How We Began
Jim Bentley, pastor
Before we were Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Gadsden or before we were asked to change our name to Gadsden Vineyard Church by the national Association of Vineyard Churches (now know as VineyardUSA) we were Christians looking for “More.”
In 1980, I was a high school art teacher at Glencoe and Hokes Bluff High Schools. I had been following Keith Green and Last Days Ministry when Keith was alive, and I had also been reading a lot of books.
Looking back, I now know that God was driving me. It wasn’t something of my own initiative. It’s not like I decided one day, “Hey, I’ll just become crazy and change my whole life and make my family, friends, and those at work upset and wonder what’s wrong with me. I think I will just get crazy so that all my friends at church will distance themselves from me and My Sunday school teacher will want to know why I’m putting cartoons up on the wall. You know, I’m just going to be crazy. I’ll try that.”
I was somewhat a normal Southern Baptist member since I was eleven, and then God started this whole thing about being serious. “Why don’t you just quit being part time with your Christianity? Why don’t you go for broke and be a full time Christian all the time and see where that takes you?”
1982 Wayne F., one of the guys I was talking with regularly about a more involved spiritual life, found a Christian Life magazine in October 1982. This whole issue was about a course taught in the basement of Fuller Seminary by some guy named John Wimber called Missions Course 510 - Signs and Wonders. Approximately 200 seminary students (and missionaries who were on furlough) signed up for this class. Wimber taught that God still healed and performed supernatural acts in Third World countries and even in this country and possibly even in this class. Afterwards, Wimber would have a “clinic.” At the end of each class, he would take a few minutes and say something like, “Let’s see if God wants to do something.”
I thought that Wimber was the sanest sounding guy I had ever read. Before, I had always bounced between two places. One place was really emotional and not very thoughtful; the other was so thoughtful that it was really dull. Wimber used both his emotions and his knowledge and made sense while sticking his neck out trying new things. I read the magazine in late October 1982.
1983 On Sunday, January 16, 1983, during the second song of a Meadowbrook Baptist Sunday morning worship service, I was sitting on the third row where we always had sat for the last eight years. One minute I didn’t want to pray, and the next minute I just had to go to the prayer room. I told Jan, my wife, who was standing up with the hymnal, “Hey, I think I’ve got to go to the prayer room.”
Jan, my first wife, was a very practical person. However, I was not, I was more artistic and let's say emotionally driven at times. I was really like a kite flying around in the sky, so to speak. She said, “Well, go.”
So, I excused myself, went out to the prayer room, and I prayed a couple of sentences. I don’t remember what I prayed, but I knew enough to quit talking. The second I quit talking I heard a sentence come through my mind, the strongest sentence I’ve ever heard, not another voice but a very strong thought. It said, “I want you to start a church.”
Out loud, I said, “I can’t pastor or preach.” I was thinking, “I’m an art teacher.”
Just as strongly as the first time I heard a reply, “that’s not what I said.”
People talk about the glory of God being like a weight. (The Hebrew word for “glory” actually means weight). The only time I ever had a physical experience that matched this experience was when I had my wisdom teeth out and the dentist gave me Valium. At that moment in the prayer room, I had the sensation of being pushed down into the carpet. I felt very heavy and very relaxed at the same time. It lifted off in a minute or so, and I realized that God had communicated with me.
“What does this mean? Should I give up teaching and go to seminary? What do I do?”
I finally went outside and walked around. I couldn’t go back in and sit down. The special guest was inside speaking about how useful Sanford’s education classes were. (I think it was Christian Education Month.)
Everyone I was close to was out of town. My pastor was out of town. My friends were out of town. There was no one there but one guy that knew my trek. I found him at the end of the service and told him what God had said, and he told me that he’d been called and was going to seminary. He said, “You should probably go to seminary. That’s what I’m going to do.” In reality he didn’t go to seminary after he moved to Texas. I guess God was calling him to Texas so that he would get a job in hospital administration.
Later in the spring, I wrote to John Wimber. In the meantime, I talked to my pastor and other pastors, but I was never satisfied with their answers to my questions. However, Wimber replied and wrote me that he was going to be in Nashville in April. He invited me to come and promised to meet with me after the meetings.
So, we traveled to Nashville to Music Row to a church called the Belmont Church. Now, this church had taken out all the pews where the choir had been and had a band set up on the stage. As we entered the sanctuary, the band was singing a Maranatha song called “As We Gather,” a really mellow praise song.
I immediately started crying. The tears just bypassed my mind. It felt like the scene from the movie ET where he said, “Home!” I felt like I had come home, but I had not even met Wimber yet.
Now, that was really weird. What was even weirder for me was this meeting was comprised of 400 or so Church of Christ leaders from non-instrumental and instrumental churches wearing three-piece dark blue or gray suits. I had on my blue jeans and was with my wife and a college student that we had brought with us. A couple from Florida had also been invited to meet John. It was obvious that we were visitors.
Then, this guy came up on the stage. His hair was a sandy blond color that was beginning to turn white; he was dressed in a Hawaiian shirt with white pants and shoes, something like Pat Boone would have worn back then.
I told my wife, “I think that’s Wimber.” I was right.
He talked about healing for a while, and then he said, “Let’s have a clinic.” That wasn’t too bad. Someone heard the word “arthritis” and maybe the number “nine.” Eventually, nine people stood up and came to the stage for people to begin to pray for them. He told us to watch them and see if we could see what the Holy Spirit was doing “to” and “in” them. I really couldn’t see anything except that maybe one guy was vibrating a little.
