Rodney Arnold on increasing the discipleship culture at your church.



Thank you for joining in for this week’s episode of the unSeminary podcast. Today I’m talking with Rodney Arnold of One Life Church in Knoxville. Rodney and I are mutual friends with one of my previous podcast guests, Bobby Williams, and I’m happy to get the chance to speak with him this week.

About One Life Church

Rodney worked as a worship leader at a church plant in Knoxville that had a lot of success. As they grew, they had dream of doing a new church plant. Twelve people began to meet on a launch team and founded the church that became One Life Church in 2009. One Life outgrew one temporary location after another over the course of five years as they reached out to their community to bring people to Jesus. One Life’s mission is to reach the cultural Christian, those who think they know Jesus. Is your church reaching those who think they know Jesus? How can you spread His word to others and make disciples out of your community?

It can be hard work getting a church plant up and running, and it requires the dedication of volunteers. Creating disciples out of the people around you can be tough work. Here are a few tips Rodney reminds us as we all reach out to build disciples.

  • Nothing helps a Christ follower grow like sending them out on mission. // One Life Church’s home groups are all sermon-based curriculums they write themselves that focus the study on how the attendees can use it in their daily lives at work, school, or anywhere else. Working disciple-making into your everyday life is the best way to bring yourself closer to Christ as you draw in others as well. How are you working disciple-making into your life?
  • Guide your volunteers and give them the tools they need to create disciples. // One Life waited a year before starting home groups because they were so small when they began, but they wanted a way to reach out to others and start their disciple-making. So they used volunteer groups to connect with each other and the region.
  • Take advantage of short meetings to teach. // The volunteers at One Life meet through VIP meetings—Vision, Information, and Prayer—where they talk about how they can prepare themselves to reach others and deepen their own faith as well. Most of the time, you only get a short moment to connect with a volunteer and give them the tools they need to create disciples, so make sure you’re getting the right tools out there. The VIP meetings are short, and Rodney and his team use them to focus on certain points in that day’s sermon that the volunteers can then spread to others they come in contact with.
  • Don’t make discipleship only about teaching. // Rodney once hated the word discipleship. His previous experience with discipleship was all about teaching, not growth. Discipleship is about multiplying, reaching others and bringing them toward God. How are you multiplying your discipleship? Are you truly reaching others and guiding them toward Christ, or are you only teaching?
  • Be yourself. // Rodney says, “As you seek God in your church, when it comes to discipleship models or methods, just be yourself.” So many of us try to be something we’re not, which can lead us to dead ends or trouble. To truly reach people and make disciples, be yourself and let who God created you to be shine through.

You can learn more about One Life Church by visiting their website and blog at or follow them on Twitter at OneLifeKnox.

Episode Highlights

00:48 // Rich introduces Rodney Arnold and welcomes him to the show.

01:10 // Rodney tells us his history with the church.

03:03 // Rodney tells us about Sunday worship at his church.

04:17 // Rodney talks about using home groups to grow discipleship within the church.

06:02 // Rodney talks about the impact volunteers have in growing discipleship.

08:12 // Rodney talks us through VIP meetings.

10:35 // Rodney gives an example of one man’s journey into discipleship.

12:39 // Rodney give us his understanding of discipleship.

14:09 // Rodney advises other churches to “Just be who God’s called you to be.”

Episode Transcript

Rich – Well hey everybody welcome to the unSeminary podcast, so glad that you’ve decided to spend some time with us. We know you’re super busy as you head into this weekend at your church and we’re just honored that you would take some time to put us in your earbuds, to hear a little bit more about a church and to learn and hopefully grow together.

Super excited to have Rodney Arnold here with us today, from OneLife Church in Knoxville, Rodney welcome to the show.

Rodney – Thanks for having me, I’m glad to be here.

Rich – No I’m super excited, we’re mutual friends and Bobby Williams who’s been on the show in the past, so like I say, any friend of Bobby’s is a friend of mine, so I’m excited to have you hear today.

I thought we could start with, kind of giving us the one life story. Tell us a little bit about your church.

