Deep Waters

I am still a pastor because it is my deep calling. Unlike most sane people, I love the church and have my entire life. 

My love for the church is strange because of the obstacles I have had to climb to do what I love. And what I love is to lead communities that are convinced that radical love can transform the world, daring to live the gospel in world-transforming ways. 

How crazy is that?

I know this transformative work can happen because it has happened. For much of its history, the church has been a leader in reaching beyond its walls to provide light and hope in its communities. Think of all the hospitals, schools, prison ministries and numerous social movements that exist because of the church. 

But in the mid-20th century, the church in America began to decline. Communities of faith responded by turning inward and becoming more insular.

Instead of having an outward-focused, “we want to change the world” approach, they focused on their well-being and survival. At the same time, a weird American form of Christianity championed the gospel of prosperity and ease, which made people of faith even more inward-facing.

This wasn’t the church I loved and hoped for. But it was the church I encountered when I walked into my first pastorate in 2003. 

It was a historic church in a historic city. The congregation was small and homogeneous, commuting from the suburbs and trying desperately to keep the church of the 1950s alive.

I walked in at 32 years old, believing all the Jesus-y stuff. I also believed the congregation when they said they wanted to create a gospel community, be part of the neighborhood around them, and be an agent of transformation in the world. 

Yet when I got there, I realized the church leadership was just looking for numerical growth. The thinking was that “we just really need some young families.”

 One of the deacons was convinced that a praise band was all we needed to get young families into the church. I wasn’t sure about that, but I was new to the job and worked for the church, so we got a praise band. 

No young families came, and this is how my work leading the church to be a transformational force in the world began. 

When I think of trying to lead an institution that had lost its heart back to what gave it meaning, purpose and resonance, I think of a story in the gospel of John.

The disciples were coming out of the most devastating weekend of their lives. They had given up everything– jobs, families, social standing, safety and financial security–  because they believed in their guts that the gospel would change the world.

And then it all fell apart. Everybody who had thought the disciples were crazy was doing the whole “I told you…” routine.

So what do we do when we pin our lives on a dream that unravels? We turn inward. 

We become insular, try to protect ourselves and return to what is familiar. That’s precisely what the disciples did.

Peter said it, but you know everyone was thinking it. “How about we go fishing?”

They returned to what they knew, what was safe and what they could do in their sleep.  They left their disciple uniforms behind and jumped back in the boat. 

The oars rubbed their hands in familiar places, the rhythm of the water lulled them with warm memory, and the heavy nets tested their out-of-practice muscles. All night, they fished as they had been taught since childhood. 

Yet they caught no fish! Professional fishers. No fish.

They gave up everything for a dream. They thought the world could be better. 

It didn’t work out. So they turned back to what they knew, what felt safe and secure, and now even that wasn’t working?

Do you mean people don’t return to church when you introduce a praise band?

The following morning, a man on the shore yelled to them, “How was the catch?” They didn’t recognize the stranger; they told him they hadn’t caught anything. 

He shouted back, “Turn around. Go back into the deep water. Throw your nets on an unfamiliar side of the boat. Do it differently. Take a risk.”

Jesus had been trying to teach them this from the beginning, that their work of healing the world will never work by doing what is safe and familiar. This was true for them, and it is true for us.

Yet, in most cases, the church has chosen “safe and familiar” over “take up your cross.” For some of us, that just isn’t working anymore.

When their world fell apart, the disciples didn’t know the answers would be found in risking even more. But they learned, just as some of us are discovering, that this is how to change the world– by going to the hard places, hanging out in the deep end and throwing the nets in another direction.

I love the church. I always have.

Yet, in 2019, the church let me down again. I have told that story in my book, “

Founder of Invested Faith, she previously served as pastor of several churches, including as the seventh senior minister and first woman at the helm of The Riverside Church in the City of New York. Butler holds degrees from Baylor University, the International Baptist Theological Seminary and Wesley Theological Seminary. She is a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.

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