By TR Robertson
Rocky Fork Fellowship in tiny Hallsville, Missouri—population 1,500—grew from 40 to more than 400 in its first 10 years while meeting in the local middle school cafeteria.
On March 4, 2018—11 years after the church’s founding—Rocky Fork gathered for their first Sunday together in a new building just south of town. A combined 841 worshippers attended two services. The following week, three Easter services brought in a total attendance of 977.
Not surprisingly, the founders and leaders of the congregation have grown used to fielding questions about the secret to their success.
“We try to pinpoint the things that might benefit another church,” says Scott Rice, the chairman of the elders. “Ultimately it goes back to God’s working in our lives and in this community.”
“We had great people that were all in, that would do whatever it takes, that were Christ-centered,” says Mark Butrum, Rocky Fork’s senior minister. “There’s no magic formula. It’s lifting Christ above everything else and being bold enough to share him, wherever you are. That’s what makes churches successful.”
“We try to pull everything through the filter of our mission,” Rice says. “The mission is to make disciples.”
Demographic studies revealed a lot of people, but not a lot of young families, were going to church in Hallsville.
“The kids here in this school, they and their parents were not going to church,” Butrum says. “So the founders decided to launch a church that would focus on those families.”
“We started with the philosophy of pushing things off the table that don’t affect doctrine, but do affect a person’s feeling of comfort in a church,” Rice explains. “Most of those things involve traditions that are comfortable and familiar to people who grew up in a church environment, but not to someone who didn’t have those same experiences. We address the music, the atmosphere we’re setting, the way we greet people. All those things are meant to make that unchurched person’s experience as good as possible.”
The church’s founders hired a minister who shared their commitment to the mission of discipleship.
“I’ve interviewed with other churches and asked the elders, ‘Where do you want to be in five years?’” Butrum says. “They’d say, ‘Uhh, well, we want to add some more classrooms.’”
“That’s not the answer I wanted,” he says. “I wanted to hear, ‘We want to be on fire for Christ! We want to push back the gates of Hell! We want to burst into people’s lives! We want to bring them to Christ!’
“That’s what Rocky Fork was offering,” Butrum says. “And that’s what sold me. We want to do things differently. We want to break from tradition.”
Rice says the church began with the assumption they were going to be successful and see growth. “We’ve built our practices, whether it’s business practices or policies or how we run a service, with the idea of doing things the way we would if we had 200 people here, or 400, or 1,000.”
“One of the challenges with that is staffing,” Butrum says, “You need to staff ahead. But [it’s difficult when] you’ve got a budget that’s being fed by an immature congregation of 300 trying to finance a 500-person-style church.”
The church added Chris Collier as executive minister to focus on the administrative and organizational challenges of the congregation.
“For me it’s about identifying people I can come alongside,” Coller explains,“people I can interact with and not just ask, but challenge them to take that next step. I can’t do it all by myself, but if I get 10 people to do it with me, if we can all have that mentality of bringing more people into that process, it can work.”
The church’s welcoming family atmosphere is unique.
“People are quickly brought into that fold,” Collier says. “As we get bigger, that becomes more challenging, but I don’t think it becomes impossible. We may be able to recognize everyone’s name at 200 or 400, but will that continue at 600? That group of people who are able to recognize names needs to grow, as do other things, like small groups and ministries that can be ways of plugging people in.”
After reaching an average attendance in the mid-400s about two years ago, the limitations of meeting in the school cafeteria effectively stalled the growth.
“We’d hit a peak and then drop off, then hit a peak and drop off again,” says Butrum, describing a widely-known church-growth phenomenon. “We were exceeding the 80 percent capacity, after which we’d drop off.”
“We just couldn’t stay in the school any longer,” Rice says. “Our effectiveness in that building was done. We had to move forward.”
The cafeteria also lacked flexibility with regard to scheduling ministry activities.
“That’s the big picture,” Butrum says. “We’re not about making buildings, we’re about making disciples.”
“You can talk about [constructing a new] building, and the audience gets very excited,” Collier says “We try to always finish those conversations with a reminder that [the building] is a ministry tool.”
If the church were in a larger city, an abandoned Walmart or other locations could have served as a transitional option while the church continued to grow. But in a rural town, no such places exist.
Rocky Fork considered moving closer to Columbia, the nearby city of more than 120,000, but discovered the costs of building there would be higher. Besides, the church’s leaders say, a big-city setting didn’t suit Rocky Fork.
“We’ve found that niche where young folk who are in the county or outside the city . . . can feel comfortable and get close to God,” Butrum says. “We’re a rustic, down-to-earth group, much different than what you find in the city.”
“One thing people might take for granted,” says Rice, “is all the different components that have to come together to have a successful building project. It takes somebody—or the finances to hire somebody—with the ability to focus on these things. It can’t be just a volunteer who thinks about it casually.”
Collier took on that role for Rocky Fork.
“I didn’t have experience in a project like this,” Collier admits. “ I’ve managed small projects, but nothing on this scale. Nothing in the bigger construction world, nothing in commercial construction.
“You’d think it would be simple to select your site and your size and pick out the [person and/or company] to put it up,” Collier says. “But there’s so much to look into for meeting building codes in the county and getting all the design work done.”
“I might not be here if we hadn’t hired someone else to do this,” Butrum says. “The old saying is, if you want to get rid of your minister, start a building program. Most ministers don’t survive it without real help.”
“Chris was able to put the raw data in one place and say, this is what it might look like if we did it this way,” Butrum says. “That was really helpful for us. We were able to right-size the building to match the budget, keeping all those comparisons in focus. How much we need versus how much we could afford.”
“It’s about creating an opportunity that doesn’t financially burden the church beyond what is necessary,” Collier says, “but gets us into a place that provides us room to grow.”
With a congregation made up largely of new Christians, maturing them to the point of giving money to a building project was another part of the mission.
“Everything is about moving them from outside the church—pre-churched, pre-Christian—to being Christ-centered, where everything revolves around him,” Butrum says. Discipleship leads to attendance, involvement, evangelism, and giving, and to all those other key components many churches take for granted.
“Rocky Fork exists to bring people to Christ and to transform them into believers,” Butrum says. “[The building is] not the main thing.”
The congregation purchased 28 acres just south of Hallsville in 2016. Early in 2017 they signed on with a local contractor.
On June 4, 2017, about 250 people lined up along the staked-out footprint of the new building, armed with shovels. First they turned their backs to the building site and looked out in all directions to the county and towns around them and prayed for the people who could be reached by the growth of this church. Then they turned toward their future church building and began digging. Men, women, teens, and small children all set to work turning over the soil.
Work began on the project immediately thereafter. Just before Easter this year, the church’s new tool for disciple making was ready.
“This is a milestone, not the finish line,” Butrum told an enthusiastic crowd at a building dedication service two days before the first Sunday in the new building. “In our eleven years, we had the amazing opportunity to bring more than 260 people to Christ and to be baptized. Our goal is not to build buildings, but to make Jesus the most important relationship in our lives. This building will be an important tool in accomplishing that mission.”
Over the first two months following that grand opening and the colossal Easter audience, attendance averaged 518 for the Sunday services. The average in the months prior to completion of the building had been 420.
The sudden jump in crowd size brings new challenges each week. They’ve found, though, that all those years of creatively adapting to the challenges of meeting in the school prepared them well.
“Many of the same people who arrived early and stayed late at the school are still doing that in our new building, willing to chip in wherever needed,” Collier says.
“The beautiful thing is to see that continued fellowship among our family.”
TR Robertson is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Missouri.