FLORENCE, Ky. -- One of the men who helped popularize the “church in jeans” movement and paved the way for big, non-denominational churches Northern Kentucky has retired from the pulpit.
Until he retired on Christmas Eve, Barry Long was the only senior pastor the Vineyard Christian Church in Florence ever had. Long and a few friends cobbled the church together in 1987 from three small-group Bible studies, in an era when most congregations still sang from hymnals and worshippers wore their Sunday best.
He retired because he turned 65 last year, because it’s time for new leadership – the church has lost members in recent years -- and because he’s tired. Last month, he had the bones in his left ankle pinned together and fused because of chronic pain from college sports injuries.
He’ll never bend his foot again, but he will be able to walk without pain for the first time in years.
Long, who grew up in Erlanger and graduated from Lloyd High School, played volleyball at Ball State University, then moved to California in 1973 in pursuit of a beach volleyball career. To make ends meet, he sold stereo equipment, and a fellow employee invited him to a Vineyard church.
The Vineyard movement now has 1,500 churches worldwide, but it was new when Long began attending. The first Vineyard church was started in Hollywood in 1974, during the “Jesus movement” that saw Christ as a counter-cultural figure. Long found it eye-opening.
There was no stained glass, no organ, and worshippers wore sandals and shorts.
“My wife (Fran) and I looked around and said, ‘This can’t be church. This can’t be it.’ The novelty kept me coming back,” he said.
After having what he described as a dramatic conversion experience, he stopped taking illegal drugs (he was addicted to Quaaludes, a sedative popular at the time), and his values changed overnight.
After spending two years as a leader of a church small group, he moved his family back to Kentucky to start a church. Initially, the three small groups he started here began meeting Sunday mornings for worship at Tichenor Middle School in Erlanger.
Bringing the Bible to Life
Independence resident Nancy Miller has attended the Vineyard since those days, she said, and stayed because of Long’s gift for bringing the Bible to life and his concern for the poor. The church has often had grocery and clothing giveaways, she said, and once held a yard sale for the poor only, where every item was 1 cent.
Nearly all the traditional churches shunned the new congregation, Long said, and from their pulpits, some local preachers called it a cult. There were only two other Vineyard-like churches in Northern Kentucky then, Long said, both of them now in Florence – Fellowship of Believers (now Seven Hills Church, a megachurch) and Christ Chapel.
Long was ahead of the curve because of his days spent in California worship services, said Bo Weaver, who founded Fellowship of Believers. “He brought a bit of that California flavor to Kentucky when he started the Vineyard,” Weaver said. Long always celebrated the successes of his peers and would do anything to help his fellow preachers, Weaver said.
“He doesn’t know how to act like a preacher,” Weaver said. “He’s just himself.”
As the church grew, the congregation met in the cafeteria of Covington Catholic High School, then in rented space in Florence, and in 2000 moved to its current home.
Smaller Than ‘Megachurches’
In recent years, Long’s brand of conversational sermons and relaxed services with contemporary music has become the norm, not the exception.
At its peak before the Great Recession, the Vineyard drew about 1,200 to weekend services, Long said. It never reached the 2,000 mark usually associated with megachurches, as has First Church of Christ, which is just a few miles north on Camp Ernst Road. Ironically, First Church’s longtime pastor, L.D. Campbell, was the only pastor who welcomed him to Boone County, Long said.
Since the Great Recession, weekend attendance has fallen to about 700, Long said. Few of those who left went to First Church, however. More left for Crossroads Church, now Cincinnati’s largest congregation, which opened a Florence campus in 2012.
It was hard not to take that slump in attendance personally, Long said, because the church had grown every year before that. On his best days, he said, he prays for churches like Crossroads, and reminds himself that “we are not in competition with them; we are in competition with the darkness.”
On his worst days, he said, he is jealous – but he tries to remember that when the Vineyard opened its permanent sanctuary, it immediately gained about 100 members from other churches.
New Pastor Taking Over
In January of last year, Long announced his impending retirement, and the church hired Houston-based Vanderbloemen Search Group to find his replacement. The church decided on Marc Ladouceur, a former consultant for Chicago megachurch Willow Creek Community Church.
His pulpit style is quite similar to Long’s, Miller said. His first few sermons have focused on, “We’re a new family now, what do we do now, how do we get to know each other and how do we move forward,” she said.
Meanwhile, Long spends Sunday mornings watching TV news shows while he recovers from surgery. He’s also writing a book of reflections on discipleship.
He fields requests to speak at various churches, he said, and he expects he will keep teaching somewhere. Fortunately, he has saved his money and doesn’t need to rush out and get another job.
“I feel free to really listen to see what God wants me to do,” he said.