explained to the owner that we didn’t have enough money for the whole deposit, that we had two dogs and a cat (this was a no-pets rental) and that I would be beginning a new job the next day (with no guaranteed income!). She immediately waived the deposit, accepted our first month’s rent and gave us the key. When we met the realtor the next day to sign the papers, she couldn’t hide her disgust that the owner had rented the house to a family with no income, no references, no deposit, two teenagers, two dogs and a cat. We had seen only the beginning of many miraculous answers to our prayers.
The pastor of the San Francisco Vineyard, Michael Brodeur, offered to train me in the vinyl repair business. Although I knew nothing about vinyl repair or about running a business, this seemed better than the alternative (nothing!). So, I began to ride along with Bob Smith, Michael’s top vinyl repair guy. To my amazement, Bob wrote me out a generous check at the end of the week for the work I had done for him. For the next month, we traveled together answering calls from used-car lots, service departments, and private customers. In the evenings, I practiced repairing scraps of vinyl, mixing my dyes and learning the rudiments of bookkeeping. After a month, I was calling on service departments and used-car lots on my own. Meanwhile, Gail was going to dental offices with samples of my work and bidding on work on dental chairs.
I have many stories of botched repairs and interesting interactions with used-car dealers (good sermon illustrations!), but the big story was that within a short time, I was able to make enough money to support my family in expensive California.
We did have one major faith building experience the following November. Business had dropped off for the winter months, which is normal for vinyl repair, and I barely made enough money to pay the rent in December. As Gail and I looked over our finances, we realized we would run out of money in mid-December unless something drastic changed. Shaken to the core, we prayed with what little faith we could muster. Literally the next day, we got a letter from the people renting our remaining house in Kansas (the one we couldn’t sell) asking if we would be willing to sell them the house. The house closed escrow, and we received a check for several thousand dollars just before Christmas. Additionally, another vinyl repairman decided to move to Sacramento and gave me all of his old clients in San Francisco. From that December, my vinyl repair business never let up. It provided an ample income until a year later when the church had grown so much that I could no longer run my business and pastor the church at the same time.
Looking back on my not-quite two years as a small businessman, I realize how God fulfilled his promise that if we seek first the kingdom of God, he will take care of the rest. Who could have predicted that I could learn a trade, run a business and build up a large clientele during the short time we were starting the church!
In May we started our first kinship (home group). Six or seven people showed up the first few weeks. With no worship leader, I decided to lead worship with just my voice. It was awful! It was so bad, in fact, that one of the men offered to lead and play the guitar. I figured he couldn’t have been worse than me. I was wrong. Despite that, God blessed our small group so much that we had to start another and then another.
Meanwhile, the families from Kansas began moving to California. They also left behind comfortable incomes and homes with no promise of a job or a home here. God provided better and more lucrative jobs than they left behind and nice homes in Palo Alto. Tom and Mary Tyler came out in July. Tom was a Volkswagen mechanic back in Topeka. The day before they arrived, I went to the service department of the VW dealer in Redwood City where I had done some vinyl work and asked for the head of the service department. I told him that I had a friend who was a certified VW mechanic who was moving here and wondered if he had any openings for a mechanic. He said, “Have you been talking to someone here?” I said, “No.” He said, “We’re having a retirement party for my top mechanic tonight. This is his last week! When is this guy getting here?” I said “Tomorrow.” He said, “Send him in.” Tom was hired the next day, his first day in California.
By November, we had three small groups with over sixty people attending. The second couple from Kansas, Scott and Denise, had just arrived. Scott was a gifted worship leader, and Denise was a great musician. In our hearts we knew it was time to go public. We announced that we would begin Sunday (afternoon) meetings as soon as we could find a suitable facility. Interestingly enough, one couple on whom I had been counting for leadership left shortly after this decision. That seemed to be a pattern: whenever we made a decision to move forward in faith, we experienced emotional and spiritual setbacks.
Gail has a special gift for finding favor in the eyes of strangers, so she found and secured our first public meeting place at Mitchell Park Community Center on Middlefield Road. Our leadership team worked feverishly to put together a mobile sound system, procure the necessary instruments and plan our first public meeting, which was set for February 15, 1987.
Several of us went to the then-annual Vineyard conference in Anaheim the week before our first meeting. Gail and I left from Anaheim early Sunday morning to get back in plenty of time for our 5:00 p.m. service. Soon after we left the Los Angeles basin, my Oldsmobile was seriously overheating. We were forced to stop by the side of the highway and tow the car to Santa Clarita, where our car was diagnosed with a blown head gasket. Because it was Sunday, there was no way to have it fixed that day, so we quickly rented a car and made it to Mitchell Park at 5:05 p.m. Fortunately, everyone was operating on Vineyard Standard Time that day, so we weren’t late albeit out of breath.
Twenty-three adults showed up for our very first public worship meeting. Internally, I was disappointed and angry. Out of the more than sixty people in small groups, we only managed to have twenty-three adults. One family had actually recruited several people to go skiing that weekend! Despite the size, the worship was wonderful. The teaching (given my condition) was amazing too, and God was very present in the prayer ministry. After cleaning up, I said to Gail, “If this is what it’s going to be like every week, I don’t care how many people come. This is great.”
It wasn’t our imagination! God truly raised up the Peninsula Vineyard out of the dust. It was His idea, His work and His provision. The rest of us were just along for the ride of our life!