Rodney – Sure yeah, we started back in 2009. I was a worship leader at a church that was essentially a church replant in Knoxville

Rich – Okay.

Rodney – When I got there I was a college student leading worship and about 30 people. I had a young pastor and this church replanted and saw some great things happen.

So our dream was always to plant a church and so that church, along with two others, worked together with me to do a very intentional kind of two year development process and planting process and then we planted kind of a stereotypical church plant story.

There were 12 people on our launch team, we began to meet in our living room and then we raised money, built the team, rented the high school. So in September 2009 our church began.

So ever since then, just been plugging along and seen some great things happen. We moved to a banquet center a couple of years later. We kind of ran into some problems at the school. A classic example I always use is, we got an email from one of the teachers in one of the classes we use, our kids used the science labs and she emailed on a Friday and said, “You may not all let the kids eat their goldfish because we have been dissecting cats.” So we transferred them and to reshow up that Sunday morning to dissected kittens in the science room, not the best children’s environment.

Rich – Wow.

Rodney – So we moved to a banquet center that was a brand new facility in town and the church just grew, really outgrew that facility and we didn’t have any options. So we started a second campus when we were three years old and that took us into the multisite world and then we, just a year ago, our first campus got permanent building, so now we’re no longer portable and looking towards that third campus and we planted some churches and just kind of been a whirlwind of five and a half years.

Rich – That’s incredible. What a journey, quick growing, making a huge impact. Great, well why don’t you tell us a little bit about your church, what would people experience if they came on a Sunday morning?

Rodney – That’s a great question. The way I often will answer that is kind of with a little disclaimer. We say that disciple making is really the engine of our church but when we do our church planter trainings and things like that, I always want to tell them, “But if you were to come to our church on a Sunday morning, you would think we were the biggest North Point or NewSpring or any [Inaudible 00:03:21] of these you’ve ever seen,” because what we’ve realized is, we feel very called to reach the cultural Christian because that’s really what East Tennessee is, it’s about people who think they know Jesus so they think that they’re Christ followers because they went to church growing up or they used to go to church.

So our Sunday morning hour’s very attractional, high production value, very modern music. A lot of the cultural Christians or our church people think it’s too loud and that sort of thing. So from a Sunday morning feel it’s that kind of deal but really what we strive to do is to unleash our people to make disciples where they live, work and play is what we always say, on Monday through Saturday.

Rich – Very cool, well you’re obviously leading a growing church. How are you balancing out, like obviously you talked a little bit about that there, you’re balancing out the desire to reach new people but then to grow up people who are already at your church? I think sometimes we kind of project those as a false dichotomy, but you seem to be able to do both of those, how does that balance out for you?

Rodney – Well I totally agree with you. I think that what we’ve been guilty of in the church is to say, “Some people are evangelistic and still make disciples,” or “You should do evangelism and you should do discipleship.” We actually believe you can’t do one without the other, Jesus does not call to make converts, he calls to make disciples, so conversion is going to be a part of that. So for us there really is no such thing as evangelism, there’s only discipleship and what we would call evangelism is a part of discipleship.

So for us, it’s really kind of a circular situation where we believe there’s nothing better that helps a Christ follower grow than to send them out on mission. So one of the things that we really focus on is let your disciple making drive your bible study.

Now we will do some tools along the way, we will offer some classes or some groups, but an example of that is our home groups that we do are all sermon based home groups where we write the curriculum and it’s all driven toward, “How are you going to use this, tomorrow morning at work or at school or at Tee-ball practice or wherever you’re going to be, so that you can make disciples?” and what happens is that puts people in intention, they come back with their questions wanting to know, “What about this?” and “How about that?” and we use that, kind of, “Let’s see what scripture says. Let’s let the Holy Spirit guide that.”

So for us it’s not a situation of, “Well we need everyone to go through the 12 steps of discipleship so that then they can go out on a mission,” or “You need to get cleaned up or buttoned up before…” For us it’s really, “As you go out on a mission it’s going to drive you to go deeper in Christ.”

Rich – That’s a great example from life groups, small groups, how you’re kind of using those to kind of propel people out to serve people around. Can you give me some other examples, some practical steps that you’re taking to disciple people in your community?

