RiverTree: Combating isolation

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February 7, 2011 - 12:00 AM

Matt Bycroft admits to liking video games — it’s part of our culture, he said, and he’s OK with that.
“We’re a TV generation. A video game generation. We have short attention spans,” he said.
The seemingly global penchant for the visual is what makes the use of video acceptable in churches these days, he figured.
Bycroft, who pastors RiverTree Church at 301 S. Miller Rd., uses the tool in his services.
The church has two video screens — the one at the front is painted directly on the wall, the back is to post lyrics for the praise team.
“All the Scripture that is read is projected up front,” Bycroft said. “All the words to our songs. The sermon outline is put up there.”
Using the screens makes people feel more comfortable, he said.
“I think it’s a handy thing. It gives people a mental break, or, if done right, it can really drive home a point.”
If he could, Bycroft said, “I’d like to use more, but it’s time-consuming and expensive to do that.”

RiverTree is a relatively young church. Bycroft has been its only pastor. He moved to Iola to start it, a brainchild of Tyro Christian Church, where Bycroft’s father has pastored for 40 years.
“That’s the mother church,” Bycroft said of Tyro, which is near Coffeyville.
The churches are non-denominational independent Christian churches.
“Each church is independent. We hire our own leadership and staff. We base theology on what’s in the New Testament. We try to do church like they did then, building a bridge between the first century and this one.”
To attract those who might otherwise shy away, Bycroft said, “Our dress code is come as you are.” The service itself is “very light-hearted, but at the same time we try to deal with issues people have and try to reach out to them.”
Bycroft and his wife, Jennifer, moved to Iola in January, 2001.
“We drove around and talked to people at truck stops, restaurants, gas stations; we walked around the square and park and just tried to talk to everyone we ran into,” he said.
What they found was a hole.
“The vast majority of the people we met didn’t go to church at all, so we felt there was room” to proceed with RiverTree.
RiverTree’s first service was the Sunday after 9/11, Bycroft noted.
“A lot of our equipment didn’t show up because planes were grounded,” he said. “We had our first official service the next Sunday.”
It wasn’t easy to begin a new church.
“We were seen as outsiders, as trying to take from other churches. But our intention is to reach people who did not attend or who had stayed away” from church altogether, Bycroft said.
Growth has been steady, but not outlandish.
“Our very first Sunday we had 65. We grew very slowly, then … we had big growth,” Bycroft said. The overall result is that about 135 people now regularly attend the 10 a.m. Sunday service.
At Tyro, average Sunday attendance is 800.
“My dad says ‘I’ve been here 40 years and we’ve grown 20 people per year.’ He makes it sound easy, but it’s not.”
Church attendance ebbs and flows with the seasons, Bycroft noted.
“It’s higher during the school year. As soon as it starts getting nice out, people start taking weekends off.”
RiverTree’s 6:30 Sunday evening service attracts shift workers, nurses, hotel employees and others whose jobs keep them away on Sunday mornings, Bycroft said.
That reflects current American lifestyles, Bycroft said, noting “20 to 25 percent of the nation’s population isn’t able to go to church on Sunday morning.”
Bycroft keeps abreast of current trends. He noted that “more and more non-denominational churches are offering Saturday evening or even Friday evening services” in addition to or instead of those on Sunday morning.
One Colorado church has its primary service on Friday night, with no Sunday offerings, he said.
At RiverTree, there are no weekday offerings, but there are sports.
Softball, soccer, baseball: all are played on the church’s adjacent fields.
“We have a couple of men’s softball teams; the handicapped kids in the Challengers play every Saturday through the summer; and the city uses the field for games,” Bycroft said. “Several teams from the men’s city league use it through the week to practice,” as well, he said.
The church offers the fields as a public service, not a ministry.

BYCROFT DIDN’T SET out to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“I wanted to go into wildlife biology,” he said. “I like science and I like being outdoors.”
But, Bycroft said, “I was in my junior year at Pittsburg State University when God showed me his plan. The next year I went to Ozark Christian College and graduated from there” with a degree in Biblical literature.
Bycroft said you can never know God’s plans or timing for your life. He muses that he and his wife prayed for another child years ago. Only when their then-youngest was eight was that prayer answered.
The couple welcomed daughter Brecken to their family six months ago. Daughters, Macayla, 11, and almost nine-year-old Rachel complete the picture.
Bycroft and his wife, both in their 30s, epitomize the congregation of RiverTree. “It’s mostly younger families,” he said.
That fact at first dictated the style of services, he said.
“When we first came here we thought having the modern sound would appeal, but most people in Iola have some church experience so they relate more to older songs,” he noted. Still, Bycroft said, “we try to have a mix.”The praise team is made up of high school through young adult members who play piano, guitar, drums and also sing.
It has been only in the last couple of years that RiverTree has “developed a deep sense of unity in the church,” Bycroft noted. The revelation has taken hold, he said, that “the building is not the church; we as the body of Christ are the church.”
Bycroft said RiverTree is actively working to combat the isolation that even members of the same congregation can feel.
“Most people come for an hour and leave and never get to know anyone else. Even with 130 people there’s not enough time” to get to know one another, Bycroft said.
“There’s a transition from big front porches to big back decks,” which isolate members of a community, Bycroft said. “There’s a false sense of community through technology like Facebook, Skype, or video chat. There’s not a true sense of conversation or engagement there,” he said. “ATM machines, drive-through foods, self-check outs, Facebook — you can do all these things and never have personal contact with anyone. It’s not just Iola — it’s everywhere.”
Bycroft sees churches as providing a venue to overcome societal loneliness.
“I think it’s incredible to stand on stage every week and know there is no reason (why RiverTree attendees) would ever get together except for that one thing they have in common: Jesus Christ.”
To nurture closeness, RiverTree is “trying to break up into small groups; we’re trying to get people to want to know each other, to see the value in that. As the church grows we’re (trying) to keep that sense of church on a more personal level. And we’re going to continue reaching out.
“We have the power to change things through the power of Christ.”
The goal of the church is simple, Bycroft said.
“Our mission is to make a positive impact on our community by making people fully devoted followers of Christ.
“I think it’s pretty cool that God can use someone like me, or you. Our personalities may not be perfect, or our giftedness.” But, he noted, “Somebody has to be the forerunner. John the Baptist only got to tell people, ‘Jesus is coming.’ If that’s my role, I’m satisfied with that.”

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