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A fast-growing Christian mission

The Santa Clarita Valley Real Life Church’s attendance grows by 111 percent in one year

Posted: December 17, 2011 1:30 a.m.
Updated: December 17, 2011 1:30 a.m.

People congregate outside after a recent Sunday morning service at Real Life Church. The Valencia worship center ranked as the fastest-growing church in the nation.

 

Attendance at Real Life Church is up 111 percent over last year. That’s the largest percentage gain among Christian congregations canvassed in an annual study of the nation’s largest and fastest-growing churches.

Outreach magazine published Nashville-based LifeWay Research’s findings in its latest issue. Among the 100 rising congregations, Real Life Church ranks third overall (factoring in other considerations, such as size). But looking at growth strictly by percentage, the Valencia worship center takes the top spot.

One reason for its boom of believers: A brand-new, can’t-miss-it building in Bridgeport Marketplace has raised the church’s profile considerably.

A casual ministry
Real Life Church assembled in a movie theater for the better part of a decade while raising funds for its $5 million church building. Since opening its 40,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art facility in April last year, about 1,760 more worshippers came into the fold, for a total of 3,400 attendees spread across five services each Sunday.

Building on its momentum, Real Life Church recently established another church in Ventura.

“It’s an honor God would trust us with that many people,” Lead Pastor Rusty George said.
Built eco-friendly with recycled materials and low-flow plumbing, the earth-tone house of praise doesn’t exactly shout “church.”

Faith-seekers who might not set foot in a traditional church should feel right at home. No crucifixes or stained-glass windows here.

“We did that because we wanted a very disarming kind of place,” George said.

Worship leaders whip up rocking choruses. Sermons are jazzed up with multimedia. Lattes are welcome; seats have cup holders.

“What people have said about us in the past is we’re a church unchurched people like to go to,” George said.
Real Life Church’s casual and contemporary ministry is a change of pace for lifelong Catholic Terri Apruzzese.

“There’s a wonderful, positive energy in the air where no one feels intimidated or unwelcome,” Apruzzese said. “There are people from every walk of life.”
She and her daughter Gina Apruzzese have been attending for about a year-and-a-half.


Gina admitted to being “super skeptical” about going to church, but said she found the sermons accessible and relatable.
“What really drew me in is they do so much charity work,” Gina Apruzzese said.


She quickly became involved in outreach efforts, such as volunteering for a mission trip to earthquake-devastated Haiti through the church’s nonprofit partner Children of the Nations International.

A growing mission
Real Life Church’s donation-only coffee joint, Undergrounds, funnels thousands of dollars to local causes. Earlier this year, the church rallied about a dozen congregations to pack and send 1 million pounds of food to third-world countries. Ten percent of its capital campaign, which began in 2004, was designated for Ugandan orphanages.


“It was important for people to realize we weren’t just building a building,” George said.

George, 40, began his leadership with Real Life Church in 2003, after serving as a young-adult pastor at a Lexington, Ky., mega-church. He filled a gap left when minister Kyle Idleman was whisked away to help lead the nation’s fourth largest congregation, Southeast Christian Church, in Louisville, Ky.

Porter Ranch’s Shepherd of the Hills founded Real Life Church when pastor Dudley Rutherford discovered about 20 percent of his congregation came from the Santa Clarita Valley. He decided to plant a new church, directing a third of his congregation — about 1,000 people — to attend the cinema assemblies in Valencia. He recruited Idleman, a popular evangelist, to speak.

“I wasn’t going to be nervous or offended if he took some of our best people,” said Rutherford, author of the new book “God has an App for That.”

At risk of reducing the size of his own church, a funny thing happened: Shepherd of the Hills grew from 3,000 to 4,000, and has since planted another church in Simi Valley.

“Numerically, it was the greatest year of growth in our church,” Rutherford said. “It’s kind of the principle: The more you give, the more God blesses you.”

While Idleman laid the groundwork for Real Life Church, Rutherford credits George for leading efforts to build a worship center for a growing assembly.

“Most guys could not have accomplished what Rusty and his team accomplished,” he said.

Real Life Church mirrors a national trend of growth among nondenominational churches. These churches comprise about half of the 100 largest and 100 fastest-growing churches in the nation.

“The number of nondenominational churches in America has been growing in recent years and most of this growth is from new churches,” said Scott McConnell, of Lifeway Research. “The large numbers of new nondenominational churches in recent years has included some with meteoric growth in attendance.”

Real Life Church isn’t done growing. George said the church is looking to expand venues for children’s programs.

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