Journal interviews Church of the Great God founder
By Linda Moll Smith
GLADEWATER, Texas-"Our growth has been amazing to us because we're the world's worst marketers. I guess you could say we are like the Hershey chocolates. When that company was first started, they decided not to advertise, but to let what is now their worldwide reputation be built on word of mouth alone.
"If it works for a chocolate bar, why not for the Word of God?"
John Ritenbaugh, founder of the Church of the Great God, headquartered in Charlotte, N.C., was updating a group of about 30 people gathered here April 12 in the home of Dr. David Maas on the progress of the church.
"Our fundamental approach-a major plank of how we've operated-is that we weren't going to pay any attention to numbers," he said. "I pledged to work with whatever God would give to me.
"So, although we have no marketing plan or desire to build a large organization, we've grown very nicely and steadily from the beginning, and all our growth has been through word of mouth from one person to another and through people spreading our tapes and written materials around."
The group Mr. Ritenbaugh is speaking to represents what might be called one of the living-room Churches of God, except that people aligning themselves with this church don't all meet in living rooms, and they have a common link: They gather on the Sabbath in homes and meeting rooms across the United States to hear Mr. Ritenbaugh speak live via telephone hookup.
300 tuning in
On this afternoon, before he presents his sermon on the symbology of the sacrificial system to just over 300 listeners from East Coast to West and Vermont to Hawaii, Mr. Ritenbaugh continues musing aloud over the growth of his church.
"One thing that concerns us, and you might call this another foundational plank that we've used as underpinning from the time we began in January and February of 1992, is taking care of our people. The Church of the Great God wants to shepherd people as they express the need, so we don't want to grow too fast for that.
"Our concern, if we begin to grow more rapidly, is how we can fill each other's needs. We want to be at your service any time of the day or night, local or not. If need be, we'll fly out and see you where you live.
"In the meantime, God has seen to all our financial needs. We have plenty to take care of the salaries of our five full-time and two part-time employees, counting me."
Before he begins his sermon, Mr. Ritenbaugh takes roll, asking the brethren connected by phone to check in through a spokesman at their site. This takes a while because there are small groups scattered all over the country who check in.
On this day, for example, six are listening in San Francisco, five in Pasadena, 18 in Atlanta, four in Tampa, 16 in Denver, six in Chicago, 28 in Portland, Ore., and 14 in Hawaii.
After his sermon Mr. Ritenbaugh and his wife, Evelyn, answer questions about the church for THE JOURNAL.
Mr. Ritenbaugh, if you aren't concerned about numbers, why do you do a roll call? Are you keeping attendance?
"No, not at all. The main reason we do that is to let everyone participate. Sometimes people make comments, like how the weather is where they are or other news. Also at this time I give announcements such as schedule changes and prayer requests."
How many listen on a weekly basis?
"There again, I don't really know for sure, but today we had just over 300 if I counted right, and that seems about average."
Do you have special telephone-network arrangements for the feast days?
"During the spring feast many of our listeners will be connecting through a different 800 number than usual in Charlotte, and we will also have a West Coast service to adjust for the time-zone gap, especially for those in Hawaii. Otherwise things will proceed as usual, which means our listeners are involved in what you might call a very big telephone conference call."
To back up a little, how do you pronounce your name? I've heard it several different ways.
"Just call me John. Everybody does. But my last name is pronounced right-in-bah."
When did you begin your ministry?
"A few days after I resigned from the ministry of the Worldwide Church of God."
"Jan. 11, 1992, was our first service," Mrs. Ritenbaugh remarked.
"I didn't really plan to start an organization, but people came to me right away and asked, so I said I didn't continuing to serve in the ministry as I had for some years," said Mr. Ritenbaugh.
Were you in Charlotte at the time?
"Yes, and we just stayed there."
Named after inscription
How did you decide to name your group the Church of the Great God?
"We asked those around us for suggestions. Someone took the inspiration from the inscription on the auditorium in Pasadena: 'Built to the honor and glory of the Great God,' and we liked that, and it stuck."
What kind of ministry do you have?
"It's centered around Bible-study and sermon tapes and the live transmissions you just heard. Evelyn and I travel to outlying groups at least once a month. Other than that we promote a family atmosphere and serving the flock, which includes counseling, anointed cloths, weddings and burials: a full-service church, you might say."
Do you get help from any other people, and if so are they from a Worldwide Church of God background as well?
"We have five other elders, and all but one come from a WCG background. I do most of the speaking, and I organize the speaking schedule."
What are your beliefs?
"They are very similar in nearly every way to the beliefs of the Worldwide Church of God before 1986. There were many changes in doctrine following that time that we disagree with."
Mrs. Ritenbaugh: "For those interested in learning more about us, they can call us at 1-800-878-8220 and we can send them a statement of beliefs, a publication called Preparing the Bride."
Do you have a church publication, and if so how is it funded?
Mr. Ritenbaugh: "We have a Good Newstype magazine called The Forerunner, and everyone in the church contributes to it. We make it a policy not to ask for money, but God has always seen to our financial needs. As long as we're pleasing Him, living by faith and serving, we are confident that He will supply our needs."
Tapes to South Africa
Is your tape ministry the emphasis?
"The tapes do seem to be very effective. I am certain that our tapes are going out by the thousands, although we send out only 300 or so regularly. Many listeners duplicate them and pass them on to friends and acquaintances, and we're beginning to get a response now from international areas.
"In the past few months 35 to 40 have been receiving tapes in South Africa. This is amazing to us, since we don't do marketing of any kind.
"And, of course, our main concern is being able to serve those who are called. We want to be at your service any time of the day or night. If need be, we'll fly out to see you."
What about Feasts?
"Last year we had an open Feast in San Antonio. This year we will be meeting in Jefferson City, Mo."
How did the open Feast concept work?
"Not very well. It's not that we didn't want it to work. We were open to anyone who wanted to come join us. The problem was that many from outside our fellowship who came just wanted to argue with the brethren. We found that it just didn't promote a peaceful atmosphere. It was confusion.
"When we asked our people what they wanted this year, they said they preferred a quieter, less-commercialized site and more privacy. So that's what we are trying to provide. We don't mind if people want to join us at the Feast as long as they worship with us in peace."
I mean this in a nice way, but you remind me a little of Dr. Roderick Meredith.
"I don't mind. Other people have said the same thing. We share the legacy of Mr. Armstrong, and we both believe in having what you might call a single voice in our church. That seems to work well for us, though it never ceases to amaze me that people will come to hear me speak."
© The Journal: News of the Churches of God