I had never been around this kind of thing. I could tell that whatever was happening was important, but I had just not seen anything like this before.
The meeting ended, and we went for supper. Then we came back for the evening session. At the end of the session, John said, “God wants to anoint some of you.” It looked like almost everyone in the session was a Church of Christ minister. He asked everyone to stand. I stood up standing halfway in the aisle because I’m a guy that doesn’t like to be trapped in the pew.
He then said that God wanted to touch many of us in a new way and that there were people here who needed to be refreshed. Then he asked God to send the Holy Spirit. “In Jesus’ name, Holy Spirit, come.”
He took the microphone, put it under his arm, and sat down on the top step of this old stage that had seven or eight steps from the floor to the platform. Everyone was standing, looking around at the other people standing. Nothing much was going on. No music, just us standing and waiting. But waiting for what?
Then from the back of the room, we heard a loud sound, something heavy hitting something like wood. Then the sound was to the side of us. We realized that what we were hearing were people who couldn’t stand up. They were falling backwards into the wooden pews that had no padding. This started moving from the back of the room toward the front slowly, two or three people falling back onto the pews on every row.
When this “effect or whatever you want to call it” got even with me, a guy who was standing in the aisle across from me went nose first to the floor. Now, backwards is one thing, especially when someone is pushing on your forehead hard enough to cause you to lose your balance, but a Church of Christ guy in a three-piece navy suit going down face forward - that’s impressive. That’s really impressive. It was so impressive that his best friend crawled next to me trying to talk to the guy whose face was on the carpet to find out if he was okay. Wimber stood up from sitting on the top step and said in a calm voice, “Sir, God’s with him. He’s okay.”
The friend said back to Wimber, “I just wanted to know what happened to him, see if he’s okay.” Eventually the best friend tried to talk to the guy down on the carpet. I could hear the guy on carpet mumble something. The best friend got up, walked down the aisle, went out a side door, and slammed it shut. By this time the “effect” had spread all over the sanctuary. Wimber told the people standing that they could bless the ones that had fallen back into the pews.
In a few minutes the man who had stormed out came back in and apologized saying that he just had never seen anything like this. I could hear his friend who was lying on the floor next to me say, “I’m just fine.”
After the session ended, I was going to leave because Wimber had disappeared, but the team was still praying for people. We went to our car, but instead of leaving I thought I would make one last try, so I said, "I’m going back inside and see if I can find Wimber." So I went up to one of the people who had come with John from California. I told Blaine Cook that I was from Alabama and was supposed to meet John and Carol Wimber after the session. He told me that they were going to meet at the IHOP restaurant down the street and that I could follow him in my car.
When we got to the restaurant, I told John and Carol Wimber that I was adopting them that night. He told Steve, his assistant, “Give this young man a 100 cassettes of teachings from our church.” (I would listen to them all that summer.)
That was my first encounter. I literally stayed up all night because I had just seen something and really didn’t know what it was. I couldn’t explain it. I told my wife as we were driving home that this was supernatural and that I was pretty sure this was God and not the enemy.
After Nashville, we began a meeting in homes using the Vineyard small group model. We did this until early 1984 and were still attending our home church. Nobody from the church felt impressed to help do what God had asked me to do. Of course, I wasn’t trying to get anyone to leave the church; I was just trying to tell my friends the story.
In fact, I went to a church that was of another denomination to talk to the pastor and one of my best friends who went there about the things that I had seen. The pastor said that he could see that I probably wouldn’t be happy in his church. (Many churches believe the spiritual gifts ended with the first century Christians, and their denomination was one of those.) At the time I didn’t realize that he was really trying to get rid of me.
1984 In the summer of 1984, I attended my first big conference at the Vineyard Anaheim. There were approximately 2000 people from all over the country who attended and a few from outside of the country. The Holy Spirit was very intense in the conference, and that was wonderful and surprising and a little strange all at the same time. I thought that this was normal for the Vineyard movement because I really didn’t have anything to gauge it by. Later I discovered that this meeting was considered the all-time peak anointed conference for two years before and after. I just thought that it was normal for people to be manifesting demonic things over here and for someone else to be healed over there and for others to be empowered in the front or the back of the room. So, I came home expecting this to be the normal thing to happen in my living room each week.
We continued to meet in my living room where we would sing some songs and then invite the Holy Spirit to come. We would sit and look at each other until something happened or someone had an impression. Amazingly, God did at least one thing every week. By January 1985, we were about a dozen folks. We count January of 1985 as a kind of starting date since we got a checking account that month and Nori Kelley and Debbie Handy became our first worship leaders.
In 1986 we rented the Christian Brothers’ building on Sunday afternoons, then moved to an old fitness center for a year, and back to our living room for a year or so. Then in January 1990 we came back to Christian Brothers and have never left. Christian Brothers gave us their building a few years later. We bought the Santos printing company building next door in 2001.
Friends would come by and visit, sometimes a year or so later, and say, “You guys are always changing a little every time we visit.” That is good. Living things are always changing.
Jim taught art in Glencoe and Hokes Bluff schools from 1973-1998. He has a MA in Art Education. He and Jan were married 31 years before her passing. He and Patsy have been married ten years. Patsy is a biblical counselor. They have seven grandchildren and two godchildren.