By Darrel Rowland
RiverTree Christian Church in Massillon, Ohio, has not tried to become just a little more missional. Led by visionary minister Greg Nettle, more than three years ago the church made a revolutionary commitment to a missional strategy for all its ministry. The result is breeding influence and disciple-building in a way Nettle believes is vital for the very survival of the church in America.
Just a few minutes after Greg Nettle’s message and the closing song, a man with an idea pulls him aside in the hallway. “You know what? I know all these remodelers,” the contractor tells Nettle. “I think God is calling me to start a GoCommunity of remodelers to help single women and poor people. And at the same time we’ll reach all these remodelers.”
Moments later, as Nettle strides by RiverTree Christian Church’s welcome center, he is stopped by a couple of neighbors who want to make sure he knew they were there. After all, they are part of his GoCommunity.
Don’t bother checking your concordance; GoCommunity is not mentioned in the Bible.
But you might find something about making disciples.
That’s why Nettle, whose official title is “visionary leader,” committed RiverTree to the missional movement more than three years ago.
Here’s how Nettle puts it for Christian Standard readers:
“I think this is simply a return to what the Restoration Movement is all about. It’s to restore the church [and] Christianity to what it was in the early days of following Jesus.
“And a lot of times we view that in how we do baptism, which is important. How we’ve said the Bible and the Bible only, and that’s important. How we’ve said no creeds but Christ, and that’s very important.
“What we’re doing is looking at the mission and saying, how did they do mission in the first century? That’s a fascinating thought. We can get so caught up in doctrines, which are all important, but we miss the mission piece: how did people make disciples who make disciples in the first and second centuries?
“And so I would just say this is just an extension of the Restoration Movement or a return to that Restoration Movement, a different side of it.”
Nettle and Alex Absalom, the church’s leader of missional innovation, readily acknowledge the term missional has become overused and sometimes abused.
“There’s some stuff which is clearly really useful, and there are also lots of people who’ve just tacked the word missional onto something that’s not missional at all, and they use it as an excuse to do what they want to do—to be unaccountable, actually,” said Absalom, a missional movement leader in Sheffield, England, before joining RiverTree’s staff. “So just because someone calls it missional doesn’t mean it’s missional.”
To restore a biblical missional concept meant that RiverTree had to get rid of many activities to which the megachurch near Canton, Ohio, had become accustomed. Even more important, it meant a revamp of attitudes and approaches among both leaders and attendees.
Perhaps the most challenging was a transition from a purely attractional model, centered on attracting people to a high-quality weekend worship service, to a combination of attractional and missional. In the latter, less attention is devoted to the weekend “show” and more given to preparing people for discipleship that takes place primarily outside the weekend gathering.
Looking at it from the outside, here’s some of what “going missional” has meant at RiverTree:
• Elimination of the concept of church membership (“because membership has its privileges, and partners link arms to change the world,” Nettle says).
• No Sunday school or adult Bible fellowship. No more men’s or women’s ministries, either. And good-bye, choir.
• Despite the basketball goals in the area where the church meets, no sports outreach.
• The exit of 400 to 600 who had been attending.
• No investing in additional buildings, even though it would almost certainly increase the weekend attendance.
But the view from the inside looks like this:
• A church whose goal is to “make disciples who make disciples” that reaches 100,000 people in northern Ohio.
• A redefinition of the concept of discipleship from something that doesn’t take place until after conversion to a process that “begins at hello.” “For years here my big win was how many people had we dunked that year. And then I would really let ’em go,” Nettle admitted. “The first contact you have with someone, you have an opportunity to move them toward Jesus. Doesn’t mean they will, but that’s how we need to view every relationship in life.”
• A possibly revolutionary new way of planting churches.
• New concepts such as “huddles” and those GoCommunities—dubbed simply “GoCos” in RiverTree vernacular.
A GoCommunity is a group of 20 to more than 50 people who are focused on reaching a specific neighborhood or a network of relationships. Nettle’s two encounters after RiverTree’s Sunday gathering provide an example of each.
The couple who came up to Nettle after the Sunday gathering were part of a GoCo formed in the neighborhood near Nettle’s home. They showed up when people living in the area were asked to come together to pray for their children as they headed off for another school year. The couple had not been part of the church before.
The contractor who wants to start a GoCo among his fellow remodelers is using an existing personal network. Nettle said that idea “rocks . . . because I could never do that. I can’t go reach remodelers. I’m not going to. That guy can, and disciple them.”
While discipleship is often portrayed as a one-on-one endeavor, Nettle and Absalom said Jesus always did it in community.
“You are loving people into God’s kingdom and discipling them as they see the works and words of Jesus lived out in a community setting. And it makes it much easier; the pressure’s off,” Nettle said.
“Instead of me, one on one, trying to win my neighbor to Jesus Christ, you’re in community with these people.”
That’s a major reason the ministries for sports, men, and women were eliminated. RiverTree wants its disciple makers out in their communities. “Your life is your mission” is how the church puts it.
Absalom stressed that GoCo members don’t have to be Christians. And many who do become Christians don’t attend weekend gatherings “until way after they’ve committed to becoming a Christian,” he said.
“Missional,” the Need
Absalom pointed to studies showing that some 60 percent of the U.S. population simply won’t come to a weekend worship service, which is a big reason RiverTree decided to stop making them the centerpiece of its efforts.
“The way it used to be, everything served the weekend gathering,” Nettle said. “I don’t think discipling happens at weekend gatherings; that’s the big rub people have with us.”
Transforming the consumer, “serve us” mentality was a crucial step for RiverTree.
Nettle remembers telling the congregation, “We’re going to do away with the service idea—where you’re coming to be served—and basically our job is we’re gathering to be equipped to go out and serve others in the world.”
