It was a chilly Saturday afternoon when Hilary plopped down on a park bench in Apple Valley, Minn., to reflect on her fragile life that was on the verge of derailing. Her marriage was rocky, and as she studied the white wispy clouds floating overhead, she blindly grappled with questions of faith.
Is there a God? she wondered as a tear rolled down her cheek. If so, where is he?
Moments later, two ladies sat down on an adjacent bench. Hilary couldn’t help noticing how giddy they seemed. They weren’t chatting about their favorite restaurant or a fabulous vacation they’d just taken; they were discussing their faith. Intrigued, Hilary asked where they attended church.
The following Sunday, she quietly slipped into the back pew of River Valley Church to check out the place for herself. Tears flowed throughout the service as a flood of emotions surfaced.
“I know now that it was the presence of God speaking to me,” says Hilary.
The following week, she brought her husband along. Over time, they grew to know Christ and repaired their marriage.
“Hilary encapsulates the church,” says Rob Ketterling, senior pastor of River Valley. “She overheard someone speaking about God’s goodness, and she wanted in on it.”
It’s no surprise that Hilary felt the love a park bench away because according to Ketterling, the people of River Valley Church eat, breathe, and sleep outreach. The church, which two decades ago started out as a Bible study of 13 people, has swelled to a congregation of 11,000.
They’ve done so by overcoming external distractions, enduring internal disasters, battling city ordinances and facing leadership shortcomings. Most of all, they’ve had to learn how to manage their own growth. For instance, when attendance first started surging, Ketterling’s instinct was to remain personal with every member across the board. “I wanted to know everyone by name and be at every baby’s birth,” he recalls. “But it just wasn’t realistic. I was not one super cell, nor should I be.”
The church also sensibly grew its children’s ministry. Ketterling maintains that often churches hire what he calls “sugar staff” in an effort to entice kiddos (and their parents) to attend service. “They bring in a children’s pastor to juggle fire on Sunday, and it’s impressive,” explains Ketterling. “But the rush is only there on Sunday. Come Monday, everyone’s on a sugar crash.”
Ketterling says the answer is to hire a “protein staff” that will attend leadership training, mentoring classes and pastors conferences. This training is key because only those leaders who can humbly recognize the things that need to change will have a shot at flourishing. For example, River Valley changed its name from Hosanna Christian Center when they realized that few knew the definition of a Christian center.
It’s all about evolution. Once a gathering of a handful of people, River Valley is now a successful multisite church with eight area campuses (six suburban, one rural and one inner-city). The demographic reflects the makeup of the state. Roughly 80 percent of the congregation is upper- to middle-class Caucasians. Therefore, local outreach strategies focus on the needs of the community.
For instance, people of Apple Valley pour into River Valley whenever the church offers marriage strengthening retreats, seminars on effective discipline and workshops on the power of forgiveness.
“People show up for ministries that impact their daily lives,” says Ketterling “And when folks are excited about what God is doing in their lives, they talk about it.”
That’s when you experience a domino effect. Word spreads. Numbers soar. People connect. Lives change.
Just ask Hilary.
RIVER VALLEY CHURCH
Apple Valley, Minn.
Senior Pastor: Rob Ketterling
Affiliation: Assemblies of God
A 2015 OUTREACH 100 CHURCH
Growth in 2014: +633 (11%)