RIO VISTA—First Baptist Church of Rio Vista has become what Pastor Neale Oliver calls a “Great Commission church,” but the church’s overnight transformation has actually taken four years.
Rio Vista is a rural community of 1,000 in Johnson County, south of Fort Worth, with a Class 2A high school and many low-income families.
Oliver came to Rio Vista in 2010 following the resignation of Rio Vista’s longtime pastor. Under the former pastor’s ministry, the church experienced significant growth but progress had stalled, Oliver said.
“My call in ministry is church revitalization,” he said. “God has allowed me to go into churches that have had good times and, for a variety of reasons, are kind of down. They need a head coach, somebody to turn the team around.”
The area and church have proved to be a good fit for Oliver and his family, who moved from Austin where his children, used to smaller communities, had struggled in the big city environment.
A key to revitalization is change, Oliver said.
“When you come into a church that needs to be revitalized, that means the church needs to change in certain areas,” Oliver said. “Revitalization is a process.”
After talking at length with the former pastor, Oliver understood the challenges facing Rio Vista.
“We stepped in. I didn’t really do anything [in terms of change] for a year. We just observed, evaluated, and built relationships,” Oliver said. “You have to win the people’s hearts before you ask for their hands.”
After a year, Oliver, who is certified as a church consultant, recommended to the deacons that the church undergo a consulting process beginning with a church survey concerning the areas of ministry, fellowship, evangelism, outreach, worship, prayer and discipleship.
After the survey results were in, Rio Vista formed a strategic leadership team containing a cross section of members to evaluate the surveys and make recommendations to the deacons and church.
“I let them make the recommendations; it wasn’t me,” Oliver noted.
“They made two or three recommendations per area and we put it together in a report,” Oliver recalled. It was October 2012, but the church was not yet ready to implement all the recommendations.
“So we put things on hold awhile,” Oliver said. Growth remained slow.
“In January 2014, we turned a corner,” he said. “At that point we had been seven years in decline. If we continued at this rate, in eight years we would close the doors and the church would cease to exist.”
Church leadership emerged from a January 2014 meeting fully supportive of Oliver and the original recommendations.
Change began immediately, and it began with prayer.
In February, the church conducted 28 days of prayer from 6 a.m. to midnight.
“We asked people to come to the church to pray. We provided notebooks, prayer requests and guides in a designated prayer room that had been built when the church sanctuary was constructed,” Oliver said. Each week people signed up for slots. Oliver usually took the last slot and closed up the church each evening.
“Prayer was a key to revitalization. You must be a church that prays—for the community, the church, lost people. It’s part of the process of being a revitalized church. Prayer is an absolute necessity,” said Oliver, who noted that the church is continuing its prayer emphasis.
After the 28 days of prayer, Oliver felt that developing an outreach ministry was next in helping Rio Vista become a Great Commission church.
“Jesus tells us to go. We really weren’t doing anything to go back into our community to minister,” Oliver said. “One reason a church declines is a lack of evangelism.”
Oliver introduced the GROW outreach program developed in the 1990s by Jerry Tidwell to Rio Vista.
“The basis of GROW is that a church fields four teams; each team meets once a month,” Oliver explained. The teams are led by captains and assistant captains.
“The premise is that not everyone is comfortable visiting, but some like to write letters or make phone calls. GROW allows you to do what you feel comfortable doing.”
Since May 2014, four teams of 15 adults and a team of students have met at the church one Sunday evening per month. The G team meets the first Sunday, the R team the second, and so on. Some of the 15 team members make visits in the community; others will write notes or letters to shut ins or visitors. Others will make phone calls to members who have been absent from church.
“We have gone from making no contacts, having no outreach, to averaging 150 contacts per week. Letters are going out of our church into the families of our community,” Oliver said. Families whose children attended VBS or the church’s Easter egg hunt will be contacted, for example.
“All that is required is to devote 90 minutes one night per month to the program,” said Oliver, who added that for a variety of reasons, Rio Vista decided to suspend traditional Sunday night church services and implement the outreach program then.
“In our community, Sunday night is the night to do it. You don’t compete with Friday night football, Monday night volleyball, and so on,” Oliver said. “On Sunday nights, most families are home, preparing for school or work the next week.”
Visitation, letter writing and phone calling are conducted each Sunday from 7–8, then team members reassemble at the church to report. Team members are home by 8:30, according to Oliver.
“It’s one night a month, and you become a Great Commission Christian,” Oliver said.
“Rio Vista has bought into it. We went from doing nothing to doing GROW.”
People have been saved; baptisms of new believers have increased significantly. Approximately two dozen families have been ministered to and some have started attending Rio Vista.
“We’ve baptized new believers six out of the last eight weeks,” Oliver said in June.
The church was even able to minister to the family of a local high school student killed in a car wreck, holding the funeral and reaching out to the young man’s mother and brother.
“We average 100 in Sunday School; 60 are involved in GROW,” said Oliver, who predicted that Rio Vista would not see the usual summer downturn in attendance this year.
Pastors of larger churches in Joshua and Cedar Hill have expressed interest in Rio Vista’s story and implementation of the GROW outreach program.
GROW books and manuals are available through LifeWay stores.
“Any church can do GROW effectively,” Oliver said. “I cannot imagine the impact this is going to have on our church and community.”