A contemporary focus on Bible-based religion

The Rev. Jeff Winter. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Of Faith

Martha’s Vineyard is home to diverse houses of worship. According to a schedule of services published weekly in The Times, more than 28 congregations meet regularly year-round. This is the second in a continuing series in which The Times profiles Island houses of worship.

Faith Community Church

Services at Faith Community Church of Martha’s Vineyard (FCC) are contemporary. The music is all at the start, which surprises folks used to a traditional format with hymns spaced throughout the hour. The church band is guitars, drums, a saxophone, and — one suspects — anything someone wants to play, and the music is loud and enthusiastic. It is often contemporary gospel music, but it sounds modern even when the song is a traditional hymn. In wintertime, at the FCC chapel on Meetinghouse Way in Edgartown, there is a media screen over the altar that flashes the words to the hymns and songs so that every one can sing, and there are multimedia images projected, which give a modern spin to the Bible-based, Christ-centered message. Music and singing last for about 15 minutes before the band packs up and rest of the service begins.

From June to Labor Day, Sunday services take place in the open air in a field next to the FCC parsonage on County Road in Oak Bluffs, near the Jardin Mahoney garden center. The format is the same, but there is no media screen. According to the pastor, the Rev. Jeff Winter, the summer crowds are much larger, averaging 140 to 150, double the winter attendance. The congregation is larger then partly because of the more central location, partly because there is some walk-in traffic, and partly because there is a spiritual bonus to worshipping in an outdoor setting. Reverend Winter told The Times that the summer services are always full of surprises, because one never knows who or what will wander in. Sometimes a dog, seeing food passed out, will come forward to take communion.

FCC is listed in the phone book as non-denominational, but it might also be described as multi-denominational. In its history it has had elements contributed by Baptists, Mennonites, Presbyterians, and others. Pastor Winter, now in his fifth year, was trained as a Presbyterian minister, but he told The Times, “I go across denomination lines as much as possible.” He describes his approach as “Gospel-centered.” FCC presently has an informal connection with a Southern Baptist ministry. The organizational structure is congregational in that all leadership decisions are made by the whole membership.

FCC began in the 1970s as a Christian Bible study group meeting in people’s homes, and then morphed into the Lighthouse Ministry, which held Sunday worship services. In 1978, the group was given the use of land on Meetinghouse Way and built the present chapel. The name was changed to Faith Community Church in 1986.

FCC is centered on spreading its Christian message in contemporary ways. Its weekly bulletin contains the motto: “Helping to make Martha’s Vineyard as well-known for Jesus Christ as it is for the rich and famous.” Reverend Winter does not expect to see that task accomplished in his lifetime, but that is the goal. The chapel on Meetinghouse Way is too small for the church’s ambitious ministry, and so FCC has arranged to use larger meeting spaces, such as the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs and the Federated Church in Edgartown, for special events.

FCC’s largest effort has been to sponsor a week-long conference at the Tabernacle, featuring nationally known preachers and Christian musical groups. Last June the featured speaker was Charles Stanley, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Atlanta and founder of In Touch Ministries, heard around the world via radio and television, the handheld In Touch Messenger, and the ministries’ Web site. The total attendance over five days was 6,000, many from off-Island.

At other times FCC has brought to the Vineyard Eric Mataxas, author of “Bonhoeffer,” the biography of a German Lutheran pastor who died resisting Nazism; Jennifer O’Neill, a Hollywood actress (“Summer of ’42”) and author of “Surviving Myself,” an autobiography of her personal spiritual journey; and David Batstone, author of “Not for Sale,” an exposé of modern human trafficking.

As with other Island churches, FCC operates outreach programs: a youth group, a winter clothing giveaway, a food pantry, and a week-long summer Bible camp on Bend-in-the-Road beach. A group of five parishioners is raising money and awareness to combat sex-trafficking on the Vineyard. One parishioner organized a fundraising effort for a child in Providence whose need for a special diet costs $1,000 a month (FCC paid for three months).

The challenges that face Pastor Winter include the need for a larger building. The chapel on Meetinghouse Way is out-of-the-way and too small for the summer congregation and the church’s evangelical ambitions. The planned church on the parsonage land on County Road would be more centrally located, more in the public eye, and large enough for the special events the FCC sponsors (except for the June Tabernacle conference).

However, Reverend Winter told The Times that his most important challenge, even more important than a larger building, is “to equip more and more people who will reach out and touch the lives of others.”