He set out to reverse a setup in which about 70 percent of church resources (staff, time, energy, finances) were plowed into making the weekend services great, but just 30 percent devoted to intentionally making disciples.
People departed during the following three years, Nettle said, “because we said, ‘we’re here to equip you, not to serve you.’ If you’re a follower of Jesus, then you need to make other followers of Jesus. So we’re raising the bar and the expectations.”
The new approach caused Nettle to revise some of his dreams as well. When an 80-acre site he had been eyeing as perfect for a new campus came on the market, Nettle gritted his teeth and said no.
“I think the buildings fight against us,” he said, recognizing the irony of such a statement while sitting in a structure that cost $11 million. Even the possibility of adding to the current 1,100-member auditorium and attracting more people on weekends was rejected.
“Because we made a decision to say we’re not putting up any more new buildings, it forces us to think outside of the box, and think, how do we make disciples who make disciples without investing all that money in buildings?” Nettle said. The church is on target to be debt-free by the end of 2014.
“I have friends who were doing their special Christmas Eve offerings that were supposed to go external [but] got canceled because they couldn’t make their building payment at the end of the year. And I’ve been there. I know what that pressure’s like to have that massive building payment.
“And so what happens is your financial engine runs the church, rather than the desire to make disciples who make disciples. And that is so common today.”
The same type of reasoning was applied to Sunday schools or ABF’s—most were just exercises in information dissemination that may or may not have had anything to do with making disciples. The church still conducts in-depth classes on the Bible, correct theology, and the like.
“Here’s the deal: we can have classes until we’re blue in the face, but the reality is, the younger generation, they’re not the ones showing up in that class,” Nettle said.
But that younger crowd, and the 60 percent reluctant to darken the door of a church building, are often open to getting together with someone in their neighborhood, or with someone with whom they work, run, or share an interest. In other words, a GoCo.
Even then, those groups differ from a typical small group Bible study. In fact, GoCo leaders are strongly discouraged from conducting a detailed 45-minute presentation on a Bible passage because most listeners will think, I could never do that.
And that fails the main goal of making disciples who make disciples. Instead of information sharing, the GoCos are primarily about relationships and experiences, because that’s what transforms lives today. Those attending are encouraged to share something about which Jesus has spoken to them in the previous week, even if it’s as mundane as yelling at their kids. That incident is then discussed through the lens of the Bible and how this “fresh bread” from Jesus can shape and impact their lives.
After taking part several times in such a session, an attender is much more likely to say “I could do that.” And once they see the practical application of the Bible in their lives, they will be hungry for more.
“Missional”—We Need It!
Currently RiverTree has about 1,600 people involved in more than 50 GoCos. Church leaders strive to say “yes” when somebody proposes one, although starting a GoCo represents a serious commitment.
A key step is identifying a specific mission and vision, and writing it succinctly in one or two sentences, Absalom said. While GoCos obviously have a social element, they must be designed to reach a specific group.
And leaders must commit to meeting in a “huddle,” an invitation-only group developing character and skills. Participants concentrate on the two fundamental questions of discipleship: What is Jesus saying? What am I doing in response?
“It’s where they come to receive encouragement and accountability,” Absalom said.
“We’re trying to create a low-control, high-accountability culture,” he explained. “The low-control part comes because we’re releasing GoCo leaders to do all sorts of crazy stuff.”
A huddle represents “the counterbalance to low control,” he said.
“There needs to be a safety check. And the safety check is the high accountability. You need to be accountable for your character and the way in which you lead your community. Because it’s all very well to have a lovely, godly vision of helping the poor, but if you’re mean as a dog in the way you do it, then that doesn’t honor Jesus.”
The fun part comes when the GoCos start overlapping in a particular area, and then those GoCos start meeting together on Sundays. Welcome to a new model of church planting.
Nettle, who is also president of the church planting organization Stadia, said since the groups are already meeting and relating to each other, the launch is much more organic.
RiverTree’s newest site for gatherings in Canal Fulton, Ohio, began when one GoCo multiplied to five. The church did not need to spend $100,000 on marketing; in fact the total tab was less than $50,000, Nettle said.
That compares to about $300,000 to open a previous site in Massillon.
“The implications for church planting are enormous,” Nettle said.
A side benefit: The leader of a GoCo may wind up as a leader for the entire gathering—and could even lead the new location as a church plant, instead of a multisite branch of RiverTree.
“What it enables you to do is to take more risks,” Absalom said. “And it enables you to reach more nooks and crannies of society.”
RiverTree’s attendance has rebounded, and now exceeds what it was three years ago; it now approaches 3,000 a weekend over four sites. More important, the church counts around 1,000 “committed disciples of Jesus Christ.”
“I think we’re talking about changing some values,” Nettle said.
“Unfortunately, in the United States—and I’m not saying [some] good hasn’t [come from this]—but we have raised the value of how big your weekend gatherings are and how large are your buildings and how extensive are your campuses.
“At the end of the day, that doesn’t mean you are making disciples. It doesn’t. That means you’re attracting crowds. Now if you’re attracting crowds and you’re making disciples, great.”
But for RiverTree—and, Nettle suspects, for many churches like his that have been viewed as a success simply by external measures—a transformation was necessary to remain faithful to Christ and his mission for the church.
“I believe God is changing the face of the church in the United States,” Nettle said. “I think this is big-deal stuff. I think it has to be, or we will become utterly irrelevant in a short number of years.”
Free e-books about RiverTree’s journey can be downloaded at www.gregnettle.com.
Darrel Rowland is an adult Bible fellowship teacher at Worthington (Ohio) Christian Church and public affairs editor of The Columbus Dispatch.