Rodney – Yeah, so another way we like to do that is through our volunteer team. So on Sunday mornings, being a church plant and I don’t know how much longer we can say that, but volunteerism is obviously very high because you have to have volunteers getting there early, setting up, tearing down, that sort of thing.

So early in our church, before we had home groups, we intentionally held off on starting home groups, which was advice that I received from a mentor, I thought it was wise advice, because let’s be honest, when you have 30 people in your church, you are a small group, so why try to add complexity to it? So we waited, intentionally waited an entire year to start home groups, but we needed some type of connection and some avenue to begin this assembling in process.

So we began to leverage our volunteer groups for that and that’s carried on even to this day. So our volunteer groups gather for a time, they’ll come, they setup, they’ll get their areas ready and then we do what we call VIP meetings, which is Vision, Information and Prayer, where they’re going to spend some connected time together and even through that environment, we’re constantly talking about, “Okay this morning, for us, if you’re not going to do it Sunday morning you’re not going to do it Monday morning. So as we get prepared for people to come here, where hurting people are going to come here, people who are looking for faith are going to come here, how can we begin to prepare you to have spiritual conversations this morning? So you’re not just a parking lot guy, you’re not just a children’s worker, you’re looking for opportunities to multiply”, which is really what we think discipleship is, “and as you do that we’re going to pray together this morning, share with someone this morning what you’re going through, what your struggle is, what questions you may have.”

What we find is that through those iron sharpening iron relationships, through putting people on shared mission together, they begin to grow together and it deepens their faith. So within the attractional church is what we look like, it becomes a very organic process.

Rich – Interesting. Now why don’t we talk a little bit about those VIP meetings a little bit more and flush that out?

Rodney – Sure.

Rich – Maybe give us a sense, from an example… I know setup, teardown can be an issue when you’re at a portable church and a lot of times it feels like those volunteers are just, I can be guilty of this in our church, we use those volunteers, it’s like, okay they’re willing to give us free labor so we just burn through them and there’s a lot to do. How are you trying to transform that into a discipleship opportunity?

Rodney – Yeah, so these are really little nuggets of time, because we don’t take 30 minutes or 45 minutes like you would in a Sunday School classroom or home group, but these are also the people who may not sign up for one of those groups, they’re signing up to volunteer.

So what we’ll do is sometimes as staff or as a pastor we’ll say, “Hey this morning for your vision piece we want you to read this story or we want you to deal with this vision point from our church,” or whatever the case may be. Information are just the announcements we want to get out but what we will often do is we’ll say, “Okay, we want to talk this morning about how to have that spiritual conversation. So pair the people up in your volunteer teams into groups of two and have them do a case study of, you’re a single mom who walks in the door for the first time and you have questions and the other person has to begin to learn how to answer those questions.” Or, “We’re going to talk about at the end of the day service, we’re going to have people come forward and pray and we want you to be prepared to pray, let’s talk about how you’re going to do that.” A learning lab, a training ground for them to be prepared to make disciples, because again, if they can’t do it Sunday morning, they’re not going to do it Monday morning, that’s kind of a catchphrase for us.

Rich – Very cool. Now just a kind of practical tip on that, are you kind of centrally writing the kind of VIP experience and then distributing it, so it’s like, “Okay guys, this is what’s happening in our huddles this weekend,” because it sounds like you’re tying into the message and the experience pretty tightly?

Rodney – It just depends. Sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t. So we’re in a season right now where our ministry leaders, we’ve given them freedom to kind of say, “Okay, what do you need to focus on with your group?” But then sometimes there’ll be an important point where I’ll email our campus pastors and say, “Please have all your volunteer teams do this.”

Rich – Okay.

Rodney – Or sometimes we’ll say, “Hey guys for the next four weeks we want to hit one of our core values, we have four core values, we want to hit one of those values each of the next our weeks.” We’ve kind of done the full gamut of allowing the ministry leaders to kind of say, “Hey use these as training times,” so you get to pick or allowing the campus pastors to say, “What does your campus need?” or to centrally say, “This is what our church is going to do.”

