Beginning a journey

This columnist, who was called as pastor of Riverside Church in New York City June 8, shared this letter with her new congregation the same day.

By Amy Butler

Dear Riverside Community,

There are moments in life when we know that we are standing on holy ground, when we are overtaken with the knowledge that God is here, and when the call of God in our lives is stronger than our own fear.

Today as we begin our journey together, I feel sure that we are standing together on holy ground.

For several long months we have separately done the work of listening for the direction of God’s Spirit. Now we begin the challenge and joy of walking into that future together.

With all the anticipation that evokes, we can acknowledge that there is some fear, too. The Riverside Church has held a prominent place in the history of our country, but the role of the Church in America is shifting radically. Some question whether a future institution of Church is even feasible. With all these questions swirling in the minds and hearts of so many, there will be people watching carefully to see how we address those challenges together.

Their questions are the same questions we’re asking: How will we steward the legacy of this beautiful, historic place? How can we pull together to build a community that reflects what we say we believe: a diverse, life-giving community in an increasingly secular urban setting? How can we be God’s hands to the poor, the stranger, the weak, the outcast and the countless children of God who feel beyond the reach of God’s love? What words do we as The Riverside Church have to speak to a hurt and broken world, to a hurt and broken Church?

These are big, wonderful, scary questions. I believe God is calling us to begin answering them for ourselves, and in the process model for the world what God’s church can be.

Here’s where we begin: we begin by looking in, by attending to the state of our own hearts, to our relationships with each other, to the health of this community. As we seek to witness community, love, forgiveness, compassion, understanding, tolerance, peace and God’s joy to a watching world, we must build and continue to grow those things within our own community.

When we do, we will be amazed at what happens. A church practicing community in this way becomes magnetic; it attracts people who long for the healing and hope it can offer. And out of that healthy community there organically emerge compelling voices, effective ministry and a tangible faith that can change the world.

Building this kind of community is a challenge because, as we all know, life in community is rarely easy. We make mistakes. We regularly disappoint each other. We wonder sometimes whether the effort is worth the reward.

But I believe that we’re ready to take this risk together. And when we do, it is exactly then that the work of the church begins. The acts of love and reconciliation that we will share together in gospel community have the power to transform not only our individual lives, but our city and our world.

I am ready to commit to the work and joy of living in this way with all of you; I am asking you to make the same commitment to each other and to me. …

Riverside Church, you are a remarkable community of faith. You have a grand history and a prominent public voice, it’s true. But the deepest strength and richest beauty of this community is found in all of you. You’ve heard me say that as I sought discernment on this call the question that became most important was, “Can you love these people?” You’ve captured me with your desire to know God and to create a vital faith community together. I am so grateful to now have the opportunity to come to know and love you, and I promise to give my whole self to that task and privilege.

The Apostle Paul assured the Philippians that the God who began a good work in and among that church would surely bring it to completion. I feel sure that his message is true for us, Riverside community. I am so looking forward to joining you in the fall and beginning to discover all that lies before us.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.