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At Riverfront Family Church, 'A Different Way To Connect With God'

e The Dog Reflects Church's Appeal To Children, Adults Alike

Melissa Pionzio

January 18, 2011

To Nancy and Liza Butler, God is a lot like Doodle the dog, the costumed character who hugs and high-fives worshipers attending the contemporary services at Riverfront Family Church.

"Our church is welcoming and affirming," said the Rev. Nancy Butler. She started Riverfront Family Church in 2009, she said, to offer people a different way to connect with God. "Whoever you are, wherever you've been, there is no judgment."

"It's like when you come home," said Liza Butler, a Yale University divinity student who is following in her mother's footsteps and becoming an ordained minister. "Your dog is there, welcoming you and happy to see you and ready to cuddle."

Raised in an evangelical church, Nancy Butler said she enjoyed a personal connection with God, an intimate knowledge of the Bible and the uplifting music during her early religious experiences.

"But I had problems with the social policy of the church," she said. "Women couldn't be ministers, and I didn't like the attitudes toward gay people and other religions."

She said she tried to ignore her conflicted feelings until she and husband Greg Butler started a family.

"That's when I started really looking at it," she said, recalling how her daughter once reacted to seeing a man in a turban, after a story lesson at church. "She started crying and said, 'That man kills Christians.' And I said, 'That's it!' "

When the family moved to Connecticut, Butler joined a United Church of Christ congregation, which she found welcoming. Its liberal social policies, she said, were refreshing.

"But I missed the Bible studies, the contemporary music and the centrality of faith, where faith is the central part of your life," she said. "I thought: Why isn't there a church out there that can offer these things, too?"

By this time, Butler had obtained a master's degree in divinity studies at Yale. But when she approached the United Church of Christ about starting a new church, she didn't receive the support she was looking for, she said. She was offered a ministry at an existing church, but that didn't work for her.

"It's easier to be innovative and start something new than to try to turn around an older church and battle with the politics," she said. "So I switched denominations and did some research. The American Baptist Churches is very mission-based and was interested in starting a new church."

Butler was used to pursuing new goals. When her daughters were young, she formed a child-care referral service. She had a master's degree in business administration and had worked as a marketing director in the corporate world for several years. So she knew she needed to establish connections to build a congregation. She placed advertisements, sent out mailers, created a website and went on Facebook.

She also hired a talented group of University of Hartford music theater students to perform skits during her services, as well as a professional sound crew and musicians to provide the music she finds so inspirational.

Initial services at her Glastonbury home and at East Hartford's Wickham Park in the summer drew a multicultural mix of liberal evangelicals, former Catholics, UCC-ers and the un-churched, she said.

Riverfront now rents space at 960 Main St. in Hartford, in the former G. Fox building. She shares what would be a pulpit if there were one with associate pastor Jen Moyer of Hartford, who joined Riverfront early on with her wife, Tiffany Moyer-Washington, and their two young sons.

Liza Butler, who plans to work as a college chaplain after graduation, was recently licensed to preach at Riverfront as well.

"It's a very honest and real place," said Liza, whose goal is to counsel young people who, like herself, have felt confused about religion. "It's very refreshing; people are unafraid to say what they think and feel."

Riverfront offers weekday Bible study and spiritual-growth groups at members' homes, spirit clubs for elementary and middle school children, and social get-togethers. The church offices are in Farmington.

"If you like traditional worship, you probably won't like our services," said Butler. The 9:15 a.m. Family Time service features live music, skits, Bible stories and plenty of dancing with Doodle. "Our main draw is families who are looking for something their children will like. Many parents have said it was a battle to get their kids to church. Now, the children are bringing the parents."

A battle is just what Glastonbury resident Beth Reeves used to have with her children on Sunday mornings. The daughter of a minister, Reeves grew up in a Congregational church and was a board member of her own UCC church. She loved the organ music and the hymns, she said. "But my kids just weren't into it; they weren't engaged; it was just words to them," said Reeves, who heard about Riverfront through a neighbor. "Here, they connect, they learn."

"I think it's really fun," said her son Chris, who just celebrated his 12th birthday. "It's not just droning on, talking."

Evelyn and Babbette Montilla of West Hartford were church-shopping when they stumbled on Riverfront's Facebook page. The parents of two young daughters, the couple said it was the family service that drew them in.

"For us, it's the kid focus; it's so real for them," said Evelyn. "They don't have to sit and be quiet and listen to things they don't understand."

"It's amazing to hear your 10-year-old in the middle of a conversation start talking about what God would say," added Babbette. "Now they ask, 'Are we going to church this week?' "

During a recent service, a group of children were clustered on a rug while Nancy Butler used a Biblical story about the Jews' escape from Egypt to illustrate a discussion on determination. Cartoon images flashed on a large screen as two young church members chanted: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."

After coffee and social time, members raised their arms during the adult service as live music was performed by recent Yale grad Nathan Roberts, African drummer Amy Lakin, pianist Adam Gravell and a host of backup singers.

"It was kind of a shock," admitted South Windsor resident and former Catholic Brian Hunt of his first visit to Riverfront with his wife, Sarah."I didn't have any expectations, but coming from something rigid and kind of secular, where they approached it as kind of like school it's not as open as it is here. The first service really showed us that it was something we wanted to be a part of."

For more information on Riverfront Family Church, go to http://www.riverfrontfamilychurch.com.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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