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Breaking Down Barriers & Building the Kingdom

Fifteen years ago, a creative team at Riverside took a risk: what would it look like to create an event which shared the message of Christmas in a way which could engage the culture without losing the gospel?

Building on a rich musical heritage, the first intentionally outward focused Production, called “Welcome to Our World,” was presented and went well.  Notes were taken, ideas were exchanged, and a tradition was born without anyone fully realizing how impactful it would be and the amazing ways God would use people’s gifts and talents to draw hearts to Himself.  The fruit from a Christmas event led to the question “What about Easter,” and ever since 2001 Riverside Church has staged and invited the community to Productions for both holidays.  While the scheduling, content, and composition of the weekend has changed and evolved over the years, the mission behind it has not: creating an event with excellence for the express purpose of reaching people and sharing the transforming love of Jesus.  

While those who attend almost universally come out of the event having enjoyed themselves, it is not mere entertainment, it is a message.  Whether the story line engages the contemporary drama of life’s current struggles, draws on events from Scripture, uses humor, or re-crafts a familiar story, every year ends with Senior Pastor, Tom Lundeen, drawing it all together with the message of hope.  Drawing on elements just witnessed in the drama and music shared, he invites the audience to say ‘YES’ to Jesus Christ to be the leader of their life…the single most powerful answer to whatever situation they face or burdens they carry.

Despite the fact that some conventional research says these type of events are not worth doing, the strategy has been amazingly effective in the community Riverside reaches.  So much so that many of the elements of Production weekends are carried into the planning of holiday services as well.  For example, Christmas Productions are usually held about two weekends ahead of Christmas, but the planning for the sermon series for the month of December, and the timing and content of Christmas Eve services are planned at the same time.  Why?  So those attending Productions know they are welcome to come back.  Programs for the Production contain information about the new message series and Pastor Tom closes each Production with a personal invitation for everyone present to return on Sunday.  Connect cards completed by attenders during the Production are processed into Riverside’s church management software (CMS) the same day so emails can be sent that night to each person thanking them for attending and encouraging them to come back again Sunday.  Systems are also in place for immediate follow up with any individual who indicates they made a first time profession of faith, and each one receives a printed letter, a simple brochure explaining what it means to say ‘YES’ and next steps a person can take, and two printed invitations to the new series.  Why two?  Because Riverside also encourages the person receiving the letter to invite someone to come back with them.

None of these holiday weekends are without cost.  Riverside does not charge any fees for ticketed events, does not receive an offering at Productions, and subsidizes all the costs associated with the staging, food, and law enforcement help with traffic flow; expenses are estimated and included as part of Riverside’s annual budget.  The generosity of those who call Riverside their home extends far the financial investment, hundreds and hundreds of volunteer hours are given as well.  The cast and crew work for weeks ahead of the events drafting the script, practicing music, designing lighting & sets, and learning lines.  Other than the staff leaders, every single person in the drama, choir, band and tech crew are volunteers, almost all of whom call Riverside their church home.  In addition hundreds of other Riverside volunteers sign up to bring cookies, work on the parking detail (a real gift of service when it’s December in Minnesota and the temperatures are below zero!), serve as greeters, ushers, child care helpers (free childcare is provided to all those who attend), kitchen coordinators, data entry volunteers, or behind the scenes help with staging, communication, or other aspects of hosting an event this size.  600-700 people now serve over the course of a 3 day weekend.

And what is the size?  Well, it’s grown over the years.  For the last five years Riverside has performed an adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” and attendance this year was stronger than ever.  Over 3,000 people came through the doors December 11-13 for the Production, and attendance at the Sunday services that weekend was another 1,500.  And while the quality of the Production is always rated very high, there is a bigger reason so many of the nights are “sold out.”  It’s Riversiders who invite their friends, neighbors, family and co-workers.  While a high degree of attention is paid to well- designed advertising, including social media, that’s not what brings most people through the doors.  Rather, it’s a personal invitation.  Quantitative research year after year demonstrates over and over that upwards of 85-90% of the people who decide to ‘come and see,’ do so because they have received an invitation from a person who calls Riverside home.  Riversiders are excited to share about their church.  It’s a safe invite because they know the Production will be good by most anyone’s standards, but they also know people in their circle of influence who don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus.  Demographics indicate there are approximately 80,000 people who live within a 10 mile radius of the church, and Riversiders are aware while some may not come to a ‘church’ event, they just might come to a Production.

