By Darrel Land
It has been referred to as the miracle in the cornfield. That is an apt description of Redemption Christian Church. A church of more than 1,800 people in a rural town of 15,000 certainly is rare.
To understand the amazing things God has done, you need to know a little bit about Jasper, Indiana.
Jasper is unique in many ways. Farming dominates Dubois County, where Jasper is the county seat. The church is literally surrounded by corn and soybean fields. It’s as rural as rural gets. The majority of jobs are blue-collar. Jasper has often been called the “Wood Capital of the World”; it features many furniture companies. Jasper is a hub, in many ways, of surrounding rural communities.
The town is deeply entrenched in its German heritage. The biggest event every year is the annual German festival called Strassenfest. One of the town’s best-known restaurants is the German-themed Schnitzelbank.
In early 2000, when Redemption started, 58 percent of the county’s residents—23,000 out of 40,000—were Catholic. (Three large Catholic parishes are located in Jasper.) Another 15 percent were mainline Lutheran. Most residents had never set foot in any other kind of church.
Jasper also had a reputation of being a very tight-knit, but closed, community. These factors led people to tell me I was crazy when I felt called to start an independent Christian church in the town. In many people’s minds, it was destined to fail. A Restoration Movement church had closed a few years earlier.
However, I could not shake the calling. I had been raised 30 miles up the road in French Lick, Indiana, had family who lived in Jasper, and had worked in Jasper while in college, so I knew firsthand the desperate need for a church like this.
After serving in a few other ministries, I sensed I was being directed in early 2000 to start a missional Christian church in Jasper. On May 21, 2000, with the financial support of my parents and Red Quarry Christian Church, my small country home church, the journey began.
We held our first service in Jasper’s Days Inn meeting room with 12 people committed to making this their church home. It wasn’t a well-organized service and it wasn’t high-quality, but I believe those gathered knew God was up to something.
We couldn’t comprehend yet how right they were.
The first sermon, from Mark 2, focused on four men who opened up the roof of a house where Jesus was preaching to lower their paralyzed friend to him. Jesus healed the man and forgave his sins. The message: our church, like these men, was going to go to great lengths to get people to Jesus. We would tear the roof off of the place if that’s what it took to get people to Jesus—and let him do the rest.
Our mission was clear.
God has done amazing work here. Redemption moved from the meeting room to a movie theater, to a warehouse in an industrial part of town, to a building planted in the middle of a cornfield, to a multisite church with two locations. All the while, God was moving in ways we could have never imagined.
So how does a start-up church in a mostly German-Catholic rural community explode in its first 17 years to become one of the largest and most impactful churches in the region, reaching well over 10 percent of its community and expanding its impact across the region?
The obvious answer is God. This doesn’t happen without him. It’s a God story. However, there are some things God used to make this happen.
1. A Laser-Like Focus on the Mission
I can’t speak for urban churches—having never served on staff at one. I cannot speak for all rural churches. I can, however, say the common denominator of all rural churches I have been a part of is a tendency to get off mission, to focus on traditions, to focus on keeping people happy, and, often, to have extreme apprehension and resistance to change.
Many churches have mission statements, but if you look at what they actually do, it often doesn’t reflect the statement. It’s easy to get distracted by things that may not be bad but which take the focus off the mission. The wrong type of culture develops. As my friend Matt Merold says, “A bad culture will continually destroy a great vision.”
We never wanted that to be us. We summarize our mission with the statement: “Love God. Love People. Change the World.” It’s all about reaching people for Jesus.
Like the four men from Mark 2, we strive to get people to Jesus, the One who not only heals brokenness, but saves people from Hell.
At Redemption, we talk about mission nonstop. Our sermons always come back to the mission. Vision-casting sermons, announcement times, and our social media presence are all about the mission. We even turn down good ideas we feel could distract us from the mission of winning souls to Jesus.
Since we are serious about getting people to Jesus, we know it is very important to relentlessly remove barriers between people and him. That drives everything we do.
When we look at our context, I see the barrier of religion. People think they are saved by family heritage and they know nothing about the joy of life in relationship with Christ. Along with a church-heritage barrier, we have barriers of worldly distraction. Our role as a church is to find ways to remove these barriers.
The greatest way we have found to remove barriers is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ over and over again. The gospel is the great barrier-remover. Certainly, the cross is a stumbling block for some, but it is the only hope we have.
We knew before even starting we wouldn’t reach our region by preaching against other churches or by cursing the darkness. The only way to reach our area would be to preach Jesus Christ and shine his light as brightly as we could.
We also stay on mission and remove barriers by doing things differently than anyone else in our area.
I’ve heard it said, if you are going to reach people who haven’t been reached, you’re going to have to do things not yet done. We try to think of “doing church” outside the box.
A few years ago, a study determined that more than 24,000 unchurched people lived within a 30-minute drive of our Jasper campus. The study helped explain why so many people were driving that far to Redemption. We determined if we were going to reach those 24,000, we needed to approach things differently. Those unchurched people are our target; we do not target people from other churches—that doesn’t grow the kingdom.
