Every weekend, hundreds of families stream into an office building in Apple Valley. From the outside, it looks like a call center or a retail warehouse. In fact, it did once house a Wal-Mart shipping center. But in recent years, the building has found a different calling as the home of River Valley Chuch — one of the fastest growing churches in the United States.
This spring, River Valley will begin construction on a 5,000-square-foot expansion to accommodate the growing congregation and make the boxy building look more like a church.
"It's crazy how quickly we've grown," said Jordan O'Connor, 21, who started coming to River Valley with his parents eight years ago and now interns for the church. "It's humbling to be a part of."
River Valley is a multisite church, based primarily in the south metro. Apple Valley is the main campus and with nearly 3,500 people attending services each weekend, it is by far the largest. There are five services each week, but the 950-seat auditorium fills up on busy Sunday mornings. Late arrivals must watch the service from one of the two overflow rooms.
The current building is so plain that "when people drive by they don't know it's a church," said Rob Ketterling, River Valley's founder and lead pastor. When they expand, they will also remodel the building to make it look more like a conventional church, raising the roof and adding large crosses. But Ketterling said the changes won't be too dramatic.
"Our buildings are simple. Nobody's winning an architectural award with them," he said. "People matter more than the buildings."
The expansion, which is expected to cost more than $4 million, will add about 250 more seats to the auditorium. The church plans to begin construction after Easter and complete work by Christmas.
River Valley has the polish of a well-managed — and well-marketed — business. When congregants walk in the door, they are greeted by a cafe, a welcome desk and a wall of touch screen monitors where they can sign in for classes and child care. Newcomers are given goody bags with River Valley coffee mugs, CDs from church bands and copies of Ketterling's book. Everything seems to run smoothly, from the high-tech service to the teams of people who distribute collection buckets on cue.
Ketterling calls this the spirit of excellence. Although he attributes the church's success to God, he says church members are responsible for doing the small things to help draw in new congregants.
"Most people when they walk in the door, they don't know how to even connect to God," Ketterling said. "But they do know how to judge if it's clean or nice or friendly. So they judge the things they know, and then they go, 'OK, I'll listen to what you have to say about God.' "
Whatever force is drawing parishioners to the River Valley, it seems to be working. Each weekend, more than 6,000 people attend services at the church's six Minnesota campuses. Last year Outreach Magazine, a periodical for evangelical Christian churches, named River Valley the 23rd fastest growing church in the country. In 2014, church attendance increased by nearly nine hundred people. Ketterling aspires to grow attendance by another two thousand people this year.
One reason that Ketterling is confident River Valley can more than double its growth from last year is because the church will open a 1,000-seat campus in Shakopee this spring. That will replace a smaller, temporary site in Savage that has already attracted nearly a thousand weekly visitors.
When the church has opened other campuses, they've seen growth pretty quickly, Ketterling said. In 2013, River Valley sent 100 parishioners from Apple Valley to help found a campus in Eden Prairie, he said. In less than two years, attendance at that campus has grown tenfold.
Sermons by video
As a multisite church, River Valley relies on video to deliver its message. The church records Ketterling's sermon in Apple Valley, and come Sunday morning, they play the sermon video in churches across the state.
When the church opened its second campus, Ketterling feared parishioners would be put off by the use of video, but he said most parishioners were comfortable with the video sermons from the start. Now, they also livestream the service online.
One reason why congregants may have been so ready to accept video sermons is because River Valley attracts an unusually young crowd for a church. At a Sunday service in January, the auditorium was packed with young people and couples in their 30s and 40s. Some congregants have gray hair, but they are the exception, rather than the rule.
The service is designed to appeal to a young audience. Video monitors display giant clocks that count down the seconds until the service. It starts with a Christian rock band. Then comes Ketterling's sermon, chatty and casual, with a smattering of family friendly jokes.
"Our pastor is very funny," said Kori Polstein-Jaradat, who has been bringing her daughter to River Valley since April. If they can't make it in person, they always watch the livestream. "It's not judgmental and hypocritical like you see at the old churches we used to go to when we were little kids."
Changing for the future
River Valley is a member of the Assemblies of God, a group of affiliated but autonomous Pentecostal churches. Between 2000 and 2010, the Assemblies of God was ranked as the fastest-growing religious group in Minnesota.
The Rev. Clarence St. John, district superintendent of the Assemblies of God churches in Minnesota, said that the denomination is strong, but some churches are struggling because they aren't adapting to the 21st century.
"We have to make a change when we're not relating to the culture of today," St. John said.
When a smaller Assemblies of God church is failing, St. John said he encourages it to allow a successful church to take over leadership. River Valley took over failing churches in Minnetrista and Faribault with congregations that had shrunk to fewer than 50 people. Now both churches attract close to 400 people each week.
Ketterling attributes much of River Valley's success in revitalizing small congregations to the multisite structure.
"We are able to take our best practices and put them in place and make the changes that some churches are resistant to make," he said. "Sometimes the people that have held on for so long are resistant to embrace new singing, new ways of doing kids ministry. Sometimes they don't see the need to upgrade technology and facilities."
O'Connor, the intern who's been coming to River Valley since he was a teenager, puts it differently.
"I believe it's the hand of God over our church," he said. "It's all God."
Dylan Peers McCoy is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.