At a time when many churches are closing or losing congregation members, the Rev. Rob Ketterling of Apple Valley says he is having a hard time finding church buildings to take over so he can accommodate his growing flock.

Ketterling started his River Valley Church in 1995 with a few dozen members. As of this month, his total congregation had surpassed 3,700 in four cities.

More surprising is that much of that growth has happened in the past three years, when River Valley only had 1,200 members in Apple Valley.

Ketterling, 45, credits the tripling in size of his Assemblies of God church to old values and new approaches to preaching the word of God. Among his innovations: remote sermons on high-definition TV screens, using Facebook and other social networks to reach new members, and turning services into joyful events instead of somber rituals.

Last month, River Valley Church was ranked 64th among the 100 fastest-growing churches in the country by Outreach magazine, which each year ranks the largest and fastest growing churches in the United States.

The model spreads

Another Twin Cities church, Substance in Roseville, also made the list and was reported to be growing even faster than River Valley. Substance, a nondenominational church, was ranked 21st among the fastest growing churches by the magazine.

Substance started in 2004 with about 35 people and has grown to more than 2,700 in the past six years. About two-thirds of the members are under age 35. "It's been a bit of an explosion," said Peter Haas, pastor and founder of Substance.

The success of Substance is not surprising to Ketterling, who helped start the Roseville church and is now an adviser.

"They use our model," Ketterling said, "although they are a little more [progressive] than we are."

Haas and Ketterling are considered "church planters" -- people who help start churches around the country.

"We are helping to start a new church probably every four to seven days," Haas said. "We are riding a wave of a mass cultural shift in this country."

As witnessed by the fact that the Roseville church calls itself simply Substance, without using the word church, temple or other worship site in its title, "We're trying to differentiate ourselves," said Haas, 35. "Dropping old labels has helped us in many ways."

"Don't get me wrong -- doctrinally we're as typical as they come. ... But why can't church be different?" Haas asks on the Substance Internet site in a nine-minute video.

Old and new

In the video, Haas says as he grew up he was disenchanted with church, seeing Christians as "judgmental" or "obsessed with boring ritual."

"We have a lot of fun at Substance," Haas says. "It took me a number of years to realize there was a difference between true Christianity and dead organized religion. ...What I was looking for was not dogma or closed-mindedness. I was looking for substance."

Substance, like River Valley, is a multi-site church. It holds services at its coffee shop and performing arts center in Roseville, but also branches out for events at various performing arts centers around the Twin Cities.

The result is a church that has, according to Haas, nearly 2,000 young people among its growing membership. Many of them are artists, photographers, performers, videographers or other media-savvy individuals.

"If we had a snow day our entire congregation could attend church via the Internet," Haas said. "We could even take the offering online."

Despite the seemingly unorthodox approach, the two churches see themselves as thoroughly Christian-based and solidly in line with Old and New Testament teachings.

"We're trying to say that the message of Jesus is still relevant to today," said Ketterling, who does not don traditional priestly garb for services. "I dress like I am going out on a Friday night. It's the same message, but culturally relevant."

Tiffany Burns, a River Valley member and the marketing manager at the church, said the formula that River Valley and other similar churches are following is obviously working.

Two months ago, River Valley was given a church building in Minnetrista because the old congregation had shrunk to fewer than 50 members and the upkeep of the building was proving too much for local church officials, who also were Assemblies of God.

Ketterling said that Minnetrista church is now at 150 members and growing under River Valley's guidance.

Burns believes this is an example of not only how well the River Valley model works, but also the work that Ketterling puts in as the pastor.

"There are a lot of churches out there that try to be really hip and really cool and everything," Burns said. "But there's not a lot inside that's different, that you can feel it and say, 'Oh, I really want to come back.'

"But Pastor Rob has a vision, a passion. He really wants people to have and experience a lasting relationship with Jesus Christ. That's our mission."

Heron Marquez • 952-707-9994