Vineyard Worship– The Early Years - Part 1

Every once in a while I will read something or hear of something written about early Vineyard worship, and I have yet to contribute anything to date, so I thought I'd provide a brief history here. While John was a talented musician, he was never the worship leader. I will openly admit he was "the brains" behind it all. Even his assignment to me at one point of developing a theology for "Vineyard Worship was deliberate and intentional; he wanted me to learn and grow in my understanding of worship. What better way for me to do that than to have to dive into the Scriptures and sort things out.

Vineyard worship informally began in my sister’s living room in the fall of 1976; a handful of us met one night after Sunday night service to talk and pray about the state of our lives, in particular our lives in Christ. We were tired, burned-out and somewhat disillusioned at this time. At the end of this meeting, I was asked if I would bring my guitar the following week, and from these early meetings, our worship began to evolve. I knew a handful of the choruses that came out of the Jesus Movement and in particular Maranatha Music, so we sang those. I didn't have a list; we didn't have lyrics. I just sang what came to mind and they all joined in. At first it was a few minutes, but over a few months, and as the group exploded, it would go on for at least 45 minutes. Again we had no lyrics, no list, and frankly no plan but to try to be sensitive to God and not get in the way. It was clear He was doing something very special with this group of people.

In May of 1977 we gathered for our first church service as Calvary Chapel Yorba Linda. That morning was the first morning we had a “worship team.” I led the worship on my acoustic guitar, John Wimber played the Rhoades keyboard, and Dick Heying played drums. We did about six songs. Again we had no list, no practice, no overheads or songbooks. I just hit the first chord and went from there. That night Jerry Davis joined us on bass and this comprised our team for a couple of years. While we did eventually add female vocalists to our worship team, some have asked why there was no female on our worship team in the beginning. When there was a lady’s part that needed a female vocalist, we would have Cindy Rethmeier come up and lead that part and then sit back down. Because I can’t recall ever having a conversation with John about this, the only explanation I can think of is there was no room for anyone else on the 8x16 portable stage we had built. It was very cramped with a keyboard, set of drums, bass and electric amp and the players. Anyone familiar with Cindy knows she has a beautiful voice and is a wonderful songwriter and worship leader; over the years she became an integral part of Vineyard music in all of those areas.

John, Dick, Jerry, and I were the worship team every Sunday morning and night service from May of 1977 to May of 1983. On Sunday mornings we did about 30 minutes of worship and Sunday nights about 45 minutes. I have a recording of one set we did in 1982 on a Sunday night where we did 17 songs! Our approach didn't vary during this time; we would get together and tune our instruments, pray and then I would simply start a song and the guys would follow. In all that time we never rehearsed, never had a set list, never had any monitors and never provided lyrics for the congregation. The songs were all so simple back then and our repertoire was only about 30 songs, so if you stuck around you learned them pretty quickly.

During all of that time I only can think of one or two times in which John interjected himself and gave any direction. When I look back on it, I find that to be remarkable and almost unbelievable. But I think there was a method to his madness. John knew something very special was happening and both he and his wife Carol had insight to the fact that what we were doing wasn't just for us; they knew that it would spread throughout the world, so following his own advice to “Let the bush grow before you try and shape it” he kept a hands-off approach as things developed. John was a professional musician. I am not; it had to drive him nuts at times to just let me go and not try to direct me. We did have times together where I would drop over to his house with a new song and he would help arrange it and add something to it, which always improved my songs no doubt.

I'm not clear on this, but I think it was at Esperanza High School when Eddie Espinosa joined the team playing lead guitar----what an incredible addition! Eddie also sang and wrote songs and in my opinion throughout the years exemplified the heart of a worship leader; he was so engaged in worship himself that he modeled beautifully the intimacy we were experiencing in those days. It was very early in the process when we discovered we could write our own songs. John, Eddie and I began to contribute several songs to the ones we picked up elsewhere. Almost every song we wrote was in the first person direct to God, very personal and very intimate. They were for the most part prayers set to music; songs like Change My Heart Oh God, written by Eddie, became standard songs.It was very special to part of a time when our songs ended up being sung around the world. I would have never imagined that being the case. I was happier than a pig in slop just to be a part of what was happening locally.

As time went on, it was clear that John did have some ideas about all of this. He knew if our worship music was going to be transferable that it needed to accessible to the majority of churches, which are represented by small congregations. He knew keeping it simple would help accomplish this and he supported this. I think it's one of the reasons he was so supportive of me; with me leading, it was going to be simple. I am not trying to sound humble here. I’m just looking at myself accurately. I was always the least skilled member on our worship team, but the effect certainly was to make it accessible to a broader spectrum of people. The running joke, which I hear to this day, is if you could play three chords G, C and D you could play these songs. That wasn’t quite true, but it was close and there was no doubt it was directed towards me. We had many talented and gifted musicians coming to our church at this time, but John had no interest in having them become a part of the worship team, or replacing me, at least not during the time of the development of our worship style.

In reality we were developing a prototype of something that would be copied and reproduced around the world. Honestly, I didn't have a clue that this could possibly happen, but Carol especially was certain of it and would simply state it as a fact. Because of this, the initial 'model’ was not tampered with, but was allowed to mature and stabilize before it was developed further. It would be six years before there were any changes made and then pretty minor in nature. For about twelve years our worship model didn’t change a whole lot. I think for that period of time it was a good thing.