It all boils down to “how well we are doing at making disciples.” After 23 years at the leadership helm of RiverTree Christian Church, I have to take at least some responsibility for the quality of disciples we are producing.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I know it is God who brings about the sanctification process and that we, as humans, certainly continue to have the freedom to make good or bad choices. However, surrounding my 20-year anniversary as leader of RiverTree, I spent a lot of time praying and reflecting. And I didn’t like what was revealed to me.
Time and time again I heard stories about people who had been a part of the RiverTree community for quite some time whose marriages were ending in divorce. People whose finances were an absolute train wreck. People whose kids were having abortions. People whose character reflected more of the world around them than the character of Christ.
The RiverTree elders graciously encouraged me to remember the incredible amount of positive life transformation that had taken place over the years. A good friend reminded me that the church as presented in the New Testament certainly had its share of problems. But, for me, the quality of disciples we were producing did not live up to what I believe Jesus had in mind when he said, “Go and make disciples.”
The attractional model of church, at which we had become quite adept, actually seemed counterproductive in many areas to making true disciples. For example, the consumer mind-set within the church is absolutely disturbing. The lack of authenticity and accountability is heartbreaking. The deficiency of community transformation where we live, work, and play is unsettling.
There Must Be a Better Way!
For RiverTree, it all came to a head in 2006 when a Realtor told us an 80-acre farm (about which I had been praying for 10 years) was now available for us to purchase. The site would allow us to develop a “mega” campus with multiple worship venues, café, teen center, wedding chapel—you get the picture.
As the Realtor spoke, I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. This was not what God wanted us to do. Our leadership team concurred.
And so began our journey. How could we reach 100,000 people in Northern Ohio without investing millions of dollars in buildings? How could we make disciples who were serious about following Jesus? How could we transform the communities to which God had called us?
The past five years of questions, prayer, and seeking wisdom have led us to several critical transitions. Among them:
• The launch of more than 30 missional communities
• Investing more and more financial resources, both locally and globally, to bring about life and community transformation
• Moving from 70 percent of our resources spent on our weekend gatherings and 30 percent spent on intentional discipleship to 30 percent on weekend gatherings and 70 percent on discipleship.
Simply defined, missional communities are typically groups of 20 to 70 people who are called to love a specific network or neighborhood of people in Jesus’ name. At RiverTree we call them GoCommunities (abbreviated GoCos). GoCos are
defined by their mission. They rely more on relationships and experiences to become like Jesus and less on the intake of information.
Bible knowledge is certainly important, but only to the extent that it brings about life and community transformation. According to the apostle Paul, knowledge simply for knowledge’s sake does nothing but “puff up” a person. And puffed-up Christians are not the kind of disciples Jesus is looking for.
Currently at RiverTree, we have GoCommunities that are committed to making disciples in their specific neighborhoods among young families, singles, and college students. These are the neighborhood models of missional communities.
We also have a variety of GoCos reaching into prisons, senior living centers, sports leagues, and adventure activities. These are the network models of missional communities.
Through leadership huddles, discipleship takes place with low control and high accountability. GoCommunity leaders are expected to make more and better disciples that will require continual multiplication of the community. Community partners are encouraged to listen to the voice of God and subsequently, as God leads, begin their own GoCommunities.
I would contend the most effective ways of reaching people who are far from God are new church planting and caring for children. New church plants reach people who are far from God more effectively than existing churches, and 85 percent of the people in the world who become disciples of Jesus do so between the ages of 4 and 14. So, if we can combine new church planting with caring for children, we will have an unprecedented way of making disciples. The problem is, it requires financial resources to fund this kind of endeavor, financial resources that are not available as long as the church spends 96 percent of its income on its own buildings, staff, and programming.
Over the past five years, RiverTree has invested more than $5 million in partnership with Stadia to plant new churches, and with Compassion International to care for at-risk children. The results are nothing short of astonishing. Thousands of children have decided to become disciples of Jesus and are part of new churches that value them simply because they are valuable to God.
So far, we have discovered two things that require deep trust in God as we invest outward. First, we must trust that God will supply the financial needs of our own local congregation as we encourage people to give outside of RiverTree. Second, we must trust that the growth of God’s kingdom outside of RiverTree matters more than the expansion of our own kingdom.
As to the first, God has abundantly supplied more than we can ask or imagine as we pursue endeavors that are close to his heart. As to the second, on a regular basis I wrestle with my ego to be one of America’s 100 biggest and fastest-growing churches. If we are serious about God’s kingdom, then we cannot be concerned with our own.
70/30 to 30/70
I am convinced that using our church weekend gatherings to make disciples is ineffective. I am also convinced the church in the United States has bought into the belief that large gatherings can effectively disciple the believing community. After much personal examination of RiverTree, and many enlightening conversations with church leaders across the country, I believe the majority of us are spending 70 percent of our church resources (time, finances, and energy) putting on great large gatherings, and only 30 percent on actual life and community transformation (true disciple making).
So, if we are living by the 70/30 principle and are not effectively making disciples, what would it look like to move to the 30/70 ratio, with the majority of our resources committed to life and community transformation?
At RiverTree, this means we do not commit to spending millions of dollars on buildings, so that, instead, we can invest millions of dollars in people outside our walls. It means we free RiverTree partners from a never-ending list of church programs, in favor of our people becoming involved in the lives of the people they rub shoulders with every day in the communities where they live. (For example, we don’t run any sports programs in our church; we expect people to be involved in community sports programs where they can be the church.) It means we give our staff permission to not be in the office, but, rather, have their “work space” in the community. It means we use less flash and performance in our weekend gatherings, and more participatory, prayerful experiences designed to prepare people to be influential in their everyday world.
We must make this transition because 77 percent of Americans do not have a consistent, life-giving connection with a local church, and the church is continuing to decline in both participation and influence. We MUST make more and better disciples. That’s why missional matters.
Greg Nettle is senior pastor with Rivertree Christian Church in Massillon, Ohio, and president of Stadia.