Rich – Very cool. You know, one of the things I’ve noticed that I love that you’re hitting on is, I think sometimes we miss a significant opportunity on the service end, because there will be people who will sign up and a lot of times, particularly guys that will sign up to volunteer there, that it’s a longer journey for them to get into a life group experience and so I love that you’re using the small group experience, you’re using that to help prod people along in their relationship with Jesus.

Rodney – Yeah absolutely. I’ve got a great story that comes to mind as you say that. There’s a gentlemen that’s probably in his mid-40s and they’ve just moved to town from a little, a very rural community in Kentucky and he had been a travelling lineman, he went around and worked for electric companies, so when their lines went down, then he… not like a lineman on a football team, just a lineman, going to fix these lines wherever. He was rarely home with his family for like the last 15 years. He got a new job where it’s a kind of 9 to 5 type deal doing the same thing here in Knoxville but he had only ever gone to church because his wife made him.

So they started coming to our church, he’s kind of a rough around the edges kind of guy and he decides that this is the first church that there’s ever been something he could actually do because he’d kind of liked to go and park cars. In his mind, “I don’t have to talk to anybody, it’s all the dudes out there doing that.” So he joins the parking team, he meets other guys who love Jesus. He actually finds out, as one of our parkers you have to talk to people get on and do it.

If you fast forward about six to eight months and I’ll never forget, he and his wife joined the home group my wife and I lead, I’ll never forget she called my wife and said, “I cannot believe this,” and we’re like, “What’s that?” She said, “He came to home group without me.” She said, “If you had told me six months ago that he would even go to church without me, but now he’s volunteering, he’s coming to home groups.” She’s like, “I can’t get my mind around this.”

What I believe it was, there was an easy step for him to take and when he took it, he thought he was just going to wave a parking wand and wear a vest but he was put in an environment where he was disciple and he didn’t even realize it and it wasn’t a curriculum and it wasn’t a formal process, he was just in iron sharpening iron relationships that was strategically designed for him to grow his faith and I love that. There’s stories like that that we could give all day long, they’re just so exciting.

Rich – That’s very cool. Changing tack a little bit, a slightly different kind of approach to the same topic, what are some kind of common misconceptions? You talk to a lot of church planters, a lot of church leaders and they have common misconceptions about being a disciple making church, what would some of those common misconceptions be?

Rodney – Well probably my biggest soapbox one would be that discipleship is curriculum and honestly that was my misconception and this is kind of the story I always tell, which is, when our church first got started, I hated the word discipleship, I just hated it, because the only experience that I had had in discipleship was when someone would get saved in our church, then they would get partnered with me or someone else and we would have to go through a six or eight week curriculum. Then whether they had the gift of teaching or not, they were then expected to go and teach that curriculum to somebody else who got saved, but that really meant they were going to have to wait until the pastor did an invitation because there was no expectation of them to multiply, because discipleship was just teaching, it was just information, it was growing in your face. I would say that is what I still see as the biggest misconception, that the American church has relegated discipleship to a curriculum or to a publisher or to a denomination rather than to an organic life on life relationship that leads to multiplication. I think that’s the big thing too, that if it’s not leading to multiplication, I don’t think you can call it discipleship.

Rich – That’s good.

Rodney – You might call it something else good like sanctification or I don’t know, you get theological and come up with your own word but the disciples in The New Testament multiply, that’s just what they did, so I just don’t think that you can call it discipleship if it’s not multiplying.

Rich – Very cool. Well this has been a great conversation. Is there anything else that you want to share with people before we let you go?

Rodney – I don’t know man, I just would love for people… I think my biggest thing that I would say that I was taught and that I have learned is that as you seek God in your church, when it comes to discipleship or models or methods just be you. I have seen so many church planters and guys try to be some conglomeration of the celebrity pastors or the guys who’ve been successful and it just ends up feeling schizophrenic and all over the map.

So as I heard some say, “Eat the meat, spit out the bones.” Just be who God’s called you to be, learn from the best of the best but at the end of the day get with God and just say, “Who am I, who are we and who have you called us to reach?” I just think that’s what’s most important.

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.