And the result of that invite is a highly anticipated event.  Riversiders know about connect cards, they know the staff who collects them, and some even make the time to stop into the office the night of the event and ask “did my friend say ‘YES?’  And perhaps that is your question, too; “is this investment meeting your mission…is it worth all the time and effort?” Tom, and Executive Pastor, Skipp Machmer, producer of the event, would say a resounding ‘Absolutely!’  Over the past 12 years tracking Production weekends (Christmas and Easter) and Christmas Eve services, over 6,800 people have personally indicated they’ve made a first time profession of faith by saying ‘YES’ to Jesus as Lord.   These results are carefully evaluated:  each connect card completed by someone at one of these events is compared against Riverside’s CMS to verify they have not indicated a previous ‘YES’ decision.  In addition to the Production and service invitations happening in the Worship Center, the gospel message is also shared in Kids Ministry, and the past few years have also yielded a few ‘YES’ decisions from those engaging on line as part of the live stream as well.

Each year Pastors Tom and Skipp wonder, “Will this be the year?  Will this be the time we see our Productions come to an end?”  They are very clear with staff and Riversiders if there comes a time when these events become a mere ‘tradition,’ or ‘fun holiday event,’ they will stop.  Riverside is committed to prioritizing their resources for outreach and discipleship, and prayer times ahead of these events find the staff praying together that the gift of these events would continue to be used by God to bring people into relationship with Him, and that many candles will be lit.  And candles are one popular tradition Riverside hopes continue; each time a person says ‘YES’ to Christ, a candle is lit and celebrated in Sunday services.  As a matter of fact, in a recent service they even included a service element inviting anyone who said ‘YES’ during the month to come up and light their own candle. 

As Pastors Tom and Skipp share the outcome of December’s Christmas Production and holiday services with the congregation, the only explanation they can give is “ONLY GOD”:  575 candles lit the stage that month. 
“God did something really incredible this year,” Pastor Tom tells them.  Using one of Riverside’s favorite quotes he also reminds them, “Every number has a name, every name has a story, and every story matters to God.”  And to Riversiders.

So, with Christmas barely in the rearview mirror Riverside now finds itself gearing up for Easter.  The first drafts of the script are done, meetings with key volunteers have already taken place, rehearsals are scheduled, communication pieces are being finalized for launch on February 28th, and in a few more weeks volunteers will begin to sign up for key roles in Guest Services, Kid’s Ministry, and Connections.  Is it hard work?  Yes.  Does the staff feel spent after a big event?  Yes.  It’s an all-hands-on-deck weekend.  But watching God at work and seeing results like those experienced in December, it is a grateful, exhilarated, ‘thank you Jesus’ exhaustion no one would trade.

Taking Next steps - Balmanno’s story

 Riversiders Chris & LeAnn Balmanno are a great example of how a simple invite was the first step in beginning a vibrant walk of faith –

 -          Chris & LeAnn try Riverside for the 1st time 10/14

-          They attend A Christmas Carol 12/14

-          LeAnn reaffirms her faith in Jesus

-          They join a Small Group

-          They attend our core values G-Class 1/15

-          Chris & LeAnn start serving in Guest Services 2/15

-          LeAnn also joins the choir

-          Chris says ‘YES!’ to Jesus at Easter!

-          They become members 5/15

-          And this past December, LeAnn was part of the choir that presented A Christmas Carol

She was so excited to be part of sharing His love at an event that changed her life the year before.