If you are going to do things differently to reach unreached people, you need to understand your context. What works in Indianapolis won’t necessarily work in Jasper. The context of a culture determines style and approach to ministry. For example, when we started Redemption, our area’s musical taste was dominated by classic/Southern rock or country music. We determined our style of music would reflect that. It has evolved over the years, as has our culture, but to reach unchurched people, approach reflects context.
Because of our context, we tend to avoid High Church culture. We are casual in attire and don’t do traditional liturgy. Both campuses have large lobbies for people to connect, gather, and build community.
Also, we knew from the start if we didn’t determine a culture and DNA for advancing the mission, we would get off-course. So, we established three core-value areas that determined everything we do: worship, outreach, and discipleship.
Worship: Every week, we put resources and effort into corporate worship gatherings. We prayerfully plan and create a dynamic, gospel-driven worship service that brings glory to God, builds up and inspires the believer, but also reaches the unchurched in a relevant way.
The resources and effort behind our children’s ministry was a completely foreign concept to our community when we began. Now, kids often drag their parents to church because they love children’s ministry worship time so much.
Outreach: We are constantly asking ourselves these questions: (1) What are the needs of the communities and region around us? (2) What can we do to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ? (3) What are we doing to reach those who are not yet here?
We relentlessly look for ways to love people in tangible ways—as a collective church and as individual members. Rick Rusaw once asked an important question we often ask ourselves: “If your church were to pack up overnight and move out of your town, would anyone notice besides those who attend?” If we are going to stay on mission, the answer better be yes. My hope is our community would feel a gaping hole if that happened.
Discipleship: Jesus said to go into the world and make disciples. Jesus never said to go and make church attendees. To stay on mission is to make disciples (Christ followers). Here’s the great thing: True disciples make disciples. They multiply.
This is a major goal for us. We must take people deeper, even as we grow wider. I would love to say we excel at this, but it is a work in progress.
If something does not fit cleanly into one of these three core areas—worship, outreach, or discipleship—most likely, we won’t do it. We cannot afford to go off mission.
2. Bold Steps of Big Faith
When preparing to launch the church, I studied a lot of dynamic churches and leaders and read a lot of Scripture. A common denominator was a boldness to take risks and act in faith.
People who are willing to trust God and take bold steps of faith are often the ones God chooses to use. Hebrews teaches us it is impossible to please God without faith. God honors big faith.
From the beginning of Redemption, our people have acted in faith. Twelve people left the comfort of their church homes to join us on this journey, three families co-signed for a loan to purchase our first building, and our leaders have always thought big.
We have often repeated the slogan, “We want to try something so big that if God isn’t in it, we will fail.” This is always important, but it’s vital in rural communities. Examples of going big are fewer in such locales, so when leaders take bold steps of faith, people notice. It inspires their faith.
3. Unconditional and Tangible Love
Love is powerful. Too often, when people who are far from God think of church, the last thing they think of is love. They think of judgmental people, hypocrites, and people who look down their noses at them. We know those feelings are not always justified. Nevertheless, the perception is real. In addition to loving people because it is a command, we must demonstrate love in tangible ways to overcome perception with the people we are trying to reach.
This begins, again, with the gospel. While we were still sinners Christ died for us. He didn’t expect us to get cleaned-up first. If you reemphasize the gospel every week—over and over again—people start to get it and they become loving and accepting of people.
For us, this means a huge emphasis on first impressions. First impressions are an easy way to live out gospel love. From the moment someone arrives at one of our campuses, they see friendly faces everywhere waving, smiling, and trying to be helpful. Everyone from our traffic crew to greeters to ushers know the importance of their jobs.
But unconditional love certainly doesn’t end with first impressions. We must give generously, we must serve continually—both through organized church projects and everyday loving-your-neighbor acts. We tell our people we want them to give everyone a daily encounter with Jesus through their words and deeds.
As I look through the first 17 years of Redemption, I see these constants: Jesus, the mission of reaching people for Jesus, and change. We have changed locations, methods, and service times on countless occasions—all for the mission. I believe one of the keys to breaking through growth barriers is the willingness to change.
Most recently, we changed our name from Christian Church of Jasper to Redemption Christian Church. We also changed our structure to add a campus in Loogootee, Indiana, a nearby town of 2,700. Many people were driving to Jasper from that area, and we realized no one was planting this kind of church in rural southern Indiana. We had to do something. Souls were at stake. The eldership prayed, researched, brainstormed, and decided multisite ministry was the best strategy for our context to remove barriers to Jesus. In December 2016, we launched the campus in Loogootee with nearly 500 people.
I am thankful to be a part of God doing immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine. I know this is just the beginning. I believe this could be happening all over rural America. Can you imagine the impact for the kingdom if it does?
Darrel Land serves as senior minister at Redemption Christian Church, a multisite church in southern Indiana.