By Christina Tazelaar
Unsettling survey results have led to a pioneering discipleship effort at RiverTree Community Church (RCA) in Byron Center, Michigan.
The survey--Reveal, which has been taken in hundreds of congregations--overturned many assumptions about how people grow in faith.
"They would have assumed that as your maturity rises, your level of involvement in church programming rises," says pastor Chris Shearer. "That's not true. They assumed that by getting you into a church program you're going to mature--that's not true. They would have assumed that the people most likely to leave a church because they're dissatisfied are the people who have been there the least amount of time--that's not true either.
"The people most likely to leave a church are the most mature, because they're not getting what they need in the format or environment that they need."
That's where Shearer mentions small groups, which have been adopted as a one-size-fits-all discipleship model in many congregations. "Small groups are not necessarily the answer," he says. "Small groups work for some of the people in your body. But you need to figure out what to do for people once they're advanced beyond what a small group can do for them."
RiverTree worked for over a year to develop a model of discipleship that took the Reveal study into account. Last fall, it launched the Greenhouse, which utilizes a spiritual assessment survey to categorize adults into three groups: planter, developer, and harvester. (The group names tie into the idea behind the church's name: a tree planted by streams of water.)
"RiverTree has a tremendous track record of reaching people who are unchurched or not Christians," Shearer says. "For whatever reason, in the first eight or nine years of RiverTree's life, they've never done anything with them once they reached them. This was easily one of the biggest identifiable needs in our church.
"We're following through on the Great Commission and actually making them disciples instead of converts."
The planter group is full of spiritual newcomers and people who have recently returned to church after years away. "Planters" attend classes about basic Christian beliefs, spiritual habits, and biblical knowledge.
"They're given the freedom to not know anything. The best questions I get asked are in this phase," Shearer says. "They're learning concepts and spiritual formation practices that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives."
He tells of one woman in the planter phase who participated in a church-wide day of prayer and fasting. "Here's this woman, an early-30s single mom of two kids, and she's fasting. That's a neat thing. We taught her a practice that now she can use whenever she has a difficult decision to make in life or needs to feel more spiritually grounded."
The "developers" meet in small groups, a reflection of a growing interest in deeper spiritual relationships. The groups usually focus on life issues such as parenting, marriage, and managing finances. Occasionally, seminars and events are held for a larger group.
And then there's the harvester group. "People in this phase do not want to be in a small group--it's too big and too formalized," says Shearer. "They want smaller clusters of friendships that can be done in a very interpersonal way, very organic. We leave them alone and let them be what they are--spiritually responsible people." For example, Shearer decided on a book and distributed copies to all the "harvesters." He left them on their own to read it and follow up with each other to discuss it. "And they do it!" he says. "They are very responsible for their own spiritual life--relationships, their relationship with God, and so forth. So you basically give them the freedom to do it, and they do it well."
Shearer is enthusiastic about the ways that harvesters are investing in ministry. Individuals in that phase have started visiting hospice patients and nursing home residents, helping single moms with education and mentoring, and creating networking opportunities through a job board at the church.
They've also launched the Barnabas Project, a system for connecting people in need with people who can meet those needs.
The only formal event for the harvesters is a monthly evening meeting. "I'm looking at the leaders of my church," Shearer says of those meetings. "It's nice to be able to treat them that way and lean on them that way." He uses a recent facility transition in the church to point out how this works. "The subject of the harvesting night was, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, you are the spiritual anchor of this church as we make this transition together. Everyone in this body needs you right now to be who you are. Be positive, trust God, help ground the others who are not quite where you are in your faith journey." Shearer says the harvesters committed to doing just that, praying and checking in with folks from the other phases to see how they're handling the transition.
Incidentally, that transition also illustrated phase-based approaches to one decision. Collectively, the church spent 15 days to make a decision about its facility, which it could no longer afford. "Every phase of the Greenhouse focused on this decision that we had to make," Shearer says. He provided each phase with discussion questions and Scripture readings to use in their classes, small groups, and friendships. In the end, Shearer says, "95 percent of our committed members voted one way. That is a testament to using the Greenhouse and the three phases; we let them do it together."
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